Learning to Speak Baboon

By Michael Blumenthal
Sunday, October 19, 2008

It's less than 24 hours since my twin-engine plane touched down on the runway in Phalaborwa, South Africa, and I am crouched on a plastic food crate in a wire mesh cage, surrounded by 17 roughly year-old orphaned baboons, known here as "the mediums." Some of them have begun mounting my knees and shoulders, others are starting to groom my hair. Suddenly, one who goes by the name of Dennis lets out a rather high-pitched squeal, apparently inspired by some threatening gesture on my part.

In an instant, all 16 of Dennis's troop mates drop everything else they are doing and surround me, sinking their still rather juvenile teeth into my legs, my calves, my arms and anywhere else on my body they can reach. I don't yet realize what is happening, but what I am undergoing, I will learn later, is simply a kind of initiation ritual for those who work with young baboons.

"Ah! Ah! Ah!" yells Zurika Potgieter, the young South African woman who has been charged with showing me around and supervising me during my first day at the baboon refuge known as C.A.R.E. "Ah! Ah! Ah!" Zurika cries again, grabbing various young baboons by their limbs and tossing them away from me until, finally, the attack is over.

"Congratulations," Zurika turns to me, smiling. "You've just been mobbed for the first time. Welcome to C.A.R.E."

It's a long way from the immigrant neighborhood in New York City, where I spent my childhood in terror of cockroaches and mice, to the bushveld of Limpopo Province in South Africa, where I am at this moment a middle-age man being mobbed by a troop of infant chacma baboons.

But this is where I am. Despite my somewhat squeamish early years, I am, in my adult life, a man obsessed with primates, having always recognized something of myself within them, and of them within me. My fascination began when I was a child going to the Bronx Zoo, enthralled by the gibbons, macaques, marmosets, orangutans and chimpanzees. It progressed when I was a young man writing about tropical rain forests for Time-Life Books and grew still more intense when I was in my 30s, living in Washington's Mount Pleasant area and waking up daily to the sounds of howler monkeys in the nearby National Zoo. Though my adult life has been something of a bad imitation of such lawyer-poets as Wallace Stevens and Archibald MacLeish, my dreams have been of lives like those of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas, who became, respectively, the world's leading protectors of chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. I had never devoted much thought, however, to the most maligned of primates, until I became infatuated with Rita Miljo and her work with baboons.

I encountered Rita while watching an installment in a series on Animal Planet titled "Growing Up Baboon," which chronicled her efforts to raise four orphaned chacma baboons at C.A.R.E. There was something about Rita from that first time I saw her and heard her voice that reminded me of the beguiling American painter Georgia O'Keeffe. Perhaps it was the aging beauty and deep character of her face, perhaps the sense of an iron will coupled with fearlessness, perhaps her personality so much like a sabra (that Israeli desert cactus -- sharp and prickly on the outside, yet sweet and juicy within -- after which native-born Israelis are named).

I had also always dreamed of doing the kind of hands-on work with primates performed by C.A.R.E volunteers. And so I became enamored with the idea of going to Phalaborwa and meeting Rita and her baboons. It occurred to me that, since German was my mother tongue, I might have an "in" with Rita, who was German-born and had emigrated to South Africa as a young woman.

So I picked up the phone, dialed Rita's number and, when she herself answered, began unabashedly chatting her up in German. Hardly five months later, the small plane carrying me from Johannesburg to South Africa's northernmost Limpopo Province touched down at Phalaborwa's diminutive, one-runway airport, and my adventure began.

In 1989, Rita Miljo created C.A.R.E. -- the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education -- on a 50-acre patch of African bush she had bought in Limpopo Province. To get to the foundation, you must drive about 15 miles from Phalaborwa and turn at a signpost for the Grietjie bush reserve. You must then drive another six miles or so on the boulder-strewn road that leads along the banks of the Olifants River (a tributary of the Limpopo, of Rudyard Kipling fame, where the Elephant's Child got his nose stretched into a trunk by a crocodile), until you catch sight of C.A.R.E.'s inconspicuous nameplate.

Next, you come upon a series of massive wire-mesh shelters, the size of modest houses, and everywhere you turn -- both inside and out of the shelters -- there are baboons. Just on your right past the entrance is a still half-unfinished (but since completed) structure known as "The Lodge" where C.A.R.E.'s volunteers, who number between five and 25, sleep and eat. A bit farther up on your right, some 200 yards from the banks of the crocodile- and hippo-infested Olifants River, is the lopsided-roofed stone house where Rita Miljo lives and works.

After Lee Dekker, Rita's South African assistant, and I make our way onto the foundation grounds and past an utterly unintimidated group of free-roaming baboons who jump on the back of her pickup truck to help themselves to the groceries, Lee shows me to my room. An aluminum-roofed affair attached to Rita's house, it is the most "luxurious" of all the volunteer quarters, being possessed of its own bathroom, but, as I quickly discover, a far cry from luxury itself.

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