Top: Professional monkey trainer Prawat Rakduang plays with a monkey on Samui island on July 5, 2020.

BANGKOK — Coconut farmers in southern Thailand on Wednesday denied the allegation by a U.S.-based animal rights group that monkeys are forced to harvest their crops.

Media reports say some British retail chains already pull Thai coconut products off their shelves after a video posted by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, shows monkeys being chained and ordered to climb up coconut trees. But local farmers said the animals are treated with respect as part of their culture. 

“The use of monkeys doesn’t go against their will,” Singha Nusui, a coconut grower in Trang, said. “They know their duties, if they are tired, they will stop. No one forces them to do it. Monkeys usually climb up trees, so we are using the right animal on the right job.

He added, “There’s no such cruelty here.” Singha’s hometown, Trang, is famous for its coconut orchards and a tradition of monkeys working as coconut harvesters.

A monkey plays with a coconut on Samui island.

According to PETA, monkeys were separated from their families and forced to collect up to 1,000 coconuts per day. The animals are used by farms supplying Thailand’s best-known coconut milk brands, Aroy-D and Chaokoh, which were exported to the U.S. and European countries, the group said.

PETA also said monkeys are “driven to depression” because of the harsh conditions. 

“The terrified young monkeys are forced to perform frustrating and difficult tasks, such as twisting heavy coconuts until they fall off the trees from a great height,” the group said. “Denied the freedom to move around, socialize with others, or do anything else that is important to them, these intelligent animals slowly lose their minds.”

Monkeys are recognized by coconut farmers across the country for their nimble ability to climb coconut trees and pick up the fruits. The animals are also cheaper than hiring humans for the same job, Trang farmer Sa-ngiam Charoensuk said. 

Coconuts seen at an orchard in Prachuap Khiri Khan province.

“I have to depend more on monkey labor because the price of coconuts is falling,” he said. “It would cost 100 baht per tree for humans to pick it. Each tree has around 10 coconuts, so it wouldn’t make any profit. Animal cruelty is when you starve them, but monkeys here are well fed and groomed. This is our way of life.”

A monkey trainer on Koh Samui said he never tortured or mistreated the animals he schooled for coconut harvest as alleged by PETA. 

“We do not let them starve, they live better than in the jungles,” Prawat Rakduang said. “They never learn about monkeys, yet they write about it like keyboard warriors, and damage our reputation. In fact, monkeys help a lot of farmers. They should have asked us about it first.” 

Many growers who can afford machines also moved on from the use of monkeys long ago, according to Nukun Look-in, president of the Thai Coconut Farmers Confederation.

Nukun, who’s in Prachuap Khiri Khan province, said it’s unfair to ban coconut products from Thailand on the grounds of animal use, since monkey labor is responsible for only 10 percent of all the coconuts harvested in Thailand. 

A farmer in Trang province demonstrates how he picks up coconuts with a machine.

Commerce minister Jurin Laksanawisit likewise said the use of monkey labor is “almost non-existent” in the Thai coconut industry. He suggested the photos shown by PETA may depict the monkeys in the tourism sector, where they are often trained for shows.

“It’s a misunderstanding. This issue happened before,” Jurin said on Monday. “I confirm that the use of monkeys to pick up coconuts can only be found at tourist sites. The use of monkeys in industrial scale is almost non-existent. We will invite the concerned parties to see the actual picture this Wednesday.”

Today’s meeting is scheduled to take place on Wednesday afternoon. Speaking before the meeting with Jurin, PETA vice president Jason Baker said the minister should stop lying about animal abuse.

“PETA hopes that they will stop lying to the public and acknowledge the industry’s exploitation of monkeys,” Baker said in a statement. “Our documentation is clear and unequivocal.”

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