Dancing monkeys are native macaque species used as travelling performance animals by many low-income communities in South and Southeast Asia. In Pakistan, the highly social and intelligent rhesus monkey is captured from the wild during infancy and trained in methods that routinely involve chaining, beating and starvation to perform tricks like saluting and dancing. No legislation currently exists to protect these animals. We looked at stress responses in dancing monkeys in Pakistan by measuring hair cortisol concentrations, with supplementary behaviour analyses. Cortisol is an essential steroid hormone released by the neuroendocrine system that becomes elevated in response to stressors. It is continuously deposited into the hair via blood circulation, making hair cortisol quantification a very useful measure of chronic stress. The dancing monkeys were compared to control samples from a semi free-range rhesus population in Florida (USA), that have a higher standard of welfare and hence ‘normal’ levels of hair cortisol. They were found to have significantly higher hair cortisol concentrations, along with a positive correlation of fear behaviours expressed during their individual performances and hair cortisol. They also exhibited multiple distress behaviours, were all underweight and unable to display natural behaviours, all of which gives credence to the finding that these animals are living in negative environmental and social conditions and supplements the finding of their observed increased biochemical stress responses
I have been interested in animal conservation and welfare for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Pakistan, I saw complacency, misinformation and necessity translate into completely inhumane welfare practices, and I stand by the fact that culture can never be an excuse for cruelty. My current research brought me to tears more than once, but 6 months later I’m looking forward to finally share it. I hope one day to not just research and quantify existing problems, but be able to advocate for and implement viable solutions. Until then, I’m excited to explore other (hopefully less depressing) applications of long-term cortisol quantification, especially in regards to wildlife rescue and rehabilitation and standards of living in captivity.