Monthly Archives: June 2013

South African Adventure #742 – Dobby, the Wonder Baboon

Is that a human or a monkey she has in her hands?

Is that a human or a monkey she has in her hands?

They called her ‘Bleskop’ at first. ‘Bald head’ in Afrikaans. We renamed her Dobby. I think she likes her new name.

I’ve fallen in love with a monkey. Yup, there it is. She’s a month-old Chacma baboon. And I honestly have to say I’m totally in love with her! If it weren’t completely unethical (and if her mom wasn’t such an awesome mom to her), I’d smuggle her home under my shirt and raise her myself. And I was really tempted on quite a few occasions when her hair loss got really bad. Yes, she is also a balding baby baboon.

Apparently baboons can suffer from alopecia, just like humans, and the condition has been documented before in captive baboons. However, the only other time I’ve seen any record of a bald baboon outside of captivity is a female that lives in Kariba in Zimbabwe. And in yet another example of how similar these fellow primates can be to homo sapiens, she was shunned by the rest of the troop because of her looks. Admittedly, she is one of the scariest looking things I’ve ever seen, and I imagine she could be the basis of a few nightmares if you came across her in the bush. If you’ve never seen a photo of one, and you most likely haven’t, check out this link and you’ll understand why I was more than a little concerned about Dobby’s thinning hair (note – images are a bit haunting, so don’t say I didn’t warn you): http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2271173/Hairless-female-baboon-spotted-bush-rejected-troop.html

I met Dobby when she was less than a week old, and she was already going bald. In fact, she was born monk-style, with a pale pate of skin on the top of her round little head glowing like a pasty Englishman on a Brazilian beach. If her mom held her just right, she looked like a human child.

As the days went on, she lost more and more hair, going from monk to overly hairy gnome in only two weeks’ time. No one could figure out why. She had no signs of mange or infection, and she appeared totally healthy otherwise. In fact, she was a spright little pixie, aware of everything going on around her and keenly interested in what the troop was up to while she stayed cuddled in mom’s embrace.

Now, I know many people don’t like baboons. Perhaps they’d look at her and think she wouldn’t last one of these cold, wet winters, and be happy about it. One less baboon, right? I am not one of those people. I love these critters. And I love her most of all. In fact, I was keenly concerned that she would die of exposure, no matter how caring and attentive her mom was, simply because without hair to keep her warm on these VERY cold winter nights, she was fighting a serious uphill battle. And points to mom, by the way, for being so incredibly attentive to her little peanut! As moms go, Dobby’s mom is pretty high up there in the offspring-rearing category.

We contemplated knitting Dobby a beanie and a sweater, but then realised baboons being baboons, her wardrobe would get pulled off of her by the other curious members of her extended family, and we’d be back to a bald baby baboon. Plus we thought she might get injured in the ambush if some of the juvenile baboons got too excited in the rush to play with the new alien items. So that idea got trashed. We also got worried when we saw some red cuts on her head from being over-groomed, but those healed as well.

Every day I couldn’t spend with her, I asked my boyfriend how she was, and every day I had a little knot in my stomach in anticipation of him telling me she’d died in the night, my frozen little missing link. But every day he reported back that she was fine, starting to play with the other young baboons and finally beginning to venture out of mom’s immediate reach.

In the last month and a half, Dobby’s become quite the little climber, summiting mom’s head and attempting to conquer some saplings. Her motor skills are still in development, but she’s right where she should be at her age, albeit a bit less hairy. She’s been abducted a few times by other baboons in the troop, but mom’s managed to rescue her without incident. The first time she ventured off on her own, another youngster grabbed her by the arm and dragged her back to mom’s safe keeping. She even got dragged around on her head for a bit when a juvenile wanted to play with her and stole her away. A few little squeaks and honks later and mom had her girl back by her side. In fact, it appears the whole troop wants a piece of the little bald wonder. They all come up to visit her, pulling at her arms and legs, tugging on her tail, lip-smacking stories to her. It seems everyone is in love with Dobby.

I was excited to hear that a week ago she started growing very fine black hairs on her head. Slowly but surely, she seems to be sprouting some insulation on her pip. I breathed a sigh of relief, no joke. I was happy to know she would have that extra necessary layer to keep her toasty during the miserable winter rains that drench this area from May through November.

