Does Naming a Monkey Lead to a Better Primatology?

An article in the American Journal of Primatology came out recently about the primatologists’ relationship with their nonhuman primate (NHP) research subjects. Augusto Vitale based this reflective paper on his experience working with tufted capuchins, particularly with a 32-year old male capuchin named Cammello. Describing this research monkey, Vitale said:

Beyond my relationship with him as an experimental subject, I liked him very much as a unique individual. He was very successful in all kinds of tasks, eager to do things, and I wanted to believe that he also liked me. Recently, I decided to pay the capuchins colony a visit, since my last brief visit was more than 2 years ago. When Cammello saw me, he rushed to the wire-mesh, screaming at me. He stretched his arms through the metal mesh, embraced and groomed me, and whispered soft sounds. He remained in that position for about 5 min. Keepers and young researchers who witnessed this encounter were surprised and impressed, as it had been nearly 20 years since I had spent any time conducting experiments with him. It was a deeply moving experience.

Taking a cue from this experience, Vitale went on to discuss the relationship between primatological science and feelings. He contended that primatology had benefited and could benefit more from the “trust” formed between the observer and the observed. For example, world knowledge has increased due to the scientific insights gained from pioneering primatologists like Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas, and Dian Fossey–all of whom developed a long-lasting bond with the individuals they worked with. When Jane Goodall first recorded tool use among chimps, she also told us about the moving story of Flo and the F family. Dian Fossey studied gorilla society in the highlands of Rwanda and was deeply affected when a young silverback named Digit was found dead and dismembered. Birute Galdikas spent the majority of her adult life studying Bornean orangs and adopted orphaned infants into her family.

ResearchBlogging.orgHowever, their naturalistic and ethnographic approaches were criticized due to their anthropomorphism. Primatologists like Jeanne Altmann moved away from this technique by developing “protocols for the nontendentious (less anthropomorphic) descriptions of primate behavior” (Longino 1990:210). The trend thus towards a more quantitative approach in behavioral observation became more pronounced in reaction to the perceived tendentiousness of the early primatologists. Nonetheless, Vitale maintained that anthropomorphism is not necessarily bad and that the qualitative approach can also be useful in illuminating individual primate personalities :

It seems clear that a mixture of empathic and objective positioning informed Jane Goodall’s observations on chimpanzee behavior, as she conducted science in that particular research context. Empathic attitudes can lead to anthropomorphism, and this is now no longer considered as a sin. Pamela Asquith had once argued that anthropomorphism is essential for studying primates and, more interestingly, important for understanding primates. Shirley Strum has advocated a flexible methodology when ‘‘observed’’ and ‘‘observer’’ are so similar [both comments in Strum & Fedigan, 2000]…

I think that the study of primates has to recognize the multiple factors operating in primatological studies, including (i) the need to produce objective science; (ii) the potential empathic dimension toward NHPs by human observers; (iii) the consequent emotional involvement; and (iv) a realistic analysis of the pros and cons of a likely anthropomorphic attitude in primatological science.
The result of this multifactorial methodology is not necessarily chaos of the subjective and objective dimensions, but a way to increase our understanding of important phenomena. A more narrative view on primates’ lives, together with a more quantitative approach, opens new opportunities for describing and understanding differences in personalities within populations of primates.

Vitale therefore argued for the strengthening of the relationship between the researcher and their study subjects. One way of strengthening this bond is assigning each individual with a name. The standard practice for many primatologists has been to assign them with an ID number (a combination of letters and numbers) although little names are given to them in private. That they appear in research reports and journal articles as numbered individuals belie the fact that primatologists (and I believe the majority) give anthropomorphic names to their study individuals. Vitale contended that naming “reinforces a sense of dignity these animals inspire. This is important in relation to the fact that the people who deal with the monkeys, at any level, must always keep their welfare in mind.” Describing their team’s experience in naming a monkey, Vitale explained:

In the case of our team, the person who chooses a particular name for a particular individual does not act in a purely ‘‘technical’’ sense. The name is suggested by capturing the certain character, predisposition, general behavioral attitude of that given individual, or because the name reflects a particular visual feature that often has to do with facial characteristics (‘‘the way he/she looks at me’’). Sometimes, as soon as the monkey has a name, he or she becomes rather immune from invasive procedures; in a way, the name protects him/her….

