San José State University
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Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

Associations of Baboons and Humans

Eve Palmer in her book, The Plains of Camdeboo, has many wonderful stories of life in the Karoo of South Africa. Some of the most interesting of her stories concern baboons. For example,

In the mountains there were baboons … We often saw them and we always heard them hoching and grunting and the babies squealing following good, maternal slaps that rang across the valley.

In the last century (19th) a man adopted a young baboon and made it his shepherd. It took its duties very seriously, remaining all day with the goats and driving them home at night, riding behind them on the back of one of them. It was allowed to drink the milk of one goat and never cheated, sucking from that goat alone, and guarding the milk of the others from the children. It was a trustworthy shepherd for a whole year, when it was tragically killed by a leopard.

There was a good deal of interest recently when another baboon was discovered acting in a similar way. Her name is Ahla and she is a goat-herd too, caring for her flock of goats, removing their ticks, guarding them, and , it is claimed, counting them. She is the third baboon goat-herd on the same farm, but one tippled, one knocked over every milk-can on sight, and Ahla is the only one to be trustworthy.

The early explorers, travelers and missionaries of the Karoo often took with them a pet baboon to act as a taster. If the baboon refused to eat any piece of fruit or a root it was probably poisonous or tastes really awful.

Other people in the Karoo used pet baboons as watch dogs. They were better than dogs and in some cases when the owners of such baboons also had watch dogs the dogs would go to sleep confident that the baboon would do their job. Eugene Marais tells of a mother who let a pet baboon care for her baby. Marais spent three years observing a troop of Chacma baboons and wrote of his experiences and observations in a book entitled, Our Friends the Baboons. He noted that they fell in love and were essentially monogamous during a courtship period. They protected each other even at risk to their own lives. After the courtship honeymoon period they effectivel became divorced.

The story behind the above statement about a mother who entrusted her baby to the care of a baboon is as follows.

The affection that baboons often show towards small animals extends sometimes to human babies. In this respect I refer, of course, only to tame baboons in captivity. Several cases came to our notice in which tame baboons had developed an unusual attachment to human babies, and even one where a baby had been entrusted by its mother to the care of a young baboon. This occurred on the farm. At that time we had little tame baboons that were free to roam about the homestead. The wife of a squatter on the farm washed clothes once a week in our dam. She used to bring her baby with her in a hand-cart she had made out of a soap-box and four plough wheels. While she worked the baby was left in the shade of a tree. One little baboon immediately took great interest in baby. At first the mother forcibly warded off these attentions, but the largest of our young baboons was too clever for her. With the utmost cunning it would creep up to the baby and on several occasions it circumvented the mother's watchfulness with the result that sometimes she found the baboon in the cart with its arms folded round the child. In time she became accustomed to this association. She even noticed that when the baby was troublesome the presence of the baboon soon soothed the child. The result was that instead of frightening the baboon away, she often called in its aid to comfort the child.

Marais goes on to tell of another more tragic case of a baboons fondness for a human baby.

On the farm Slysteenkop, between Warmbaths and Rooiberg, there was a large male baboon tied to a pole in the farm-yard. The lady of the house had a small baby and when it was a few weeks old, the father showed the baboon the child, without, however, allowing it to touch. The baboon immediately displayed the greatest interest in the baby and thereafter always greeted its appearance with the sounds of affection, the sounds which baboons always make when they beg for anything. The baboon discovered that if it stood upright in its sleep-box, it could catch a glimpse of the baby through the bedroom window. It got in the habit of climbing on to its sleeping-box every few minutes to spy on the sleeping child. This became a household joke, and was pointed out to visitors as a unique baboon trick.

On one occasion, when the baby's father was away and there were no other men at the homestead, the baboon broke its chain. The mother and a native maid were busy in the kitchen and they first became aware of something amiss when they heard the baby crying violently. When they rushed into the bedroom, the baboon was sitting on the window-sill with the baby in its arms while with bared teeth it threatened the two intruders. Without hesitation the mother rushed forward to save her child. The baboon was unusually large and strong, and in all probability it would have been able to retain its booty by force in spite of anything the two women could do. But it decided to adopt another course. Just outside the window there was a thick creeper which reached the roof and the baboon scrambled up this with the baby in its arms. In a few seconds it was, as far as the efforts of the mother were concerned, safe on the ridge of the roof. Desparate and almost beside herself, the unfortunate mother had to watch from below. She soon realized that the greatest danger now lay in the fact that the baboon might suddenly let the baby drop, which would naturally have meant certain death to the child.

