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Learning to Speak Baboon
The most maligned of primates has a name that is synonymous with stupid and a snouted face that only a mother could love. Well, maybe a surrogate mother.

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.

As soon as I pull out the top drawer of the rickety dresser to unpack my clothes, I am greeted by a virtual army of the largest cockroaches I have ever seen. When I attempt to adjust the mirror and various prints that hang helter-skelter on the wall, spiders in as many sizes, shapes and colors as spring wildflowers emerge from beneath and head for cover.

I then venture next door to "Rita's house," which doubles as sleeping quarters for two of the youngest caged troops. The woman I encounter is not all that different from the person I first saw on Animal Planet -- essentially charmless (in the most superficial sense), utterly direct and more than willing to dispense with the usual preliminaries. Nonetheless, she seems relatively glad to have me there and suggests we go for a walk.

Along the banks of the Olifants, the "resident" troop of wild baboons are serenely engaged in their late afternoon grooming. "Oh, Michael," Rita says in the somewhat mournful, and slightly world-weary, way that will start so many of our conversations, "what we are doing here so often seems utterly hopeless, and yet we have to keep on, since no one else is going to do it."

Everywhere around us, like a group of monks engaged in their evening meditation, free-roaming baboons are simply sitting around, gazing at the river or quietly grooming one another. "The perfect peace emblem," baboon researcher Shirley Strum has written in her widely respected book, "Almost Human," "should not be a dove, but two baboons grooming." Watching the bucolic near-dusk scene that unfolds before us, I can appreciate what she means.

Rita points out a group of bush bucks beneath the trees ahead of us, and then, in rapid succession, a number of animal tracks that are right at our feet -- hippo, monitor lizard, water buffalo, water buck. "You can live here very peaceably with the animals," she says, pointing out a rather immense crocodile sunbathing on the other side, "if you just learn to respect them and keep out of their way."

Baboons are hardly the Earth's most beloved creatures. For one, they are not readily amenable to being dressed in overalls or lederhosen and paraded like kindergarten children onto "The Late Show With David Letterman." What's more, when full-grown, they develop not the relatively flat, universally beloved, human-like faces of chimpanzees and bonobos, but an elongated, snout-like visage, reminiscent of dogs. Third -- and most significantly -- they are, rather than stupid, so fiercely resourceful and smart that they can easily become pests to anyone whose house or car they put their minds to getting into.

The frequent hostility between human and baboon -- fueled mostly by ignorance -- has also produced a series of myths and fabrications that have endured for hundreds of years. The Khoisan people, who originally occupied much of sub-equatorial Africa as hunter-gatherers, believed baboons were people in an altered state of consciousness. Other African tribes believed they possess mysterious powers usually attained only by shamans and witch doctors.

In South Africa, however, the present-day fate of baboons has been far less romantic. It was not many years ago that people still received a monetary reward for handing in a baboon scalp and tail. Even more recently, baboons could be -- and were -- shot on sight by farmers and others as mere "vermin." Contemporary folk tales in Africa and elsewhere freely portray them as stupid and lazy, and in most cultures, including our own, it is still considered an insult to be called a "baboon."

With human settlements increasingly encroaching on what was once their natural habitat and the infant mortality rate among baboons often as high as 70 to 80 percent, baboon troops have now vanished from roughly 80 percent of South Africa's Cape Peninsula.

It's precisely this trend that Rita and the staff of C.A.R.E., led by Lee and senior animal keeper Bennett Serane, have set out to reverse. In the nearly 20 years of the foundation's existence, some dozen troops of once-orphaned baboons, numbering roughly 250, have been returned to the wild all around South Africa -- a process so time-consuming it could easily occupy five times Rita's staff. Not only must the staff locate the appropriate release sites, apply for permits and prepare troops for release and transport, but at least two staff members must be dispatched to the site for up to five months to make sure the baboons can successfully forage on their own. Of the innovative practices Rita and the staff of C.A.R.E. have created, most significant has been the "artificial" formation of coherent troops to be re-released into the wild. Until Rita began combining compatibly aged, sexed and spirited baboons into troops within the cages, it was virtually taken for granted that baboon troop formation was a "natural" process that took place only through matriarchal lineage, with females spending their lifetimes in the same troop and a few dominant males moving in and out as hierarchies shifted.