Establishing a personal relationship can be beneficial for the welfare of a particular individual and, consequently, for the quality of research…Better knowledge of the single individual is valuable in terms of animal welfare, and enriching this knowledge can be motivated both by scientific and sentimental interest.

This article highlighted the need for primatology to integrate the qualitative approach. This would be a nice complement to the advances made in the quantitative area. While the early pioneers might have projected their biases on to their research subjects, they did provide valuable insights into the species they studied.  I think primatology could learn a lot from the reflexive practice of its sister discipline, cultural anthropology, albeit with some obvious tweaking because of the nature of primatology’s study subjects. The sophistication of the qualitative approach of contemporary cultural anthropology would be very helpful for the primatologists’ search for an appropriate methodology for behavioral observation. I believe that there are nuances in primate behavior that cannot simply be crunched by numbers. As Vitale said, “critical anthropomorphic language in the study of animal behavior…is legitimate. Anthropomorphic language can be now applied not only when talking about NHP, but for other animals as well. ”

Vitale A (2010). Primatology between feelings and science: a personal experience perspective. American journal of primatology PMID: 20626037


Pacquiao-Cotto Fight: The Bayanihan Spirit Lives On

“Let’s meet at Macy’s. We’ll be there at around 11:30 where the fountain is at,” Edgar Guerzon replied in a chat message I left for him. I wanted to meet the Guerzon family after El Nuevo Dia, the number one newspaper in Puerto Rico, published a news feature soliciting their views on the Pacquiao-Cotto megafight.

Macy’s is at Plazas Las Americas, touted to be the biggest mall in the Caribbean. This mall is a huge box of concrete encircled with hundreds of cars of various shapes and colors. Inside the malls are shops similar to Ayala and SM except for the fact that the advertisements are all written in Spanish. It has the same feel of malls as elsewhere: a mecca of consumerism with long lines of stores that cater to any of your wants, real or imagined. In this case, however, I went there not as a mall customer but as a Filipino trying to connect with people whom I share a similar heritage and ancestry. Seated near the mall fountain were the Guerzon family and a few Filipinos assembled there to welcome an addition to the small Filipino community in Puerto Rico.

Later in the evening, I met more of them in a classy house nestled in one of Puerto Rico’s posh subdivisions right in the heart of Cotto’s hometown of Caguas. At least twenty-five Filipinos and their family members congregated there. Most of the men were at the sala watching the undercard fights on TV, while the women and children socialized at the host’s mini-clubhouse beside an avocado-shaped pool and jacuzzi. Traditional Filipino refreshments were served amidst the friendly bantering and conversations.

Zeny Kare, our host, said that there used to be more Filipino families living in Puerto Rico, the majority of which are families of Fil-Am US servicemen headquartered in the now-defunct US base of Ceiba. When the military base closed down, many of these families left and are now stationed elsewhere. Only the family of Col. Edwin C. Domingo, the decorated garrison commander of Fort Buchanan, stayed on and remains active in Filipino community activities (Col. Domingo was born in Sampaloc, Manila; see for further details) .

Helping the boxers, Raising Pinoy Pride

At least two Filipino pugilists have visited the island to fight Puerto Rican fighters. Gerry Penalosa fought a gallant fight but was defeated against the youthful Juan Manuel Lopez for the WBO bantamweight crown. Noel Tunacao of Cebu also came and exchanged blows with Ivan Calderon but lost after an eighth round stoppage. Manny Pacquiao visited the island to promote his megafight against the Puerto Rican boxing superstar, Miguel Cotto.

