[Guest post by DRJ]
That’s a title I never envisioned writing but if West African Mamie Manneh wins her criminal case in New York federal court, eating monkey meat for religious reasons may get a partial legal stamp of approval:
“From her baptism in Liberia to Christmas years later in her adopted New York City, Mamie Manneh never lost the longing to celebrate religious rituals by eating monkey meat. Now, the tribal customs of Manneh and other West African immigrants have become the focus of an unusual criminal case charging her with meat smuggling, and touching on issues of religious freedom, infectious diseases and wildlife preservation.
The case “appears to be the first of its kind relating to that uniquely African product,” defense attorney Jan Rostal wrote in a pending motion to dismiss. “Unfortunately, it represents the sort of clash of cultural and religious values inherent in the melting pot that is America.”
The case originated when customs inspectors found monkey meat hidden in a shipment from West Africa destined for Manneh’s importing business:
“The monkey meat case dates to early 2006, when federal inspectors at JFK Airport examined a shipment of 12 cardboard boxes from Guinea. They were addressed to Manneh and, according to a flight manifest, contained African dresses and smoked fish with a value of $780.
Instead, stashed underneath the smoked fish, the inspectors found what West Africans refer to as bushmeat: “skulls, limbs and torsos of non- human primate species” plus the hoof and leg of a small antelope, according to court papers.
Three days later, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents were at Manneh’s door, where she told them she ran a smoked fish importing business. According to the agents, she initially denied ordering any bushmeat from Africa or ever eating it while in the United States. But after she consented to a search, the agents came across a tiny, hairy arm hidden in her garage.
“Monkey,” she explained, claiming the arm was sent to her out of the blue “as a gift from God in heaven.”
The government’s criminal complaint notes that illegal importation of monkeys encourages the killing of protected animals and increases health risks to humans from “diseases like Lassa fever, Ebola, HIV, SARS and monkeypox.” The defense response focuses on cultural and religious issues:
“Defense attorney Rostal has countered by accusing the government of picking on a poorly educated immigrant. Her client’s only offense, she said, was her inability to grasp Western attitudes and highly technical regulations regarding bushmeat.
Defense papers also argue that the U.S. demand for the meat involved in the Manneh case—from Africa’s green monkey population—is “too small to have any significance for conservation.”
Manneh testified last year that before arriving in the United States more than 25 years ago, monkey meat was critical to her religious upbringing. At age 7, “I was baptized and they used that for the baptizing ceremony,” she told a judge. Baptisms, Easter, Christmas, weddings—all are occasions for eating monkey, Manneh’s supporters said in a sworn statement filed with the court.
The statement was vague about how the meat is obtained, but explains that it always arrives dried and smoked. Once blessed by a pastor, “we usually prepare it by cooking it for several hours into a stew,” they said. For them, the exotic import is more than just food. “We eat bushmeat,” they said, “for our souls.”
Another congregant likened monkey meat to the American tradition of eating turkey at Thanksgiving. Manneh’s husband also made an emotional appeal for his wife’s release (she is currently incarcerated on other charges), despite their “history of marital discord”:
“At the center of the case in federal court is a modest woman with nine children and a history of domestic discord. Manneh, 39, is serving a two-year sentence in state prison for trying to run over a woman she suspected of sleeping with her husband, Zanger Jefferson. If convicted of the federal charges she faces up to five more years in prison and deportation.
“The government’s taking a woman away from her children,” complained Jefferson, who’s struggling to raise the children alone. “It’s very depressing, especially with the holidays right around the corner.”
Manneh’s criminal history and her efforts to hide imports undermine her claim that she sells monkey meat for religious reasons. It sounds more like a black market money-making venture than a religious belief. However, the cultural and religious claims will affect the legal issues in the case.
This reminds me of the controversy over the right of Native American Church members to use a psychedelic drug, peyote, in religious ceremonies. The Supreme Court refused to allow the church to use peyote in contravention of valid state and federal drug laws but Congress subsequently passed laws authorizing use of peyote on federal tribal lands.
I doubt Congress will do the same for monkey meat.