In the wild, a female baboon weans her baby at between 6 and 8 months, a process that begins with the mother holding the baby tightly against her body while foraging on three legs and ends with the infant foraging on its own. C.A.R.E.'s "unnatural" weaning process is more complex, beginning, for the first month or two with the infant spending 24 hours a day -- including time in the shower (and, yes, in case you're truly interested, on the toilet) -- tied around its human surrogate mother's waist in a shawl, or in her arms, where it is fed with bottles of baby formula. Since no lactating baboon mother with an infant of her own will take on one that is not hers, and a motherless infant might easily be killed by an adult male, the tiny infants require such human stand-ins. When Rita, the surrogate mother and the staff think the infant is ready, it is moved to the nursery with the other infants for several hours a day, returning to sleep with the mother at night. This phase slowly morphs into the next -- usually at around 2 months -- when the infant grows comfortable with spending the entire day in the nursery and only nights with its mother.

During the final phase, when the babies seem unhappiest, the infant continues to sleep in the surrogate mother's room at night, but in a small cage. This prepares it for its real "move" into post-infancy, when it will begin to sleep with the other infants -- and their baby bottles and stuffed animals -- in cages set up in Rita's bathroom in the main house, a stage that lasts about a year. Another four years will pass, roughly, before the baboon is ready to be released into the wild.

Mornings at C.A.R.E. begin at about 6 a.m. with a crescendo akin to the falling of immense hailstones onto my room's corrugated aluminum roof -- the sound of adult baboons descending from their sleeping perches in a sycamore fig -- coupled with a fervent chorus of wa-hoos and copulation cries. The day, with its mixed cacophony of dangers, hungers and lusts, is about to begin.

I've already been given my assignments for my first day, as posted on the bulletin board in the lodge just up the hill. Mine is a typical volunteer's schedule: bottles from 11 to 12; being in the cage to supervise the mediums (between 8 months and 1 year old) from 1 to 2; the same with the smalls (between 4 and 8 months) from 2 to 3; and, finally, in the nursery, home to the youngest infants, from 4 to 5. At around 5:30, all three groups of babies will be brought into the two rooms adjoining Rita's kitchen to spend the night.

As I learned from the moment Lee and I first drove onto the property, there are actually two troops of baboons in residence: the "wild" troop, numbering somewhere around 120 and affectionately named "Longtits" by Rita for reasons that take little time to become apparent, and the caged troop, whose cages are dispersed all over the property, and who usually number between 300 and 500. The wild baboons moved in shortly after the mid-1980s, when Rita, five ridgebacks and a baboon named Bobby first arrived on the property.

"Word had gone around in the animal world that there was this small piece of wilderness where they were welcome, where nobody shot at them or looked at them as the next piece of biltong [South African jerky]," Rita wrote in a private journal she later showed me. Unable to turn them away, she soon made the center the wild troop's home as well, and from that decision emerged the rather unusual "cohabitation" of the wild and the tame that is one of C.A.R.E.'s trademarks.

The main function of the "surrogate mothers" -- female volunteers who stay with the infants 24/7 for at least a month -- is to provide the kind of good-enough mothering that will help the baboons overcome early traumas, which often include witnessing the brutal killings of their mothers and troop mates. The young baboons' emotional wounds aren't hard to observe: Many of the infants seem fearful, skittish and very needy.

On my first full day, as I watch one of the mediums, Jager, cowering by himself in a corner, I also realize that these baboons and I have something in common beyond the 95 percent of our shared genetic makeup: We were both taken, at a very young age, from our biological mothers: I at 8 days, when I was adopted by my aunt and uncle; many of these baboons even earlier.

This may even explain why, in some dark Freudian corner of my psyche, I have come here to begin with -- and why there is something that touches me so deeply about these small, needy, frightened and helpless baboons. Perhaps, it occurs to me, I have something not merely physical, but psychological, to offer them -- and, even at this advanced stage of my life, myself.

One of the first things I need to do is to speak baboon. I've got to learn to differentiate between lip-smacking (a gesture of friendship), grunting (contentment and communication), warning calls, laughing sounds, mating cries, and all the rest -- the emotional range is rather astonishing. At night, alone before the bathroom mirror in my room, I practice lip-smacking, but it often seems to me that my attempts more closely resemble those of a forlorn lover blowing kisses than a baboon trying to be friends.

As for the wild troop, there are lessons to be learned from them, as well. For one, it isn't wise, especially for a man, to make direct eye contact with one of the large males, which, as I realized from my early experience with Dennis, can be perceived as a challenge. I also observe that when males are copulating or grooming a prospective mate, it's best to keep a certain distance. Simply picking up a rock is sure to intimidate even the large males, as I quickly discover when a female volunteer stoops to pick one up in front of a copulating couple and is rewarded with a powerful shove.

