Memoirs of a Trained Monkey

Sarah Sheikh

A Behavioral Study of the Macaque


Babu is born in a rubbish dump near the small Indian village of Nasik. His name, however, will not become Babu for another month. During the formative first weeks of his life, he spends time clinging to his mother, grooming his brother and sucking on twigs. During the fourth week of his life, it rains. He immensely enjoys being wet.

Behold the small macaque (Macaca mulatta). Among the most common monkeys in India, they are revered as sacred and often co-exist with humans in urban habitats. In some areas, the macaque population has risen so high that they outnumber common rats. This, of course, is beginning to be a problem.


Social Activities

He often plays with his brother among discarded plastic bags. He likes the way they make that distinct crinkly noise. Babu enjoys the simple things in life.

A thin man arrives one day and throws grapes for them. Excited, they quickly scamper about eating the grapes, tails curled high. The man stops and kneels. Babu is caught up in the moment and runs to the man, wanting more. His brother reluctantly follows.

They are instantly captured in a burlap bag. They claw at the inside, screeching and panicked. They claw at each other. Later, they are placed in a cage at the market. As they huddle together, shaking, Babu feels regret for the first time in his life.

He blames himself for his brother’s capture and vows to never be reckless again.

This is the last time he will see his brother.

Highly intelligent, macaques easily adapt to different habitats, including captive housing. They are not endangered in the wild and therefore make excellent subjects for research and experimentation. They have even been sent into space.



Babu is bought for 230 rupees by a poor rickshaw driver named Sandeep. They live together in a small shack near Mangalore, where Babu is named and subsequently trained. He surrenders to his new life, seeing no other option and remembering his vow.

They visit various temples on the weekends, where Babu performs a very complicated dance involving spins and jumps. Sandeep trains based on punishment, not reward.

Babu thus finds life in the limelight stressful.

He also wears a red vest and cap. Both are itchy.

He learns to take rupees from people’s hands on command. He finds this unfulfilling, though it pleases Sandeep.

There is a void.

Observe how quickly the macaque learns its tasks. Macaques have been trained to do many things, from climbing coconut trees, to sitting still when giving blood samples. Perhaps the most famous trained macaque was the late Jiro, the famed Japanese comic monkey.



During the monsoon season, the roof leaks. Babu enjoys this immensely and takes to splashing about. Sandeep immediately covers the roof with plastic sheets. Babu enjoys this, too, and takes to pulling them off and crumpling them up. Sandeep responds by putting him on a leash. This happens during every monsoon season for 4 years.

Sandeep has no friends and thus talks only to Babu, repeating his name: “Baaboo. Babu. Babubabu,” and so on. It irritates Babu and he decides one night that he will no longer come when called. The shack is far too small, and he sinks into a deep depression. He misses things that make crinkly noises. He misses being wet.

Captive macaques are not naturally ill-tempered, but shoddy husbandry and handling practices can trigger their aggression. In the wild, females are more or less placid while males are typically rowdy.



Babu takes a liking to a green cushion.

Females mature at 3 years of age, males at 4. Young macaques learn everything from others in their group, such as what to eat and parenting skills. A youngster raised alone cannot raise its young and will not know how to mate.


Babu quietly grooms himself to pass the time.

Macaques are social animals, living in large troops of 20 or 30.


Daily Routine

Babu is dancing at a small temple on another hot day. Every time he spins, children squeal with delight and throw nuts. Sandeep has him do it several times, repeating his name: “Baaboo. Babu. Babubabu,” and so on.

Macaques have been used in a series of well-known experiments on maternal deprivation carried out in the 1950s by comparative psychologist Harry F. Harlow. The tests were the subject of controversy in the scientific world.



Babu is dancing at a small temple in the sweltering heat. There is an unusually large number of tourists today. A school is visiting on a fieldtrip. Each time Babu spins, the children squeal and throw nuts. Sandeep has him do it several times, repeating his name: “Baaboo. Babu. Babubabu,” and so on.

Babu is dizzy and thirsty. Sandeep continues to coo his name. The children continue their hyper cries of glee. Babu’s head is itchy under the cap.

Sandeep then commands Babu to collect rupees from the children. They wave the small bills furiously at Babu with their tiny hands. Babu wishes he were wet, at the rubbish dump. He remembers the brief, excited moments he spent collecting grapes. He remembers his vow. The ground spins before him. Babu begins to cry out repeatedly.

Note the way the young macaque bares his teeth at the enemy—an effective intimidation tactic.

The children step back. Sandeep calls Babu, but he does not come.

Here we see the small macaque expand its chest and raise its arms to appear larger. Observe its impressive arm span.

The children squeal in terror. Babu silently asks for his brother’s forgiveness.

He bites the hand of a little girl and scampers off into the crowd. Sandeep runs after him and fails to catch up. Babu hides in the temple for three days, before leaving in search of food.



Babu is nameless again. He finds a group just like the one he left ten years ago. He learns how to mate. He gets wet often. He finds that aluminum cans make a better noise than plastic bags. He remembers his brother fondly, and wonders where he is. It is a quiet life, away from the limelight.

Behold the small macaque (Macaca mulatta). It is highly intelligent and can adapt to almost all habitats. Among the most common monkeys in India, they are revered as sacred and are generally left unmolested.


Sarah Sheikh studied English at UC Berkeley, and Film at UCLA. She currently works as a tape monkey in a rather dusty film vault. You can reach her at byckerment[at]