A BOZO OF A BABOON: Robert Sapolsky (p2)

(ROBERT SAPOLSKY:) As a 20-year old doing field research in Africa, my sense of manly competence was not terribly well-glued into shape. One baboon was there from the very first year, a wonderful guy I named Benjamin. A total Bozo of a baboon, he was my equivalent out there. He was not pulling off the male-male competition very effectively; he was not pulling off the male-female affiliation stuff very well. His hair was almost as disheveled and unkempt as mine, and he was the first baboon in the troop who ever interacted with me. For some bizarre reason he was interested in me, and I utterly bonded with him. Unfortunately in his prime adult years he spent about a year being a complete jerk, but he fell out of that soon enough. We even named our six year-old son after him, but he's considerably more socially gifted than Benjamin, the baboon.

Once in the middle of the open savannah, a troop of about a hundred baboons was foraging over a couple of square miles, where they would come together at the end of the day. When you're foraging you get really hot, and so you sit under a bush and take a nap for awhile. I was doing a 30 minute observational sample on Benjamin, and during that time he fell asleep. As I sat there watching what was not one of the more riveting samples I've ever had, the rest of the troop wandered off.

Benjamin eventually woke up, right around the time I was finishing the sample. I realized I had no idea where the other baboons were and he had no idea either. He climbed a tree and gave a loud vocalization call. It's a two-syllable wahoo call, and you can hear it for a mile in any direction, and usually somebody yells back. But they were too far away to hear his wahoos. He was up in the top of the tree, and getting anxious, so I climbed on top of my vehicle with my binoculars and finally spotted the baboons three hills over, and moving away really fast. And we had one of those things—God help my Joe scientist credentials here—but we looked at each other, and I got into the car and started driving and he trotted alongside.

I waited for him, and at one point he crossed a stream and I had to go a half mile up to another point to cross, and he waited for me. Together we found the baboons. As far as I could tell nobody gave a shit that he had been away, and they didn't seem particularly pleased to see me either. But it was like in the Diane Fossey movie, when she touched fingers with Digit for the first time. I understand how intense it was for her. This was the nearest I had gotten to a baboon—a baboon is not a gorilla, unfortunately—that first instant when he waited for me to get back from crossing the stream. The unsentimental interpretation is Benjamin realized I knew where the troop was: this guys's got more information than I do so I'd better stick with him, but I'm going to dump him first chance. The irresistible more sentimental interpretation was that Benjamin and I had bonded across the species.

Years afterward, when I'd be sitting on a log, observing somebody else, Benjamin was always the most likely baboon in the troop to come over and sit down, not quite next to me, maybe four or five feet away. Being close enough to hear a baboon's stomach rumbling is an amazing experience, but he was the only one that would do that consistently.


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