By the end of my first week, the baboons are beginning to take a liking to me -- though how that "liking" manifests itself isn't always what I hope for. One of the mediums, Komoti, for example, begins maniacally grooming my chest -- a "grooming" that includes, rather painfully, pulling on my chest hairs. Dennis, who initially led the "mob" against me, and his faithful sister, Maggie, are beginning to treat me like two fawning hairdressers, one on each side. Among the smalls, Zeffirelli chooses the approach/avoidance method: He gets up on my knee, sits down, opens his arms wide, lip-smacks me, and then takes off in the other direction, sometimes pausing just long enough to pee on my leg. Flirtation? Game? Whatever it is he wants from me, his behavior now recalls something I've read in Shirley Strum's book:

"I have observed baboons when meeting for the first time, advancing and retreating, a slow respectful means of getting to know each other. Sometimes their language is so indirect that it is difficult to detect at all, and in human terms it appears as if they were ignoring each other when in fact they are merely acknowledging the other's personal boundaries."

So that, I suppose, is precisely what Zeffirelli is doing: just getting to know me.

After my first week, when I begin to sense that Rita, albeit grudgingly, has taken a liking to me, I make a proposal: I'll knock on her door every night after supper; we'll have a glass of wine, and then we'll discuss whatever subject I have chosen for the evening's agenda. Agreed?

"Oh, Michael," Rita begins wearily. "All right, if we must, agreed."

"If you had to say what you have learned most from the baboons, what would it be?" I ask that first night.

It's a question Rita has no hesitancy in answering. "I learned how people tick," she responds. "I learned why people behave the way they do."

"But you told me just yesterday," I remind her, "that, after having spent time with chimpanzees, you realized you could never work with them, because they were just like humans."

"Exactly," Rita replies, "because chimpanzees can be deceitful, just like humans, whereas baboons haven't learned that yet. So what you learn from the baboons is the truth about yourself. Chimpanzees have already learned to find beautiful little excuses for their behavior.

"If you take parallels from the goings-on in a baboon troop to what goes on in a human troop," she continues, "it's exactly the same, except that we are such a deceitful bloody species. And you know why? Because we have invented language. We happily say one thing and mean exactly the opposite {lcub}hellip{rcub} You always know where you stand with [baboons]. And you can take it or leave it."

"So, you think the baboons intuitively pick up what's going on with you?" I ask, cautiously sipping my wine.

"Absolutely."

"I think it's something chemical," I venture, "since we humans often have a similar kind of intuition about what's going on with others as well."

"So, there you go!" Rita immediately jumps on the opening I've handed her. "We humans have it, too. And then you get an old bat like me who speaks her mind, and what they say is, 'God, she's just a crazy old bat,' or, 'God, your honesty is very refreshing.' "

"That's a euphemism: refreshing," I say, completing her point. "It means you're a bitch."

Rita Miljo, to be sure, is hardly the longed-for maternal figure of my dreams. Nor is she a woman who much enjoys talking about herself. Her preferred subject is clearly the baboons, but it is during these evenings in her living room, over a glass of white wine, that I begin to learn something about her strange, courageous and remarkable life.

Rita was born as Rita Neumann in 1931, in the northeastern corner of Germany near what was then Koenigsberg, near the Russian border. A young girl from a proper middle-class German family, she was in love with animals from her earliest memories and wanted to become a veterinarian. But World War II was brewing, and Rita discovered the Hitler Jugend, or Hitler Youth, joining when she was 8 years old. A year later, she became the youngest Hitler Jugend leader in the province. These facts surprise me, and it is not without a certain sense of irony that I listen to all of this: I am, after all, the American son of German Jews who fled Nazi Germany, just in the nick of time, in the spring of 1938.

"Being a young and naive little German girl," Rita confesses, "I enjoyed the Hitler Jugend. There were lots and lots of sports and competition, so I could do things I was normally not allowed to do, being the only daughter of an overprotective mother. Only today, in hindsight, do I understand the total madness we were subjected to."

For some reason, I do not have a hard time believing her claim that she was too independent a thinker to be brainwashed by Hitler's Aryan supremacist ideology. Instead, she says, the Nazis taught her "how to fight {lcub}hellip{rcub} and to win" through relentless pursuit, a lesson she later put to use in fighting the South African government to protect the baboons.

After the war, soldiers returning to West Germany were granted preferential admission to higher education, so Rita abandoned her plans for a veterinary career and went to work at Hamburg's renowned Hagenbeck Zoo. Inspired by her love of animals, she emigrated to South Africa in 1953, where she married a young German engineer named Lothar Simon who had come to work in a gold mine. Ten years later, she bought the section of bush that is now home to C.A.R.E. But, in 1972, Lothar, along with their 17-year-old daughter, was killed in a small plane crash.

