Nearly half-way through this list and I want to come clean. This started as a conversation about my love for certain ‘undesirables’ – They’re coming up later, but if I asked you to guess the top few hated but misunderstood animals they’d be on your mind.
What I didn’t expect was for my research to start me on a multi-disciplinary path of its own, promote such strong feelings and reactions in me, and find entire communities of people dedicated to the redemption of some of these species (shout-out to #WaspLove).
This started as a bit of a piss-take and has actually become some of the most serious, emotionally charged, physically involving and well researched work I have done so far for the site. It doesn’t take much to get me passionate about biology, it is my academic discipline of choice. But the things that I am learning and have been happily, passionately learning, are entirely new. It’s not new knowledge about old stuff, it’s not just topping-up my prior expertise.
One of the aspects of it that has gripped me most, dragged me in and pulled me down those rabbit-holes, is how humans develop those antagonistic relationships with certain animals. Why do we have a fear or dislike of wolves? What causes our disgust with pigeons? Why are we frightened of creatures as innocuous as bats? I am coming to realise that there is a subtle, community-led, almost underground, oral tradition with regards to wildlife and how it is perceived. They become enshrined in legends passed down by word of mouth, sometimes written about, in passing, but rarely fully investigated.
Our understanding of nature and the environment around us is so enshrined in folk knowledge, and yet, certainly in the UK for the last 75+ years, the majority of our population has lived in towns and cities. How does that affect those opinions? Are we regurgitating dangers of two hundred years ago that don’t exist anymore? Are we propagating new myths based around assignments of value to animals that do not reflect their true nature? How can we correctly perceive the value of a species through the eyes of an urban society?
It’s all fascinating stuff and it leads us to today’s example. The aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascarensis).
The aye-aye is a lemur species, so naturally native to Madagascar, the island off the East coast of Africa. It is the only extant species in its genus with its other member the giant aye-aye (Daubentonia robusta) having gone extinct an estimated 1,000 years ago. It’s an odd looking bugger, that’s for sure. It is decidedly un-lemur like. Almost as if someone created a hybrid, a chimaera, of cat, monkey, bat, rat and porcupine and then cosplayed it as Dobby the House Elf.
I knew of them, but I don’t know an awful lot about them. I knew it was a lemur, I knew it was nocturnal and I knew it was persecuted in its native Malagasy cultures.
That persecution is what I want to focus on so we’d better give you the rundown on the creature itself before we move on to that.
I’ve described how it looks and I will include images. I can add it has creepy hands. I don’t know what else to say about the aye-aye’s appearance because it is unique. Some might even say ugly but I wouldn’t be one of them. I think they have a sort of creepy charm.
As for those weird hands, they have elongated fingers that they use to both find, and get to, their food. They also have ever-growing front teeth, much like rodents, to aid in the process.
They’re not small, either. 35-45cm body, 50-60cm tail, only about 2kg but they have to be light for swinging and clinging. It’s the largest known nocturnal primate species.
What they do is they use a specially adapted creepy-claw to tap on wood searching for hollows, where grubs and worms are living. This is called ‘percussive foraging’. They then gnaw a hole in the bark with their unique teeth, and use their also very unique long fingers (not to be confused with Professor Farnsworth’s fing-longer, from Futurama) to reach into the gap, grab the grub and chow down.
It’s an incredible way to live and, that way of life, combined with its unique (get used to that word with the aye-aye) morphology led to much debate when it came to the taxonomy of the aye-aye. People didn’t know what to do with this weird, long-fingered monkey-squirrel! As ever in these stories, genetics saves us our woes. Various molecular studies and gene sequencing have placed the aye-aye as the most basal (closest to the genetic root or closest to the common ancestor) of lemurs.
They’re an elusive species, as you’d expect from a rare, endemic primate. We know little about their behaviours. They were believed to be solitary, however it has since been observed that male territories can overlap and thus they often come in contact with one another and seem to be somewhat social. It is believed they are polygynous, as male territories overlap with those of multiple females. The females, though, are often dominant suggesting their mate choice is important.
I’m trying to find a source for the information that male aye-ayes may literally pull competing males off a potential mate mid-coitus, because if that is true they would surely have to be among nature’s greatest cock-blockers!
As you’d expect from a primate that eats bugs out of trees they are a boreal (tree-dwelling) species, preferring a forest environment.
The aye-aye is endangered, listed as so by the IUCN. The main reason for its low population is, as it so often is, due to loss of habitat in its native Madagascar. The second major reason we shall get to.
That’s the aye-aye in a nutshell, let’s get to the bit I really want to explore.
The reason I wanted to use the aye-aye as an example is because you’re racist. In fact we’re all racist.
I don’t mean in any malicious sort of way, it’s just easy to look at superstitions from foreign cultures and perceive them as being odd, wrong even, whilst our own crazy ideas about animals are so self-evident and ingrained we do not question them.