These events were opportunities for the Filipinos here to gather once again and provide a much needed morale booster for the visiting boxers. Amidst hundreds of Puerto Rican fans rooting for their hometown gladiators, the few Filipinos here stood their ground and waved the Philippine flag for every wallop that our boxers delivered. Of course, like we would likely do, many of the Fil-Am residents here lined up for photo op and autograph signing chances with Manny Pacquiao. Many a boxing glove, t-shirt , and other personal mementos surrendered at the mercy of Pacquiao’s signature.

The Filipinos here did more than provide fan support. The visiting boxers were feted to the traditional Filipino hospitality. They were toured around old San Juan, a must-see world heritage site of Spanish-era forts, fortresses, and buildings (quite similar to our very own Fort San Pedro but older, bigger, and better conserved), and other tourist spots in Puerto Rico. The boxers were also welcomed in their homes and given places to rest, a much needed respite especially so after a taxing night on the ring.

Behind the Scenes

Noel Tunacao, the ex-IBO miniflyweight champ, fought against Ivan Calderon in 2005 at the Jose Miguel Agrelot Coliseum. The fight was very lopsided that Ric Solivan of describes it as follows:

“Calderón’s masterful boxing symphony in the opening rounds was as beautiful as it was deadly, his foe Tuñacao aimlessly wandered the confines of the ring receiving blistering combinations from every angle and stumbling around looking for something to hit to no avail. The ‘Iron Boy’ would not let up and instead, stepped up in his efforts to overwhelm and outbox his taller opponent, and it was quite clear by the 5th that the Filipino was frustrated and hopelessly looking for a miracle punch, one which would never arrive. “

Eventually, the Mandauehanon succumbed in the 8th round to the dismay (and probably relief) of the Filipinos who were watching the carnage at ringside. Yet the story behind the defeat is a sad commentary of the state of Philippine boxing.

As retold to me, Noel was ill-prepared for the fight and was said to be a surprise replacement for the bout. All that he had seems to be just the mere guts of a warrior and the steely resolve that he could will himself to win against a budding boxing superstar like Ivan Calderon.

Consider this: Noel came to Puerto Rico three days before the fight, tired and alone with no boxing entourage like Pacquiao has. He only brought with him some pieces of clothes and boxing paraphernalia tucked neatly inside his bag. Seeing that Noel got no one on his side of the ring—no cutman, coach, waterboy, or anyone—the Filipinos in Puerto Rico plucked several US servicemen from a nearby US base to assist his corner. “Pati masahista kami pa ang nagbigay, said one of the Filipinos who helped him.

While the tropical climate may be similar to that in the Philippines, the jetlag that Noel might have felt could be equally punishing for the 34-year old fighter. Puerto Rico is a dizzying 24-26 hour trip from Manila with lots of stops along the way (it was at least a 30-hour trip for me including the time spent for the layover at every connecting flight). “Nakakaawa talaga si Noel sa fight na yun”, she remembered.

The stories of Noel, Manny, and other visiting boxers are weaved into the lives of the Filipinos here in Puerto Rico. They are proud of Manny’s boxing genius and are equally proud of all of the Filipino boxers who carried the nation’s hopes and dreams with them despite the challenges thrown their way. I stared at Manny Pacquiao’s famous grin in his post-fight interview and said to myself, “Victory is sweet indeed. Salamat.

So what happened to the Jane Goodall day?

Yes, I went with Jackie and Carla to hear what Jane Goodall has to say. Gabi, our two-year old daughter, was left in the day care center because they’re not allowing kids younger than four inside the venue (although it would have been awesome to catch a snapshot of Gabi with Jane Goodall).

We entered the university auditorium and rushed to open the doors of the hall. And there she was: seated at the speaker’s section wearing a grayish blue outfit quite similar to that of a Viet Minh fighter. Her appearance was austere but her bearing was regal. She stood up after she was beckoned to the podium and the audience fell into a momentary silence, not the kind of silence that you hear after a lion roars but of another kind, a pause like when one sees a flight of migratory birds heading to the west. Then, a torrent of applause came from the audience embracing this 75-year old conservationist as she stood in front of the microphone.