Every effort was made to entice the baboon down again. Bread, biscuits, sugar, plates of preserves were offered to it, but all to no purpose. Sweets, which it usually attacked eagerly and greedily, had lost their power of attaction. The baboon, of course, soon saw through the mother's plan and wanted to prevent it succeding at all costs. Instead of climbing down it began to have doubts about the safety of its position on the roof. Alongside the gable of the house there was an indigenous tree -- a giant with wide-stretched branches, one of which was within reach of the baboon. It was soon in the tree and took up a position on the highest attainable branch --some sixty feet from the ground. For most of the time it carried the child under one arm, sometimes head downward, but when it was safe on the branch it took the baby in both arms again and then for the first the crying of the child suddenly ceased. What had happened was that the swaying of the tree, coupled with the warmth of the baboon's body, had sent the little one to sleep.

In the meantime the mother had sent the maid to the nearest neighbor for help. However, someone in the neighbourhood had heard the calling and screaming of the woman and had speedily come to help. But it soon appeared that the man who arrived was as helpless as the woman. The only suggestion he could offer was to shoot the baboon and catch the baby as it fell -- but this plan was provisionally set aside as an extreme measure which could not be used as long as the child was not in greater danger. All the man and the mother could do was to stand under the tree immediately below the baboon holding out a blanket.

An hour later the maid returned with a Bushman who had formerly worked on Slypsteenkop and who had been a great friend of the baboon.

It is a well-known fact that the Bushmen in general have an ability to get on friendly terms with animals very quickly. Such an intimacy had once existed between the baboon of Slypsteenkop and this Bushman, and it appeared that the baboon had not forgotten its friend. The Bushman put the sweets aside. He was of the opinion that they would only serve to keep the animal's suspicions alive. He made the man, the mother, and the maid go into the house and close all the doors and windows. Then he began to talk to the baboon in the language and in the manner which Bushmen use with baboons. This immediately touched some chord in the baboon's brain and without the least mistrust it climbed down the tree with the baby under its arm and allowed the Bushman to get hold of it by its collar. When it was again attached to its chain, all its courage deserted it. Without any protest it handed the baby to the Bushman and the mother recovered her child unharmed except for a few scratches on its hands and face from the branches of the tree. The baboon, of course, paid with its life for this escapade.

One of the early explorers of the Karoo had a baboon which served as his taster. He gave the baboon milk and occasionally brandy. The brandy was served to the baboon in a plate because when it was served in a glass the baboon drank it too quickly and coughed for about an hour. Once, however, the owner, as a prank, lit the brandy on fire and the baboon would so frightened of the fire that he would never touch brandy again.

Other baboons were trained to lead a team of oxen and pull their reins when they were supposed to halt. At every opportunity these baboons would ride animals. They would ride horses, oxen goats and even large dogs.

A train signalman at the railroad yard of Uitenhage saw a baboon trained to lead oxen and bought it. The signalman was crippled and could use the assistance of that baboon for such things as carrying firewood. The baboon was named Jack and became an assistant to the signalman. At first Jack did such chores as pumping water and bringing in firewood, but over the years he took over the signalman's job of pulling levers of switches for the trains. He learned all of the tasks of the signalman. The trains coming into the yard would announce their identity by the number of blasts of their whistle. Jack learned the proper switches to throw based on those signal blasts. Jack finally died of pneumonia, some thought was brought on by his conscientious devotion to duty.

A Poignant Story

Eve Palmer relates a story told to her by a local carpenter. There was man named Pieter Slaght who lived with his family on a ranch in the Baviaanskloof (Valley of Baboons). He was a tough-as-nails Afrikaner and he did not believe in God; he did not believe in anything spiritual.

