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Using Animals: Of Factory Monkeys And Anti-Tank Dogs

April 9, 2013

Via The Daily Dish comes this fascinating, but depressing, review of some of the ways in which humans have put animals to work:

On November 11, 1960, a worker named Bobby clocked in at the Houston-area factory of the Superior Furniture Manufacturing Co., pressed a button on a bedding machine, and set about wrapping the legs of the company’s new Abba Dabba Lounge Chair before placing it in a shipping box. After a while he knocked off to take a break for a favorite snack: bananas.

But that was to be expected—because Bobby was a chimpanzee…[snip]

…Disney and Superior Furniture Manufacturing alike had tapped into a long mythology of monkey labor, one that stretched back to at least 1772. It was then that John Coakley Lettsome—a British physician, abolitionist, and friend of Benjamin Franklin—claimed that Chinese tea harvesters had “monkeys to assist them.” The Chinese, another account claimed, “mock, and irritate [the monkeys], till the animals, to revenge themselves, break off the branches, and shower them down on their insulters.” Enraged monkeys splintering tea-bushes is not exactly sustainable farming, but the explanation circulated widely for the next century, receiving an incalculable boost when it was quoted under the Encyclopedia Britannica’s 1797 entry for “Tea.”

Monkey-harvesters soon even acquired the appearance of an ancient lineage. Among the waves of discoveries of Egyptian artifacts in Beni Hasan in the nineteenth century, one wall painting in the c. 1900 B.C. tomb of Khnumhotep showed a fig harvest where, as Sir John Gardner Wilkinson put it in 1837, “Monkies appear to have been trained to assist in gathering the fruit.” It’s a charming explanation that some books repeat even today, and only slightly spoiled when one closely examines the tomb-painting: the monkeys aren’t handing over the fruit at all; they’re greedily stuffing figs into their own mouths.

The author doesn’t get much into animals and entertainment, but does dip into a discussion of animal intelligence and cognition, which includes dolphins (though, in my view, he gets it totally wrong).

That aside, one especially poignant discussion involves the use by the Soviets in World War II of explosive-carrying anti-tank dogs:

Animals are deeply and immediately practical. If an illogical series of actions produces a reward, a chimpanzee will stick with that. It knows what works, but perhaps not why. It is unlikely and perhaps even incapable of thinking through the motives behind that reward, or what the activity may lead to in time. It is intelligent, but it does not cogitate much.

And cognition is an advantage that humans can ruthlessly exploit. During the Second World War, the Soviet Union resorted to training dogs to wear explosives that would detonate when they ran up to German tanks. It is unclear whether the “anti-tank dog” program succeeded, except perhaps at being horrifying. But that disgust is instructive: animals are killed all the time in war, yet we cringe at sending one to obliterate itself, oblivious to any understanding or possibility of consent. We cannot help but view it as creatures who dounderstand the motive and causation of a suicide vest.

It’s chilling, even shameful, stuff. You’d like to think our understanding of animal awareness and intelligence, and human empathy and compassion for animals, has progressed since the days of factory monkeys and suicide dogs. I think the science definitely has. But our broader culture still has a long way to go.

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