Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Cute Animal News Story

Now I normally rip into the media for it's ability to report irrelevance, but this highly irrelevant story I thought was kind of cool.

A Japanese tavern has turned to two monkeys for help with its table service.

The Kayabukiya sake house, in the city of Utsunomiya north of Tokyo, is using a pair of uniformed Japanese macaques called Yat-chan and Fuku-chan to serve its customers. The younger of the two, Fuku-chan, usually begins the first shift and is quick to give customers a hot towel to help them clean their hands before they order their drinks, as is the custom in Japan. Twelve-year-old Yat-chan is the crowd pleaser at the tavern, moving agilely around the restaurant as he responds to customers' requests.

With only two years of experience, the younger monkey's workload is limited to delivering hot towels, but both are well appreciated by customers, who tip them with boiled soya beans. "The monkeys are actually better waiters than some really bad human ones," one customer, 34-year-old Takayoshi Soeno, said. The 63-year-old tavern owner, Kaoru Otsuka, originally kept the animals as household pets. Mr Otsuka says it was only when the older one began aping him that he realised he could use them as waiters. "Yat-chan first learned by just watching me working in the restaurant," he said. "It all started when one day I gave him a hot towel out of curiosity and he brought the towel to the customer."

Once the restaurant's employees were properly certified by local authorities to work with animals, both Fuku-chan and Yat-chan clocked in for work. A regular of the tavern, 58-year-old Shoichi Yano, says the animals are like her children. "Actually, [they're] better," she said. "My son doesn't listen to me but Yat-chan will." Some clients, like retiree Miho Takikkawa, say Yat-chan appears to understand their exact orders. "We called out for more beer just then and it brought us some beer," she said. "It's amazing how it seems to understand human words."

The monkeys work in shifts of up to two hours a day due to Japanese animal rights regulations. But the owner is hoping to bring up a whole new generation of furry waiters and waitresses after receiving three new baby monkeys this year.

Yes, it's a puff piece, even quality news services like BBC and the ABC put these kinds of stories out there. So what's my interest? It's a pseudo-experiment in animal behaviour. Maybe stories like this are the bridge we need to show our connection to the animal kingdom. Sure a cat dialling emergency is cute and makes for a nice story, but this shows an animal that is capable of doing a job that requires higher brain function.

Anyone who has seen the sublime documentary series Life on Earth should remember what the macaque is capable of. In the 1950s, researchers left sweet potatoes on the beach for the monkeys to eat. One clever girl decided to wash hers in the water to get off the sand. Soon, other monkeys started to do the same. Then the researchers tried the same with rice, that same clever girl threw handfuls of the rice and sand into the water - the rice would float while the sand would sink and she was able to eat the rice in handfuls without digesting large clumps of sand. These experiments have resulted in the pseudoscientific claim of the 100th monkey effect, a phenomenon that doesn't even have a factual basis on which it's conclusions are drawn. The point is that these small-brained simians are smarter than we give them credit for.

Now of course there are plenty of scientific experiments involving the intelligence of many different animals, and we have seen many times where animals are not only able to perform complex problems but are able to do some quicker than humans. It's becoming harder and harder to keep our species as something unique, every time a unique trait is defined we find an animal capable of doing the equivalent. For all the progress and accumulation of knowledge, we have indeed separated ourselves from nature. But in each of us lies genes that came about over hundreds of millions of years, that were able to provide the organism with some survival advantage throughout it's various forms. Most of these genes and the variation we have is shared by both us and the macaque, our last common ancestor was about 25 million years ago - not long on the geological time scale.

Maybe there is more than simply anthropomorphising the animal kingdom in these stories, certainly that element is there but it might not be the whole picture. Maybe we see us in them because 90something percent of us is in them. It's not that they are exhibiting human behaviour, it's that they are exhibiting behaviour that shows us we are animals. Of course this is nothing revolutionary to say; scientists have understood this for around a century now. But it's something neglected by a society where we are taught that we are unique, that we are above behaving like animals. But nature keeps reminding us, it keeps sending us subtle hints that we are a part of the same process as the rest of life on earth. Having a man in a labcoat announcing it won't convince many people, but having a monkey that can work customer service just might.

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