by Hugh Gilmore
In Part One of this series I described how I came to be in Kenya, doing a scientific study of a troop of about 80 baboons for a year and a half. I walked among them for long parts of nearly every day, taking notes on their behaviors, learning to see life from a baboon perspective. When done, I hoped to make some reasonable conjectures about how certain human behaviors, especially as regards communication, may have evolved.
And the results? Well, after living in the Kenya highlands and walking so much I was in great shape and had a terrific lung capacity. In terms of my research: 1) I became the world’s expert at interpreting the baboon grunt; 2) I learned, a la Yogi Berra, you can hear a lot just by listening, and 3) I think I figured out how human laughter evolved.
First though, I must tell you that the particular group of baboons I followed around had been studied before. Their home range and feeding habits had already been mapped out. The individuals in the troop had been distinguished from one another and given names. The first person to notice an animal had naming rights.
Ideally, as far as the science is concerned, the “study subjects: should be given numerical names so there would not be prejudice in interpreting their behavior. No Happy, Grumpy, Dopey, Bashful, Sleepy, e.g. However, different nationalities of researchers, worldwide, named animals according to their own protocols. Japanese researchers had a tendency to name their subjects for classical mythology figures – Thor, Jupiter, Athena, and so on. Dutch researchers preferred to try to avoid anthropomorphic tags, afraid they might color their perceptions of an animal’s behavior. They used names like “big head” or “bent tail.” On our project, however, perhaps since the original researchers were loosey-goosey Californians, the animals got named for friends of the researchers: e.g., Setha, Peggy, Dr. Bob, or for characters from Tolkein, such as Frodo, Bilbo, and Sam. The troop itself was called “The Pump House Group,” after a gang of surfers described in Tom Wolfe’s famous 1968 book, “The Pump House Gang.”
I was the fourth person to study this same group. Almost five years of long-range data had been collected regarding the troop’s genealogy, its use of territory, its diet and general social behavior. I was obliged to continue collecting these data while pursuing my own research on their communication habits, especially their vocalizations.
All well and good, but how does one ingratiate himself to a group of wild animals that are accustomed to running away from people? Luckily for me, the Pumphouse group had been habituated to humans by the previous researchers. However, there had been no observer in the field for about six months before I arrived, so the animals were skittish when I tried to approach them.
I backed off. Baboons notice everything in their environment so I parked my VW van about a quarter mile away and stayed inside, letting them get used to my presence. After a while I came out and stood next to the van. After that I tried walking out into the grasslands towards the group’s fringe and stopped whenever I saw an animal monitoring me.
Over a period of time I moved closer. This went on all day until I managed to move up to about 50 meters away. Over the next week I parked the van closer each day and moved out closer to them on foot. After two weeks they became used to me enough to tolerate my presence quite close, sometimes less than 10 feet away.
A group of about 80 baboons might be spread out over an area as large as a football field or as small as a tennis court, depending on what they were eating at the time and how that food resource was distributed. As a habit, if I needed to cross a circle of baboons, I walked the circumference rather the diameter. I felt safe enough usually, but they are very temperamental animals and at first I never knew for sure when I might be getting between a mother and her baby, or violating some other baboon social principle I wasn’t aware of yet.
I knew other researchers who wore jungle boots and carried buck knives and sprayed repellents, but I was more casual. There’s a kind of snobbery among field people that says in effect, “I know my animals so well I don’t need to carry a weapon. I rely on my ability to read what’s going on among them.” I wore your basic Cape May floppy, foldable, round-brimmed hat, blue jeans, a long-sleeved shirt (the sun is brutal to your skin at the Equator) and, I laugh to think about it, flip-flops.
I was never attacked or threatened by a baboon, thank goodness. Unlike humans they fight only for gain … food, mating rights, hierarchy maintenance, and defense of their young are the main motives. They do not attack out of boredom or curiosity.
At the end of my first week of walking among the Pump House Gang, if you had asked me to describe the nature of baboon life in a word, I’d have said “chaotic.” Nothing made sense. Lots of movement, all of it random. Lots of noise, none of it sensible. All that changed once I began using the rough set of drawings and descriptions I’d been given and learned their names.
— To be continued
Hugh Gilmore is the author of the newly published memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” Reviews of this book can be found glowing on Amazon.com.