I was eating breakfast at North Berkeley's Guerrilla Cafe the other day when I spotted a sign on the other side of the room with this intriguing headline: "MONKEY FOR HIRE." After ordering their waffle of the day (buckwheat!), I went over to take a closer look at the sign. It read, "Are you tired of looking up into your tall fruit trees, gazing at lemons, apples, plums and other delicious fruits, but are unable to reach them? If you answered YES, the Berkeley Fruit Monkey can help! For a small fee and a small share of the fruit, our trained monkey will climb your trees and pick your fruit."
Curious, I called Alexis Bowden, the contact person on the advertisement, and asked her a few questions. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of that call.
What kind of monkey do you have?
He is a capuchin monkey, named Mojo. I got the name from a Simpson's episode, the one where Homer gets a helper monkey.
Wasn't the monkey on the TV show Friends a capuchin monkey? Did you consider naming him after that monkey?
That’s right, a capuchin was on Friends, but he was Ross's monkey and Ross always bugged me. He was such a whiner.
But didn't Homer's laziness turn Mojo from helper monkey to unhealthy couch potato? Are you worried that his name might curse him?
Yeah, that's what happened with Homer. I'm a much better example, eating a mostly raw diet, almost all organic too. So I'm pretty sure that Mojo won't suffer the same fate.
How did you get him?
I got him from the Florida wildlife service. He had been turned in by an owner who couldn’t handle him at an exotic pet amnesty day in northern Florida. I applied to be his guardian and got approved. [Ed. note: Florida is having trouble with non-native animals like the Burmese python, so government agencies occasionally hold events where people can turn in unwanted animals instead of setting them loose into the wild. The agency that runs the events then finds people who can adopt the animals.]
How did you get the idea to start a fruit-picking service?
I moved to the Bay Area just after I got Mojo. When I got here, I saw all kinds of articles about local foraging groups and local food and realized that Mojo could help us better utilize the food in our backyards. So I started the Monkey Business Fruit Company.
Does the monkey ever misbehave while on the job? Does he ever eat the fruit, or fight with pets or leave unwanted messes?
Pets aren't a problem. I tell dog owners to put their dogs away before Mojo arrives and cats are terrified of him for some reason. Badly behaving little kids are another matter, and he has thrown things at them.
Does he have a favorite fruit to harvest?
His favorite is definitely figs. The trees don't have any thorns and have fruit that he can eat while he's up in the tree. I usually let him eat a few pieces while he's at work to keep him motivated before I ask him to get back to work.
Do you know of anyone else who is running a service like this in the U.S.?
No, I don't know of anyone. On other continents, primates are used to harvest coconuts and other fruits. I'm starting a line of preserves using fruit picked by Mojo, and that is probably a first. It will be called "Monkeying Around Preserves" and will be available at a few small grocery stores and maybe at a farmers market or two. [Ed. note: a story in Natural History from 1923 reviewed the history of harvesting monkeys]
Have you gotten any grief from Berkeley's animal rights community?
Not really. I treat Mojo well and let him spend time being a monkey, so they have left me alone so far.
Anything else you want to add?
I'd just like to encourage people to look around for local foraging groups. Or if you don't see one, start your own.
You can find out more about Monkey Business Fruit Company here.