You will notice compared to my fox article, or my wolf article, I am more – not accepting, that’s the wrong term – I am less frothing-at-the-mouth angry about the persecution of an innocent animal. That’s because I don’t know or understand the Malagasy culture, I did not grow up in it. Understanding is the key to forgiveness but it can also be the closeness that harbours the worst hatreds. I don’t like fox hunters. They are of my people, they are of my culture, I disagree with them and I feel I have a right to stand up and call them pricks.
If I were a Madagascan native I assure you I would have the same aggressive reaction to aye-aye hunters as I do fox hunters. I would know the Malagasy word for ‘twat’, and so would you by now! I’d have used it a hundred times. But I do not know enough to be so emotional and so judgemental, for me to do so would be little short of intellectual imperialism, imposing my dominant, British morality on an entirely different culture and whilst I believe in calling out wrong for what it is, I always think you must understand it first. So let’s try to understand, shall we?
Among many Malagasy people the aye-aye is a creature of superstition. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s creepy looking, skulks about at night, kinda has a face like an elf, has weird, long, bony fingers, it just looks weird. Humans are a very visual species, eyesight is important to us and things that look ‘nice’ we often perceive as nice even if they’re dicks, and things that look ‘weird’ we often perceive of as bad even if they’re great.
So in some Malagasy traditions the aye-aye is a portent, a sign of doom. I can be a literal touch of death. In some places they are to be killed on sight, or else they will bring evil. In some beliefs it is said that if it points its creepy long finger at you then you are sure to die. If one comes into your village it spells doom for the entire village and the only way to save yourselves is abandon the village or kill the aye-aye. The Sakalava ethnic group believes the aye-aye will sneak into your house and murder you by puncturing your aorta with that long, creepy finger!
They are considered ‘fady’, sort of a taboo, but sometimes also closer to a superstitious belief. But how did this happen?
Why do we dislike wolves? Or, the one that’s going to kill me with research, wasps? Why did the pitbull develop a reputation as a dangerous dog? The development of our relationships with our native wildlife is a complex and storied one, we have a history of writing in Europe dating back thousands of years and even I can find no historic reasoning behind our dislike of certain species, only an undercurrent, underground, systemic folk knowledge. These myths are oral traditions that carry through the generations.
Aye-aye don’t eat exclusively bugs from tree-hollows, they are omnivorous and may have a liking for coconuts, mangos and other Madagascan crop species. So some aspect of the adversarial relationship could simply be making a villain of the cheeky scamp scrumping your coconuts.
But we have crop pests in other countries, other species, species creepier than the aye-aye and they do not get the same reputation.
I have also read they have a preference for quiet spaces with lots of Ramy trees (of which they eat the seeds.) In the Samanioana region it is fady to cut down these trees, and they grow near burial sites. Could the aye-aye’s preference for this taboo tree near to the sites of death and misery be part of it? Potentially, but that’s only in one region and several Malagasy cultures are superstitious about the aye-aye.
The aye-aye is a lemur, right? So perhaps the relationship of the Malagasy peoples with lemurs can teach us something.
There is something of animism in Malagasy cultures, that is the imbuing of everything (especially living things) with spirit, soul, or as they call it ‘ambiroa’. Lemurs are not excluded from this.
These ambiroa seem to be greatly anthropomorphised. They have intent, they have will, they do not like to be mocked, tortured or killed unnecessarily and will take revenge if such is done. The ambiroa is not passive, it has agency to the Malagasy.
Different regions, then, can have different fady relating to their relationships with different animals. In some cases it might be a fady that eating a specific type of lemur will give the child beautiful eyes. In some case it may be a fady that eating a lemur at all will destroy you and your family. These fady can protect some lemurs, then. Yet also persecute others.
So clearly to many Malagasy people the aye-aye has an ambiroa that is malignant. They are an evil spirit.
What follows is wild speculation not based on any significant research.
A population of humans grows up with a population of lemurs of all different shapes and sizes. Over time those lemurs, imbued with ambiroa, with a spirit, become anthropomorphised in many ways. They are used to tell stories, to give moral warnings, be used as signals of village ethics and beliefs. Some positive – e.g. this lemur is an ancestral ambiroa and if we protect it, it will protect us. But life is nothing if not a duality and if there is positive ambiroa there must be negative. Death, famine, disease, these can all strike without mercy and the human has an almost natural inclination to want to explain them. “Oh they ate this lemur, it’s fady, they died.”
But what about unexpected tragedies? What about the inexplicable? What about misfortune after misfortune.
The aye-aye is – Look I can keep being polite and say ‘unusual’ – but it’s fuck-ugly! It’s a weird looking creature! It’s got raggedy fluff on it, this weird semi-bald head, big elf ears, and those hands alone – they are the hands of death! So what of its ambiroa and associated fady? It should come as no surprise they’re negative. It’s already potentially disliked because it has a habit of nicking your mango. It skulks about at night and well, it looks like what it looks like!