Jane began her talk with a rhythmic chimpanzee call, a fitting reminder that the woman before us is a consummate primatologist with 51 years of experience working with chimps. And she allowed her voice to glide as she recounted the process of her becoming a conservationist and researcher. She shared her concerns about climate change and the overall fate of the planet in general. But hers was not a message of doom but a stern jolt of reality that the world as we know it is in danger. Jane Goodall however is optimistic of our human potential, of our collective capacity to be agents of change, that we will eventually redefine our relationship with our ecosystem. In this view, she shared vital experience on how human communities, animals, and the environment need not be in conflict with each other. She pointed out how the modern world has failed to notice the wisdom imbibed in the sustainable practices of indigenous peoples around the world. Reading between the lines of what Jane Goodall was saying, I would also suppose that while she’s critical of the misuse of science, she embraces human rationality as the major, if not ultimate, component in addressing environmental problems: thus her repeated plea to “bring our brains together.”

Lest this blog be too winded, am posting Jane Goodall’s video here. Listen, reflect, and act.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

On Jane Goodall’s Puerto Rico Visit

So my family is astir with the news that Jane Goodall is going to give a talk in the University of Puerto Rico tomorrow. Jane Goodall, who inspired generations of conservationists and primate researchers, is my partner’s living saint the same way that Mother Teresa was for others. I knew Jane Goodall’s work by way of Carla, although I did suspect that Jane was the same woman that Tarzan built a nest of twigs for  (she could perhaps be the inspiration of the Tarzan film). Later on, I got to know her better when I taught biological anthropology and read her books closely on the Gombe chimpanzees.

Like the early pioneers of anthropology, Jane Goodall does not have a degree in anthropology or biology. What she had was the adventurous spirit and child-like curiosity to understand chimpanzees in the wild and not from the touristic sideshows in the zoos of Great Britain.  Her dreams jived well with Louis Leakey’s academic erudition who was seeking a behavioral model that could help the academic world better understand our past. And thus a fruitful collaboration was set that radicalized the understanding of our human origins and our relationship to the rest of the primate order (later on Louis Leakey sent Dian Fossey to study gorillas and Birute Galdikas for the orangutans).

A short summary of her contributions to science can be found in the Jane Goodall Institute website. One of the first discoveries is that chimps “make and use tools” and pass this skill on to the next generation, a nugget that destroyed the age-old anthropocentrism that humans are the only tool-making animal. Yet, her body of work cannot be reduced to bits of scientific insights which may appear stale to the information-savvy audience.  Taking from the words of the Jane Goodall Institute:

Jane’s work has taught hundreds of thousands of people about chimpanzees. It is as if she opened a window onto the chimpanzee world. People all over the world know and love the chimpanzees of Gombe. When one of the chimpanzees, old Flo, died in 1972, the London Times even printed an obituary.

Women primatologists owe a debt to Dr. Goodall. “Jane Goodall’s trail-blazing path for other women primatologists is arguably her greatest legacy… Indeed, women now dominate long-term primate behavioural studies worldwide”, writes Gilbert Grosvenor, chairman of the National Geographic Society. (

The arrival of Jane Goodall to Puerto Rico appears puzzling at first glance given that the island has no endemic nonhuman primate population. Puerto Rico does have two primate species, patas monkeys and rhesus macaques, originally brought in the 1940s for scientific research. The rhesus macaques are found in Cayo Santiago and are studied by the researchers of the Caribbean Primate Research Center, while the patas monkeys have spread across the Lajas area where they are in constant contact with local residents.

Perhaps, Jane Goodall’s visit may spark a reevaluation of the importance of primate research and conservation in the island or, conversely, a reexamination of the praxis on the tenuous balance between primate research and ethics. I am hoping that the media glare on Jane Goodall would bring to the fore primate conservation and research issues that went previously undiscussed in the the public arena.

But more than anything else, being the saint that she is, Jane Goodall will be bringing a universal message. Her coming to Puerto Rico is not merely a blessing to my partner, who is currently writing a prayer-petition of sorts to her, but to the raising of conservation awareness and ecological consciousness on the island. After all, as Jane Goodall said: “Only when we understand can we care, only when we care will we help, only when we help shall they be saved.”