Cunning monkeys working every angle


One of my lasting images of India was seeing two long-tailed monkeys copulating high up on the roof ridge of an ancient sandstone palace. Fittingly, the palace was once the home to Moghul Emperor Akbar and his 300 to 5000 beautiful live-in concubines—the number varying according to the historian.

Today, the palace stands empty—a red sandstone shell of the past—through which tourists pass, paying high fees to unscrupulous guides. Next to the palace is an equally large mosque, this one with free access, so needless to say it’s full of visitors, many of them poor locals. To enter, you must take off your shoes and park them with everyone else’s at the top of a urine-soaked set of stairs. It’s an act of trust. You leave them not only wondering if they’ll be stolen, but if they’ll still be dry when you get back.

For 14 short years, from 1571 to 1585 while the Emperor lived there, Fatehpur Sikri was home to 2 million people. After he moved, the place was abandoned, and remains so to this day.

In a strange way it reminds me of Ministers Island. Like the Indian palace, Sir William Van Horne’s big red sandstone “cottage” stands unoccupied. Like the palace, the island is now only a tourist destination. And like the palace, there’s a strange, sad emptiness there—the ghost, I suppose, of a powerful man and his a personal vision, now slowly crumbling. Of course all things are transient. The relics of the wealthy just last a bit longer.

This all comes to mind because we, Sharon, the kids and I, volunteered on the island this weekend, helping the tour guides over the Labour Day Weekend. And one of the things I re-learned is that there’ll always be one or two people who’ll cheat you if they can.

Nearing closing time, a dark red Kia Sorrento full of aging boomers pulled up to the gate, declined the admission fee and asked if they could go up the road to turn around. Instead of turning around, they sped up the road toward the main house. I met them on the road, and thinking they were paying visitors, asked them if they wanted a house tour. Delighted, all five of them said “yes”, so I radioed back to the house and arranged to give them a tour.

As I watched them drive off, I remember thinking that staying late for 5 customers was worth it—until I found out later that they hadn’t paid. I’d like to say that I chalked it up to human nature but I suppose I’m not that evolved yet. It bugged me. A lot.

There must be a moral here, something about selfishness vs. the greater social good. Certainly, keeping Ministers Island open is about some kind of social goodness. It’s run by volunteers and supported almost entirely by admissions fees. So when people cheat, they’re cheating the future of the place.

Coincidentally, I’m re-reading an old self-help book. In it, author Gail Sheehy talks about an increasing psychological preoccupation with the “self”. She wonders, what happens to a society filled with independent “selves” instead of a social collective?

“If we become a random assortment of “selves”, living off the fruits of our formerly productive and competitive interdependence, we will eventually divide between those who have drifted off into states of fantasy or addictive escape and are virtually unemployable, and those who struggle still to prop up a declining prosperity base. A crucial quality for both the individual and society, then, is a sense of purpose,” writes Sheehy in ‘Pathfinders’, almost 30 years ago.

Well, purpose is a good thing. But purpose, too, can be appropriated for selfish ends—on a societal or even on a global level. Another self-help guy, theological philosopher Sam Keen, wrote about this dilemma in the mid 1990s.

“As the twentieth century draws to a close, we must write the obituary for the great god Progress. We are living in the last days of the myth of unlimited growth and technoutopia, and the religion of the Mall,” Keen laments in his ‘Hymns to an Unknown God’. He concludes that, “Understandably, we are reluctant to give up our habit of over-consumption and blind optimism.”

But that’s why capitalism has been so successful. It’s a legal licence for self-serving behaviour.

And therein lies the cunningness. We humans are extraordinarily good, not only at invention, but also at rationalizing our most pernicious behaviour. If all the fish go missing from the sea (from over-fishing) then we’ll just have to raise our own in sea cages. And if the sea strikes back—with sea lice for example—we’re justified in poisoning the ocean.

Local environmentalist and Telegraph-Journal columnist Janice Harvey has been tackling the sea lice pesticide issue a lot lately, as has Larry Lack on the Web. Here’s what Larry wrote:

“The $700,000 research project is being funded by the Canadian and New Brunswick governments, the New Brunswick Salmon Growers Association and PharmaQ, the Norwegian manufacturer of deltamethrin.

“Marketed as AlphaMax, deltamethrin concentrate is highly toxic to crustaceans (including lobsters, shrimp and crabs), amphibians, and fish, and also to the microscopic animals known as plankton that sustain the entire marine food chain. The dilute solution of deltamethrin that will be used in New Brunswick’s experiment is expected to be harmless to the market-ready salmon that will be treated. Veterinarian Beattie says the fish can be harvested, processed for market and will be safe for human consumption within just a few days after they are treated with deltamethrin.”

But wait, there’s more…

“In 1996 an illegal experiment to control sea lice was carried out by some New Brunswick salmon farmers who treated fish with cypermethrin, an insecticide that is chemically very similar to deltamethrin. Cypermethrin released during that experiment killed 60,000 lobsters in a Back Bay holding pound. A civil court case resulting from this illegal pesticide application was settled out of court.

“Back Bay is one of the three New Brunswick bays where caged salmon will be treated with deltamethrin in July. The other two are Bliss Harbour and Lime Kiln Bay.”

Okaaay…I’m good with that. More fish, anyone? One can’t help but wonder if we cunning monkeys care about anything other than ourselves.

After all, don’t we need all the jobs—and all the fish—we can get?


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