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Tale of the monkey terrorists

The Taliban's training monkeys to gun down Americans? It's a bogus claim that's sparked some serious (and not-that-serious) fact-checking.

People's Daily Online started the monkeyshines in China a couple of weeks ago, with a report claiming that the Afghan Taliban was using bananas and peanuts in an experiment to teach monkeys how to fire machine guns and mortar rounds at soldiers wearing U.S. military uniforms. The report even said the program was modeled after a CIA effort to train "monkey soldiers" during the Vietnam War, and quoted an unnamed U.S. military source as confirming the existence of the Taliban monkeys.

The fallout has been as hilarious as the original story: Taiwan-based Next Media Animation, which churns out CGI parodies like The Onion on ginseng, put together a video report on the killer monkeys. Over at Stars and Stripes, Jeff Schogol (the Rumor Doctor) went so far as to check with NATO officials, Chinese Embassy officials and a primatologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Schogol turned up no hard evidence of monkey mayhem, although primatologist Christopher Coe said he had heard unsubstantiated reports of monkeys being trained to jump into enemy trenches carrying grenades when India and Pakistan were at war.

The widely distributed photos of a gun-wielding monkey also came in for scrutiny: Staff Sgt. Roy Dunigan sent Schogol a full-color version of the picture from his own collection, clearly showing that the baboon is on a leash, crouching behind a toy gun. So where did that photo come from? Dunigan couldn't recall.

Can monkeys possibly be trained to recognize combatants and fire sophisticated weapons at them? Uuuuunlikely. Some researchers say the ability to learn sequential tasks is what separates humans from other primates in evolutionary terms. It may be why language comes so easily to us. Non-human primates can learn to do some amazing things, such as using limited sign language or playing a computer memory game. Scientists only recently found out that monkeys can learn to fish. And the U.S. military has recruited dolphins for guard duty.

But monkeys carefully aiming machine guns at adversaries wearing the Stars and Stripes on their sleeves? No way.

The follow-up question is, can readers and editors possibly be trained to recognize a ridiculous report? Not always. The New York Post's straight-up coverage of the monkey terrorist threat, for example, earned Keith Olbermann's "Worst Person in the World" award on MSNBC last night. And if you think that everyone in the Chinese news media will learn a lesson, consider that the Beijing Evening News was badly fooled eight years ago by a similarly silly story about Congress' demands for new digs ... originally appearing in The Onion, no less.

Tip o' the Log to Discovery News' Jennifer Viegas.

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