It’s funny how attached you can become to something that is not only not yours, but something completely wild. I have no stake in this animal’s future or well-being (and to be honest, without breaking the law, there’s really not much I can do for her anyway), and yet I feel compelled to know her story. I feel compelled to spend hours sitting with her and her troop, watching her grow up. I hope you guys enjoy hearing about her escapades as much as I enjoy being a part of them. I’ll be sure to share more as she grows up. Dobby, the wonder baboon.

As an aside, yes, for anyone who doesn’t believe it can get cold in Africa, it does. I’ll admit, when I came here, I was shocked at this revelation. I had this perception that the entire continent of Africa consisted of varying degrees of sauna as far as temperature goes. Of course, logically, when you’re the last country on a continent before Antarctica, it would make sense that it gets a bit chilly at some point. And it does. We had a two-day hail storm here two weeks ago (after which I was convinced Dobby had probably kicked it). The surrounding mountains already have snow. You can probably imagine it’s pretty rough on the wildlife. It’s also the reason I’m convinced baboons here are the fluffiest I’ve ever seen. Well, except Dobby. For now, at least…

Song(s) of the day – Don’t Give Up, by Peter Gabriel; Titanium, by Sia

By the way, if you have any songs you recommend, feel free to let me know. Would love to hear what comes to your mind when you read these posts.

And without further ado, the little fighter…..

 

All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

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Categories: Africa, Animal, Baboon, Bush, Conservation, Education, Habituation, rehabilitation, South Africa, Western Cape, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #741 – Monkeying around with my new friends

Eat the leaf or go see if human has cheesecake?

Baby baboon catching a ride on mom's back

Baby baboon catching a ride on mom’s back

In the Cape of good old South Africa, people have a love-hate relationship with the baboons.  Actually, let’s revise that.  Some people love them; some hate them.  You don’t seem to get much in between.  I hear from one person that every baboon deserves to be shot (Deserves?  Really?).  Then I hear from another how we don’t belong in the baboons’ home territories, and because we’ve infringed upon their territory, we must accept them as part of the system we’ve injected ourselves into.  I fall into neither category.  I love the baboons, but that doesn’t mean I think they own the world, even if they were ‘here first’. And were they actually here first?

Here’s the thing.  We are all one species of animal or another.  None of us and all of us ‘belong’ in places.  The bigger issue is how we can find a way to live harmoniously.  Can we?  I’m starting to think the answer to that is no.  But it doesn’t mean I don’t harbour hope.

I spend a lot of time these days with the baboons in the Cape Peninsula.  For anyone who doesn’t know what that means (and that’s probably a lot of people, since I have to explain to a lot of people that South Africa is actually a country and not a region of the African continent, so I imagine even fewer people know what the Cape Peninsula is), the Cape Peninsula is essentially the end of the world as far as the African continent goes.  Though it is wrongly assumed to be where the two oceans, the Atlantic and the Indian, meet, it is simply a very large peninsula at the base of Africa, and also happens to be the location of the second largest city in South Africa.  That would be Cape Town.

First off, for anyone who thinks wildlife roams the streets in South Africa, this is actually only really true in Cape Town, where the baboons do indeed have a sort of free reign (they are a protected species in this particular area).  There are baboon monitors whose job it is to keep these baboon populations out of the urban areas as much as possible, but these animals are smart and speedy, so really, if there is a way to get through any barrier set up for them, they will find it.  And they do, often.  Which then finds them sitting on restaurant dustbins, munching on croissants and half-eaten pizzas.  Or even better, they raid fruit trees that someone decided were a FANTASTIC idea to plant in their backyard, even though these same people KNOW they live in a baboon area. And then they get angry at the baboons.  Stupid?  That’s for you to decide.  I have my own thoughts about the matter, which pretty much side on the “hmm, they are idiots and hypocrites” end of the judgmental thought spectrum.  And yes, I have no problem admitting I’m judgmental about this stuff.