Baboons were a nuisance to ranchers and they created pens to trap them. One day Slaght was sitting on the stoep of his house and told his youngest son to take his rifle and ride out to his pen and shoot any baboons that were there. His son dutifully rode away on his horse. Slaght heard one shot and nothing more. When the son returned Slaght asked him if there was only one baboon. His son said there were two but that he could not bring himself to shoot the other baboon. His father berated him for being squeamish and ordered his older son to go shoot the other baboon. His father listened for a shot but there was none and the older son returned slouching in his saddle and told his father that he too could not bring himself to shoot the other baboon.

In a rage Slaght grabbed his gun and rode off. At the pen

He dismounted, crept round a clump of bushes to the side of the pen, and saw what his sons had seen. Lying in the cage was, dead and spattered with blood was the jong wyfie--the young wife, and caressing her, hugging her, and crying in anguish was a young male baboon. As the old man watched he took her in his arms and held her to him, moaning softly, and embraced her until he too was covered in her blood.

Pieter did not shoot but stood and stared. Presently he turned, mounted his horse, and rode away. The Slaght family had gathered on the stoep to await his return. He climbed heavily up the steps and flung down his gun.

"Go and open the pen," he said. "While I have breath in my body, so help me God, I will never kill another baboon.

People observed that that may have been the first time Pieter Slaght had not taken God's name in vain. Later that night his wife observed Pieter Slaght praying to God for forgiveness.

Lest it be thought that the ranchers captured and killed baboons just out of maliciousness it must be noted that baboons would do such things as tear open the bellies of lambs to eat the curdled milk in their stomachs. They loved milk and might tear open the udders of milk animals to get to it.

Baboons are not generally thought of as on the same level as the great apes such as chimpanzees and gorillas, but they probably have equal intelligence and they have loyalties to humans for the same reason that dogs, the descendants of wolves have such loyalties. They are instinctively loyal to the leaders of their packs.

Stories of Baboon Attitudes Toward Humans

Eugene Marais tells of one time he and a companion came back from town on a dark night and found the baboons in a ravine making a terrible uproad. He found that the baboons had been ambushed by a leopard earlier in the day and they had to pass through a ravine where they knew a leopard was waiting in order to get to their sleeping place. Marais had to pass through that same ravine to get to his sleeping place, his home. He and his companion started walking in the ravine with Marais carrying a lantern. When the baboons saw the light of his lantern they immediately quieted down. Also a leopard saw the lantern light and disappeared farther down the ravine.

Suddenly Marais and his companion were surrounded by baboons in the circle of the lantern light. The baboons were once again making their usual noise. Marais perceived that the baboons saw the leopard flee from the light and realized that the leopard was afraid of the humans. The baboons then used Marais and his lantern as protection from the leopard. When the group came to the baboons' sleeping place the baboons left.

Another time a mother baboon brought her dead baby to Marais, clearly imploring him to "fix it." Baboons apparently were cognizant of humans having capabilities far surpassing their own.

Evidence of Baboon Governance

The one prime taboo among baboons is that no one except a female baboon's mate is to observe her giving birth. Under normal conditions a female baboon experiencing labor pains retires to a special hidden area to give birth. Her goes with her and more or less stands guard at the approach to the birthing area warning other baboons away.

Marais was observing a baboon troop some distance to their sleeping area. They were traveling through a narrow passage. A young female baboon in the front of the troop realized that she was about to give birth and retreated to a secluded area. If the rest of the baboons continued their journey they would pass within sight of the young baboon in labor. Her mate confronted the baboons to prevent them from coming near his mate. The baboons halted. Soon some of the leaders of the troop arrived. The situation was difficult because if the baboons did not continue they would have go back to another route that would take two hours longer to get to their sleeping place.

The baboon leaders came up and assessed the situation. The mate of the baboon in labor confronted the leaders. Under ordinary circumstances the leaders would have slapped that young male baboon around and put him in his place in the social hierarchy, but this time the leaders left him be. Marais said the leader seemed to have conferred. The leaders then herded the baboons back and they traveled an extra two hours rather than violate the taboo.


Eve Palmer, The Plains of Camdeboo, Viking Press, New York, 1967.

Eugène Marais, My friends the baboons, Gothic Printing, Capetown, South Africa, 1971.

Eugène Marais, The Soul of the Ape, Kingsport Press, Kingsport, Tennessee, 1969.

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