You wake up one morning and your husband is lifeless after a stroke? Aye-aye got him. Your village suffers famine for two years straight? “Well I did see an aye-aye about a couple of years ago…” We will begin to form stories, and when we have imbued these animals with a spirit, particularly a malicious one, it becomes easy to see them as to blame.
Somewhere down the road all these negative associations close ranks and form a cohesive whole. An animal we dislike for one or two specific reasons, or even that we use as a lesson in a moral, Aesopian fable, can become a huge villain using nothing but the power of our minds and the stories and narratives by which we attempt to make sense of the world.
Is there another way to make sense of the world? Why yes! With study, research, investigation and knowledge and shall I give you a wonderful redemption story?
I have mentioned many times that the aye-aye is only a negative, superstitious fady in ‘some’ Malagasy cultures. Madagascar is an island with a multitude of diverse populations with different beliefs, they can even change from village to village in the same region.
A study published this year (Randimiharinirina et al. It’s quite accessible so I recommend a read) on attitudes towards the aye-aye in Madagascar found that, far from what the Wikipedia pages and encyclopaedia entries will tell you, aye-aye are not universally disliked.
They interviewed 83 subjects in 11 villages across North-eastern Madagascar and found, actually, greater than 50% of those questioned had a neutral or positive view of the aye-aye. More neutral or positive views were not correlated with education or the ability to identify the aye-aye by name – but were correlated with an ability to recognise an aye-aye in a picture. Those who had actually encountered the animals (and presumably suffered no ill fate, immediate death or harm upon their village) were less likely to perceive it as a harbinger.
What’s more where positive views were found it was mainly related to the ecosystem services provided by the aye-aye to local crop farmers. Yes, they might nick the odd coconut or mango, but they eat larvae from sugar cane, or clove trees, they are perceived as seed-dispersers of clove trees, helping these farmers grow more crops. Where pest control behaviour was reported there was an increase in positive views.
It seems we have another bias going on, not only within Madagascar, but within our ‘Northern Hemisphere’ findings about Madagascar. The availability bias of negativity is clearly on show. The hatred and persecution of the aye-aye is not universal across Malagasy cultures, indeed it’s not even the same from village to village! Each group has its own local customs, local beliefs and local culture and some of them are positively blooming with positivity about the aye-aye. But what’s more newsworthy? ‘Local population lives in harmony with local wildlife’ or ‘Weird foreign superstitions lead to endangered status of rare lemur species’?
Dare I wade into this debate but there’s bloody racism here! The overwhelmingly negative stories about persecution of aye-aye are only going to lead to a negative view of all people of Madagascar! The overwhelming number of scientists and observers have been from ‘Western’, ‘Northern Hemisphere’ institutions. Even though, as the study shows, locality plays a significant role in fady and opinion, people will conflate those pockets of negative opinion as reflecting the attitudes of the population as a whole.
Funnily enough a lot of the same mechanisms in play for creating a negative view of the aye-aye are being perpetuated by the very people attempting to research the aye-aye to help it! This shows how pervasive this is as a neuro-psychological behaviour.
The creation of these ideas, of these myths, is not unique to some sugar-cane farmers of Madagascar. It’s foolish and racist to think that and yet we do. We perceive our Western culture as being so much more founded in science, in reason, in logic and yet we have found no reliable way to escape the confines of the mechanics of our minds. Globally more people probably persecute black cats than they do aye-aye, and most of that persecution will be coming from supposedly rational, scientific western nations. You can’t undo a mind that utilises heuristics in order to quickly and effectively spot patterns. You can counter it, you can interrupt it, but it will form those patterns regardless.
All humans have a particular fady about shadows in the night! Whether it’s black cats crossing our path, aye-aye bringing portents of misfortune, the superstition of black dogs in the UK being a portent of misery or death, ask East Anglians about Black Shuck next time you want to think the UK is so much less superstitious than these Madagascan peoples! We’ve already covered bats; dark, nocturnal shadows that are associated with the arcane, with witchcraft, death and devilry.
And yet we also have a demonstration it can be overcome. People who have encountered aye-aye with no ill effects are likely to think less ill of them. People who recognise aye-aye as hunters of crop pests have glowing reviews for them. Again, we cannot stop our mind from forming those patterns, but information can counter it, knowledge can interrupt it. There is hope not just for the aye-aye, but for all the species on this list, that one day we can remove the misunderstandings and promote a relationship based on understanding, on knowledge and on respect.
…Or perhaps those people just said positive things about the aye-aye because they’re so scared of them they think they’ll destroy their village if they speak ill?
Catch up with the rest of the Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals top ten!
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals : Introduction
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Bats
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pigeons
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Wolves
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Foxes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pika and Moles
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Vultures
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The European herring gull
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Brown Rat
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Wasps