So the baboons in Cape Town (and in many parts of Africa) are Chacma baboons.  While they are all the same species in South Africa, depending on where you ARE in the country, they look different.  The Cape baboons are fluffy.  REALLY fluffy.  And they are not afraid of humans in the slightest.  In fact, they think nothing of walking up to a vehicle, grabbing the door handle, opening said door handle, and getting in a car with a complete stranger (who usually at this point has evacuated out the other side of the car).  I’ve seen a few knock people down to get at the food in their hands, or the backpack on their back.  It isn’t supposed to be funny, but it is.  I’ve had a baboon jump on me.  Once on my back in an effort to grab a backpack off my back while I was hiking; once when I was holding a packet of crisps (also known as potato chips for those non-British English speakers).  In fact, it was the same baboon.  I had to literally fling him off me.  And I might go down in history as the only person who was jumped by a baboon who didn’t give up the chips.  I love my chips.  Especially the Simba Creamy Cheddar Chips.  I was not letting anyone, not even a baboon with four-inch canines, separate me from my snacky snacks.

Suffice it to say, these baboons have no fear of humans.  There are several theories for this.  One stems from the fact that baboons, like humans, are a very social species.  These animals eat, sleep and breed in troops, or big groups.  In fact, pretty much the only time you see a baboon on its own is if it has gone on a raid to tackle a local dustbin, or it is trying to disperse to try its luck with another group. Or, in rare occasions, if it’s been kicked out of the troop (or more specifically, is so low on the totem pole in the troop that it thinks it’s better off on its own).

Baboons live in a very strict social hierarchy, so a low-ranking male will eventually get tired of getting the crap beat out of him and often will just take off for greener pastures elsewhere so he can try his luck with the baboon ladies from another neck of the woods.  Unfortunately, when these animals live in an urban environment, their paths to social networking get cut off.  In fact, for a baboon in Cape Town, social networking doesn’t really exist outside its small (and getting smaller every year) territory. They have nowhere else to go anymore.

Because of their close proximity to humans (genetically as well as spatially on a map), it would appear they’ve essentially started to think of humans as taller, less hairy extensions of their own species.  And since they steal from other baboons as part of their social life, they steal from humans, who’ve they’ve assimilated into their tribe, as well.

Another theory, and a very simple one as well, is that we just have more high-calorie food.  Why bother puttering around a mountainside all day, scrounging for enough calories to make it through the day, and then having to do it all again the next day, and the next, and the next?  Why not just steal a Snickers for the same amount of calories (and I’m guessing it might taste better)?  If I were a baboon, I would go for the Snickers and spend all that new free time writing a novel.  Because honestly, I wouldn’t put it past one of them doing that one day.

I can sit and watch the baboons for hours. In fact, I prefer watching baboons to watching people.  They are, in my mind, infinitely more interesting and a hell of a lot less stress-inducing than most of the people I’ve met.  I’ve had one hand me a weed once.  And a few have come sit down next to me on multiple occasions, just checking me out, smacking their lips in an attempt to chat me up, and even drawing pictures in the sand for me.  I could swear they show the same emotions and thought-processes we show, and I’m really not trying to anthropomorphize them.  You can see them thinking, working things out.  You watch them as they pick at their fingernails and clean out the dirt.  You can see how, when in a rather clumsy moment they fall out of a tree, they look around in almost embarrassment to see if anyone saw their failed attempt at landing gracefully.  They play with crickets.  Seriously play with them.  As I said, I can sit and watch them for hours.  And I have.

I’m including a few photos of my little furry friends.  For the next few posts, I’ll probably focus quite a bit on them, as I am lucky enough to know and spend time with the baboon monitors who manage them in the Cape Peninsula.  Getting this close and personal with an animal so like us, and yet so different, is a privilege and a curse.  I think it’s a good story for people to know, as it speaks volumes about the state of conservation, the state of people, and an overall lack of understanding of how important wildlife is to our own survival.  I hope you enjoy these guys as much as I do!

Today’s song choice – Simply because of all the baboon action that goes on in a typical troop, I had to go with ‘SexyBack’.  Sorry, Justin.

All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

This is my pine cone...

This is my pine cone…

Snuggling with a sibling

Snuggling with a sibling

Dobby, the bald baby baboon

Dobby, the bald baby baboon

Categories: Africa, Baboon, Bush, Conservation, Education, Habituation, rehabilitation, South Africa, Western Cape, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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