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Amid concerns of animal cruelty, HelloFresh will no longer source coconuts from Thailand

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Monkeys are clever animals and can be taught a lot of things, including, it seems, how to work. But an animal rights group says they're being put to work under terrible conditions. PETA says pig-tailed macaques in Thailand are being forced to pick coconuts for the production of coconut milk. The Thai government says it's creating a program for picking coconuts that excludes monkeys. But for now, meal kit company HelloFresh says it will stop selling coconut milk sourced from that country. To start with, picking coconuts is not a thing that the monkeys would do.

VINCENT NIJMAN: Pig-tailed macaques naturally would not pick coconuts. They can't eat coconuts. They're too big. They're too hard.

RASCOE: That's Vincent Nijman. He's a professor of anthropology at Oxford Brookes University in the U.K. He studies primate conservation and welfare. Nijman says these monkeys are also kept in very difficult conditions.

NIJMAN: Another thing to remember is that we are talking about a single male macaque on a leash going up 20 meters high up in a tree. In a normal setting, that macaque would be living in a group of 15, 20 other macaques in the forest. So in that sense, it's a very unnatural setting, as well.

RASCOE: Thailand has been raising and training these monkeys to pick coconuts for around 400 years. Nijman says that while it's common to domesticate some animals for labor, these monkeys remain wild, and they're part of a small group of other wild animals also used for work.

NIJMAN: So the wild animals I can think of are, say, falcons used in falconry. There are some examples of cormorant fishing in Asia where cormorants fish in lakes, and fishermen make use of that. And perhaps another thing - what you could think of is animals being used in entertainment shows.

RASCOE: Like in circuses, which do not have the best track record.

NIJMAN: I think the main problem is that people should realize that macaques should not be kept as pets or kept as working companions. That's where it starts.

RASCOE: HelloFresh says it made its decision out of an abundance of caution, but Nijman says companies still have more to do.

NIJMAN: I would actually like them to step up and see - rather than stepping away, see if we can find a solution because these macaques are still there.

RASCOE: That was Vincent Nijman, professor of anthropology and primate researcher at Oxford Brookes University.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.