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The Truth Behind Those Videos of Monkeys Riding Tiny Motorcycles

There's a horrible backstory to that viral video of a moto-riding monkey dragging a toddler, but maybe not the one you'd expect.
08 May 2020, 1:47am
monkey riding motorcycle video

Until this week, the year's most obsessively analyzed video clips were probably either from the White House press conference—when President Donald Trump suggested that injecting disinfectant might be a potential treatment for coronavirus—or the excruciating funeral scene from Tiger King, in which Joe Exotic eloquently eulogized his late husband's ballsack.

But then earlier this week, a Twitter user from Indonesia posted a 15-second video of a monkey riding a tiny motorcycle down a narrow residential street and that took precedence over everything, at least until Adele logged into her Instagram account for the first time in four months. Anyway. The video.

Just four seconds in, the monkey abruptly stops the bike, grabs a child who's small enough to still be wearing a diaper, and drags him or her several yards down the street. "This must be the noisy monkey at school," @peteerh wrote, as the rest of us mouthed the words, "What the hell did I just see?"

As of this writing, the 15-second clip has racked up more than 34 million views, and has appeared in seemingly everyone's timeline at least once. It has also made its way to Instagram, and has materialized in so many different subreddits—more than 50, including r/whatcouldgowrong and r/awfuleverything—that some of the top comments are just complaints about the number of reposts. Twitter mostly made jokes, posted grainy-ass gifs of Mojo Jojo, and wondered where the hell a tiny monkey-sized motorcycle even came from.

There was also a significant amount of speculation that the monkey had been trained as a kidnapper and was stealing children for human traffickers, for organ harvesters, or for other vaguely defined criminal purposes. But others, especially those who live in Indonesia, recognized that the monkey was actually the one who was in danger, and the kid just happened to get in the way.

Some Indonesian news outlets confirmed that the incident happened last Saturday in Surabaya, the country's second largest city, and that it wasn't an attempted kidnapping but "street entertainment gone wrong." The monkey and its little motorcycle are part of a widespread performance called topeng monyet, which translates to "masked monkey" because most of the time, the trained monkeys wear tiny masks that are made from dolls heads.

In the viral video, the monkey's handler is standing at the top of the screen in the opening seconds, and the monkey has a cord or a thin chain visibly tied around its neck. When the animal veers too close to the people who are sitting on the bench, the handler yanks the chain, and the monkey grabs whatever's closest—which happens to be a small child.

In the most chaotic sequence, the monkey loses its grasp, tries to run from the handler, and latches onto the kid again before both of them are dragged down the alley by whatever restraint the monkey is attached to. (In a longer version of the video, the handler appears to send the monkey in the opposite direction first, and can be seen winding the cord up before sort of 'casting' the animal down the alley; topeng monyet don't ride their little bikes as much as they're just propelled by momentum.)

Alleged eyewitnesses to the incident said that the child suffered some "trauma" and had some abrasions on his or her forehead. They also said that the monkey was collected by its handler and promptly beaten with a mallet that one of the musicians had been using. And yes, this is awful.

Just over a decade ago, the Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN) started an in-depth investigation into topeng monyet as a first step towards banning the practice. The organization has also spent years trying to educate the public about what happens to young macaque monkeys after they're caught, tortured (and in many cases, physically disfigured) to learn their 'tricks,' and then forced to perform for tips.

In 2013, Jakarta's then-governor passed a regional ban on topeng monyet in the capital city, and some handlers accepted government compensation in exchange for turning their monkeys in. But others weren't willing to give up their only (or their most consistent) source of income, so they just packed up and moved elsewhere in Indonesia instead.

According to JAAN, the organization has since rehabilitated more than 220 former topeng monyet performers, successfully releasing them into "safe habitats" that have been designated by the government. Others have remained in JAAN's care, either because they could not be socialized to safely live among other monkeys, or because they were "severely traumatized both mentally and physically" by their former owners. (VICE has reached out to JAAN for comment on the recent viral video.)

In a statement to VICE, JAAN co-founder Femke den Haas confirmed that the organization was able to get a ban on the 'dancing monkeys' in west and central Java, and in Surabaya before a national ban was approved last year.

"Yet they, still pop up here and there," she said. "The government should proactively confiscate them, but sadly this hasn't happened. Our team is always ready and [on] standby to handle monkeys during confiscations. At the moment, we are caring for 67 rescued ex-dancing monkeys and we have released over 220 in the last few years. All underwent an intensive period of treatments, surgeries, and rehabilitation before release.

"The incident which happened [in the video] is very, very sad, and wouldn't have happened if the ban would be implemented in Surabaya. The poor kid will be traumatized for life, and it's a natural reaction of the monkey to attack, as it's frustrated and angry. The handlers remove their teeth, as these accidents happen often. When we receive the monkeys, they have to undertake [sic] a lot of surgeries and treatment striving to fix this problem."

2020 is still the flaming bag of shit that has been thrown on the porch of the 21st century, but at least we know that children aren't being kidnapped by human traffickers using monkey henchman. On the other hand, the truth behind that video is it's own kind of terrible too.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.