It was in 1980, during her brief second marriage to an Afrikaner named Piet Miljo, and while on a roving expedition into Angola, that Rita made the transforming acquaintance of her life: Bobby, a neglected female chacma baboon, whom -- in defiance of the requirement for permits -- she took home by way of the Gemsbok National Park. And, with that, Rita's history, and the history of South Africa's baboons, changed forever.

By the end of my second week, I'm beginning to feel a bit like a baboon myself: I've actually begun enjoying this sitting around being groomed, presented to and lip-smacked. What's more, it's not a bad life being the alpha male -- I get a lot of attention. Somebody up there on my head -- Tortilla? Sabrina? -- seems to have fallen in love with me. She madly grooms my hair, my eyes, then moves on to my chest, along with periodic yanks on my chest hairs, and methodically chews off all three buttons on my shirt. But, all in all, it's a good life here in the cage -- calming, even meditative, when I'm not breaking up a fight.

On my first day entirely alone with mediums, Dennis comes to me repeatedly for comfort, yelping his little "help!" cry until I squeeze him to my chest and stroke his head. As the days march on, Dennis, in fact, is so sure of my protectiveness that he feels confident enough to attack Sunamu, the alpha female and troop leader, who does reverse somersaults between my legs chasing him. Dennis and his sister, Maggie, with whom, arm in arm, he often does a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers-like soft-shoe around the cage, groom my chest hairs, while Sabrina and Kariba groom my legs. Even Sunamu takes a turn at grooming me. Dennis and Maggie have, to their delight, discovered my right nipple, which they attempt to "groom" right off my chest, without success. Stella, much like Shakira in the smalls, thinks I am of the greatest interest as a rump scratcher.

"You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your friend's nose" was a popular saying when I was a kid growing up in Manhattan. Yet that certainly isn't the prevailing ethos here. Maggie, whose tail was bitten off in a fight, is -- at least judging from the ardor with which she preens and grooms me -- clearly becoming my friend. She is also not at all averse to picking my nose -- along with my ears, my eyelids, my lips and gums and virtually any other protrusion or orifice she can reach. The sense of intimacy I have achieved with these creatures astonishes and moves me.

When my stay at C.A.R.E. draws to a close, I experience a deep welling of emotion; I am actually going to have to leave Dennis, Maggie and the others. But I'm not quite ready for that yet, so I decide to rent a car and go to Phalaborwa for a few days to explore the city and prepare myself for a return to "real" life.

On the day of my scheduled departure from South Africa, I drive back to C.A.R.E. to say goodbye to Rita, Lee, Bennett and the baboons. When I walk into Rita's living room, I discover that there's been bad news during the night: Nelson from the "Nut Village," where the older baboons, most of whom were rescued from research labs and scientific experiments, live, has died of pneumonia after 11 years at C.A.R.E. When they shaved his chest to perform a chest X-ray, Rita tells me, they found a number tattooed on him by an experimental lab where he was once a subject. I can't help think: The dark resonance of Rita's Nazi past rears its head once more.

"Where will you bury him?" I ask Rita.

"Up the hill with all the others, behind the Nut Village," she replies.

"And do you put a marker up for each?"

"No," she says. "I remember where each one is ... and that's where I'm going to be buried, too."

Before leaving, there's something else I need to do. I enter the mediums' cage, where I am immediately greeted and climbed upon by Dennis and Maggie, along with Sabrina and Tortilla.

I have come, in my engagement with Dennis, Maggie and the other baboons, to develop a certain appreciation for what has often been referred to as animals' "pure being" -- a certain soulfulness and centered vigilance that comes from dwelling, out of necessities that are most probably both self-preservative and genetic, entirely in the present. In the baboon world, one comes to see this in a way that, in the human world, perhaps only the bodhisattvas and truly enlightened come to know it.

And there's something soothing, consoling, even humbling, about this.

I take a seat on one of the crates, Maggie and Dennis firmly planted on my right knee as usual, with Maggie fervently grooming me. But I don't have much time for the hairdresser today -- I've got a plane to catch back to Marseille. So I turn and look Dennis right in the eye, lip-smacking and smiling as I do so. He looks back at me, neither running nor sounding the alarm cry.

In fact, it looks to me like he's smiling, too.

Michael Blumenthal is an author, poet and a professor of creative writing at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. He can be reached at mcblume@attglobal.net.

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