It’s been a tough few weeks for Thailand and its monkeys.
After tabloids around the world splashed sensational headlines about aggressive, sex-crazed macaques attacking people and overrunning towns, Thailand is reeling from a fast-moving, worldwide coconut milk boycott spurred by an equally sensational “undercover” video by the world’s largest animal-rights group.
As often is the case when their “Thainess” is questioned, Thai officials and the general public have excoriated the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, taking national umbrage over the meddling in their culture by foreigners. That PETA might have a point is beside the point.
In its video expose, PETA accused Thai coconut-milk producers and “monkey schools” of widespread abuse and cruelty. The organization wrote of “terrified young monkeys” that are “kept chained, abusively trained” and forced to pick 1,000 coconuts a day. Singling out Thailand’s two biggest coconut milk producers – Aroy-D and Chaokoh – PETA alleged monkeys had teeth pulled and were driven insane by training and work.
PETA – which was nearly classified a terrorist organization in Canada for its outrageous publicity stunts – may have lost its credibility among a lot of the public and press long ago, but still holds considerable sway among retailers sensitive to even a hint of bleeding-heart public sentiment.
Within days, more than 15,000 supermarkets and stores in the United Kingdom and United States pulled Aroy-D and Chaokoh coconut milk. Among them were Cost Plus World Market, Giant Food, Food Lion, Stop & Shop, Hannaford, Asda, Walgreens, Boots, Albert Heijn, Duane Reade, Ocado, Waitrose, and Co-op.
Having only recently gotten from under the European Union’s years-long investigation of slave labor and ecological abuse by its commercial fishing industry, the last thing Thailand wants is another international scandal. The EU nearly Thai banned all seafood exports to Europe. Its airlines nearly were blacklisted worldwide five years ago for safety violations. A global boycott of its coconut products would be devastating.
So it wasn’t surprising that the pushback was so fast and furious. Thai media over the weekend was filled with stories trying to discredit the PETA report, including profiles with coconut pickers and monkey trainers who, to a one, claimed foreigners “didn’t understand Thailand”. Using monkeys to scale trees and pluck coconuts has been the Thai way for generations. Humans aren’t built for the job, they insisted, despite the fact most of the world’s other coconut producers use people, long poles and tall ladders.
By Monday, though, it became clear the “farangs don’t understand Thailand” argument wasn’t going to work. So indignant former generals in tight suits dared foreign diplomats to prove them wrong.
Speaking to the media early Monday, so as to make the evening news in the U.S., Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit asserted that, yes, some monkeys still pick coconuts like the old times in Thailand, but only in staged shows for tourists.
“Using monkeys for the coconut industry is almost non-existent,” he said. ”There may still be pictures or video of monkeys collecting coconuts, though, which is why there was a misunderstanding.”
Exported coconuts are big business that requires industrial-scale harvesting methods, Jurin said. Thailand’s coconut milk exports are worth around 12.3 billion baht a year, with about 18 percent of shipments going to the EU and 8 percent to the U.K.
Jurin said he invited foreign ambassadors to tour Thailand’s coconut farming and processing industry sites to see for themselves that PETA is, again, just blowing smoke. This, after all, is the same organization that compared the American Kennel Club to the Ku Klux Klan, suggested Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream should use human breast milk instead of cow milk, and put a naked, pregnant woman in a cage in London on Mother’s Day to highlight the plight of caged pigs.
Jurin also planned to meet with coconut-industry representatives to alleviate problems so Thailand can reassure its export partners.
Even Edwin Wiek of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand – one of the most-rabid animal activists in the region – said PETA was overplaying its hand. He told Reuters Tuesday that the practice of using monkeys in coconut harvesting was “going down at a very big rate”.
Deputy Agriculture Minister Mananya Thaiset wasn’t as magnanimous. He laughed off PETA’s claims, saying it would be impossible to even find enough monkeys to pick the number of coconuts Thailand processes for export.
Surat Thani monkey trainer Somjai Sae Kow went further, saying most macaques are too dumb and lazy to pick the supposed 1,000 coconuts a day. She said some don’t have the skills to even gather a few dozen.
“Foreigners may not understand our livelihood,” said Somjai, who runs a school in the southern province’s Kanchanadit District.
Chaowalit Chusaneh, owner of coconut-picking monkeys in Surat Thani’s Muang District, also brushed off PETA’s claims that baby monkeys were stolen from their mothers, chained, caged and beaten into submission so they could be put to work 365 days a year.
Coconut monkeys in 2020 are born and bred just for the purpose, he said, adding that his monkeys are the latest in a long line of coconut pickers.
“There is no cruelty. They are looked after well. They are fed well three times a day,” Chaowalit said.
Clearly, however, PETA isn’t about to let this go, especially since the campaign has resulted in more than 280,000 cash donations since last week.
In a statement released Tuesday, PETA Senior Vice President Jason Baker defended the group’s investigation, saying the hidden video was taken at plantations and training schools, not the clean, modern facilities the government is trying to show off.
“When the government tries to explain away extreme cruelty to monkeys, it only makes the public angrier,” Baker said in the statement. “The world doesn’t want to see these animals being deprived of their natural lives and exploited by the coconut industry. The government can lead the industry to operate humanely, with an animal-free method, which the rest of the region has already adopted, or it can be responsible for the industry’s downfall, because the writing is on the wall.”
Neither Thai public officials nor private citizens were backing down in the emerging culture war Tuesday, accusing PETA of cultural racism and double standards.
In a Facebook post, Atthawich Suwanpakdee, secretary-general for parliament’s tiny Kla Party, suggested there was no difference between Thailand’s use of monkeys to pick coconuts and Europe’s use of pigs to search for truffles.
Each is part of that region’s culture and should be respected. PETA”s boycott campaign “is cruel and an insult to our culture,” he wrote. TV celebrity Narakorn Tiyanont likewise suggested PETA should do an equal amount of meddling with western farmers raising geese for foie gras – force-feeding them with metal tubes to fatten their livers – or abusing dairy cows.