Richard F. Stratton.com - Articles>Monkey Business by Richard F. Stratton

I am often profoundly frustrated by the public's gullibility, and I have found—alas!—that this sometimes applies to dog people, too. When I was teaching, I always recommended a skeptical attitude to my students. For skepticism is the life blood of science. This skepticism applies not merely to supernatural explanations for events, but extends to work done by other scientists, too. That is, whenever a scientist publishes the results of a scientific study, other scientists must be able to reproduce the results. That is why ESP finally became discredited, for the impressive results were only attained by the parapsychologists. Other scientists, using the same methods, were unable to reproduce the effect that the parapsychologists published. Now, being skeptical is different from merely dismissing something out of hand without a fair chance. The parapsychologists were given several decades to provide evidence for their case, and other scientists even suggested methods for tightening up their research. The point is that it pays off to maintain a skeptical attitude.

Consider the alternative. H. L. Mencken was the one who said, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the public." And he knew whereof he spoke. For, on April Fool's Day back in the 20s, he had written an essay about an obscure president who deserved recognition because he had introduced the bath tub to the White House and to the American public. Mencken was saying, in essence, that Americans had gone without bathing up until that time, just a little over a hundred years ago.

Well, of course, the story was sheer hogwash, and it was meant to be. The idea on April Fool's Day is to put out a story and see how many people bite on it before they remember what day it is. Mencken could not have foreseen just how successful his story would be. It was bought hook, line, and sinker by a large portion of the public, and the president mentioned was later listed in some school history books for his "accomplishment" of having introduced the bath tub to the Americans. Even though Mencken tried to explain that the story was merely a hoax, it was too late. It had become part of the national wisdom. Finally, decades later, it is known as one of the great hoaxes of all time, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were not occasional school history books with that little item of information in them.

What brought all of this on? Early in the 19th century, Alfred Thornton wrote a story called Don Juan in London. In the story, Don Juan is taken to the Westminister pit in London at which he witnesses a monkey whip a Bulldog. Well, so often there is a retelling of the famous account of the monkey Jacco Macacco and how he had killed numerous Bulldogs. This was in spite of the fact that Jacco Macacco—even the name has a laugh in it!—was smaller than the dogs. He didn't win by superior intellect; he won by having sharper teeth with which he bit a hole in the dogs' necks and caused them to bleed to death. All this is dutifully illustrated by some long forgotten artist. Even earlier, a story was told in the Sporting Magazine in 1799 about a monkey which whipped a Bulldog by getting on its back and beating its brains out with a foot-long stick. This was also illustrated, and the print is shown in Denlinger's The Complete Pit Bull or Staffordshire Terrier.

Well, let's just think about all of this for a minute. Is it possible that a small monkey can bite the necks out of our Bulldogs? Consider that a dog has one of the strongest bites of any animal. There are special processes on the skull which the jaw muscles attach to, and the muscles are large and strong. Any primate, including ourselves, lacks these processes, and our mouths are small compared to a dog's, and the same is true of nearly all other primates. The baboon probably has the most powerful mouth of the primates, but it is very likely less powerful than that of a dog. Serious predators, such as wolves (dogs) and lions have fixed jaws. They only move up and down. One reason for that adaptation is to strengthen the jaws. And the long line of fighting Bulldogs has produced a jaw that is even stronger than that of average dogs. If they don’t bite holes in each other’s necks, how could a monkey do it?

Now, let's consider the times of these writings. Around 1800, England had colonized large portions of Africa, but little was known about their animals. In fact, the importation (in Queen Victoria's time) of an African elephant, Jumbo, so fired the public interest that the name itself has become part of the English lexicon. All of this was pre-Darwin, so the human-like monkeys were a puzzlement and of particular fascination. It was known that they were often vicious, and I myself have seen the very impressive threat displays that they put on in their own jungles (in Central America), but we should know that threat displays and combative ability are not the same thing.

Now, let us also factor in the information that journalists of that time had few restrictions or reservations about what they wrote; hence, they were mostly of the National Inquirer school of writing. And Alfred Thornton's story of Don Juan's adventures in London made no pretense to truth. Don Juan was a fictional character, after all, about whom everyone from Mozart to George Shaw wrote. Yet, this story has been quoted ad nauseam in various books as evidence that a monkey can defeat a dog.

Quite frankly, I doubt very much that any of the primates is likely to have much success against a Bulldog. The great apes, such as the chimp, the orangutan, and the gorilla, are large and powerful, but I don't think that they could take the pain that a Bulldog would put on them, as most primates are quite susceptible to shock.

The Bulldog is a truly unique animal. If, as I think, he has been bred for hunting and fighting for many centuries, it is no wonder that his combative skills are unsurpassed. I’m not going to get a monkey or an ape to prove the point, but I am pretty skeptical that they can be bested by such animals. And I don’t think it is sheer stubbornness on my part. Rather, I think my view comes from a long life time with Bulldogs and an interest in all things biological. Knowing what I know, I am inclined to skepticism about all this monkey business. And I try to practice critical thinking.