Books, baboons, and animal behavior

My preparations for a trip typically go something like this: I read books and books and more books. History, fiction, memoir, science, if it’s about the area I’m traveling, or anywhere remotely in the vicinity, I’ll read it. This, of course, takes up most of my preparation time, but everything will be fine when I arrive, because I’ll have read about it. I reluctantly concede some of my precious reading time for a couple other minor things. I look up the language of the place, learn the bare essentials: hello, how are you, please, thank you, **** off (the last of these is absolutely an essential, albeit for a different sort of interaction). I spend some time planning things to do and places to see (A month on the road? Two hours with a Baedeker oughta do it.) I write up a massive packing list months in advance, which three days before my departure I decide to ignore. Instead, I throw everything I can imagine needing in the middle of my bedroom floor, where I proceed to ignore it for the next two and a half days. The night before I leave, I panic that I’ve not packed yet and shove everything haphazard into my bag, only to find the next morning that the bag is obscenely heavy with the weight distributed hopelessly unevenly and that I have to walk leaning to one side to stay upright. When I arrive, I find that I’ve done something like packed four bras and the same number of underpants, or two pairs of pants that match exactly none of my blouses, or nothing I can use as pajamas.

But everything will work out alright, because at least I’ve read about my destination.

Traveling to Zambia, I found there are very few Zambian authors to select from in my hometown library in the middle-of-nowhere-Montana. So I settled for any reading material relating to sub-Saharan Africa, a geographic distinction including most of the continent. (To my current misfortune, I intentionally steered clear of anything from South Africa thinking ‒ accurately as it turned out ‒ that South Africa is very different from the rest of the continent.) One of these books was Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir, about the author’s time studying baboons in the field in Kenya.

For those of you who don’t keep up on the who’s who of primatology, Robert Sapolsky is one of the premier researchers studying baboons in the field. I’m sure you will find some way to use this factoid in your daily life.

I have actually encountered baboons. I saw them not infrequently in Zambia, and will admit to being unnerved by them. They definitely fall into the valley of the uncanny – similar enough to be familiar, but different enough to be unsettling (it’s the hands…). Baboons too frequently become pests. As one might expect from some of our closest relatives, they are very clever, and are not ones to pass up an easy meal. Fran Turner, M–, and village women all told me about baboons who sit outside the kitchen windows, watching the people inside. The moment the kitchen is empty, a slim monkey hand slips through the bars to snag some fruit innocently resting on the windowsill, or some other vulnerable place. Sometimes, the baboons are so audacious as to do so even when the person is still in the room, but their back is turned. Cheeky monkeys.

Turns out there's only so much photoshop can do to salvage a bad photo. Also turns out that it's hard to get a decent picture of an animal who either turns away every time you try to snap a picture, or starts walking toward you in a vaguely threatening manner. At which point I hightail it up the trail.

Turns out there’s only so much photoshop can do to salvage a bad photo. Also turns out that it’s hard to get a decent picture of an animal who either turns away every time you try to snap a picture, or starts walking toward you in a vaguely threatening manner. At which point I hightail it up the trail.

Sapolsky’s book has the wonderful characteristics of both satisfying a need, namely my withdrawal cravings from scientific academia, and being highly relatable to my current situation. Most of the book relates not to the author’s research (which, after all, I can go look up on PubMed) but with being a young white American academic who has fallen madly in love with the idea of Africa (sound familiar?) Much of what he describes feels familiar – the isolation of the bush, of interacting day in and day out with people who live in a world so vastly different from the one I inhabit that I sometimes wonder if we are on the same planet, much less the same page. The punch-in-the-gut moments when I discover something I’ve never even thought to consider. The vast amount of respect I hold for the people, especially the women, who still live in what most Westerners consider tribal societies. Even though Zambia is very far from Kenya and has an entirely different culture, the general dysfunction of post-colonial society is uncomfortably familiar, and is similar across much of the continent.

With each new chapter, I alternated between rupturing with the author about life in the bush, empathizing with the social and scientific tragedies of his experience and shaking with laughter until my ribs hurt; and being intensely, insanely envious of his modes of travel as a young man. He hitchhikes – hitchhikes! – the length of eastern Africa, finding cheap or free travel with seemingly little concern for personal safety. He nonchalantly walks into places that I would never in a million years enter travel alone. Ah, how I envy the solo male traveler!

Now I sit and ponder the lives of baboons and the study of animal behavior. The book being a favorite of Suzy Renn, Reed professor of behaviorism, I fondly recall the material covered in Animal Behavior class, utterly inapplicable though it is in “real” life. I consider that this post refers to connections that probably don’t make much sense outside of my own head, but I’m okay with that.

I feel like I've come in a circle with the discovery in the Lodge's eclectic library of a 1966 Time-Life book on Animal Behavior, written by none other than the father of the field (and one of Suzy's personal favorite scientists to judge by her class syllabus) Niko Tinbergen.

I feel like I’ve come in a circle with the discovery in the Lodge’s eclectic library of a 1966 Time-Life book on Animal Behavior, written by none other than the father of the field (and one of Suzy’s personal favorite scientists to judge by her class syllabus) Niko Tinbergen.

I’m now in the market for a new book from this part of the world, if you’ve any recommendations.

One thought on “Books, baboons, and animal behavior

  1. Robin, you’re an old soul. Your research of a place before visiting it makes you wise beyond your years. I have marveled-MARVELED-at your gift of writing. It’s wonderful to read. Oh, I laugh, shake my head and feel my eyes pop at some of your experiences. Keep it comin’!

    Have a great journey, Jan Jasper

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