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Never get in to a fight with a baboon

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If a baboon mugs you, the safest thing is to just hand over your valuables.

Michele Lawrence came to this realisation when she and her daughter Freya Lawrence, 22, volunteered at the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education (CARE), in Phalaborwa, South Africa. The centre cares for baboons who have been orphaned, usually through human cruelty, and then releases them into the wild. Volunteers help with bottle and food preparation for 600 baboons at the centre which include a group retired from a university research laboratory. They also help with enclosure cleaning and entertain the residents, among other things.

The Lawrences were working with baby baboons but a wild troop of baboons living nearby would frequently storm the camp in search of something tasty.

“We had to take bottles of milk for the baby baboons in a bucket with a lid on it from one building to another,” said Mrs Lawrence. “The wild baboons know that. They know what is in those buckets. They are very smart.”

Miss Lawrence said on one occasion the biggest male baboon she had ever seen appeared and demanded her mother hand over the bucket. Adult baboons have very large, sharp canine teeth.

“He grabbed the bucket and we had a brief tug of war until the smart side of my brain kicked in and said, ‘let it go’,” said Mrs Lawrence. “I let him have the bucket. Another time, several days later, a big baboon walked up to me when I was carrying a box of rubber gloves to another cage. I saw him coming and he had this attitude. I said ‘there you go’. He tore the box apart, chewed up a couple of gloves then spit them out. I picked up the gloves and walked on. Generally, they don’t want to hurt you, but it can be a little unnerving.”

Miss Lawrence is a psychology student at the University of Toronto, but enjoys volunteering on different animal projects. She has worked at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo and at Dolphin Quest. She learned about the CARE baboon rehabilitation centre through a television programme.

The Lawrences were often asked what the point of helping baboons was as they are not endangered in most and areas and are considered a nuisance in South Africa. Baboons, are in fact Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix II listed. This means CITES considers them at risk of becoming endangered if trade is not controlled.

“They are highly social animals with a very specific hierarchical structure to their social groups, or ‘troops’,” Miss Lawrence said. “Like so many wild animals, they are losing habitat at an alarming rate, and are forced to forage within areas humans have now claimed as their own. They are tortured and killed by humans when baboon advocates argue there are ways that humans and baboons can live alongside each other quite harmoniously. Many of those affected are tiny babies orphaned by people who kill their mothers, often for fun.”

Miss Lawrence said one of the best parts of the trip was meeting the staff and volunteers at CARE. Unfortunately, the founder, Rita Miljo died last year in a fire, but the organisation is steadily getting back on its feet.

“The staff are incredibly committed and hard-working, and it was a pleasure meeting and working with them and the volunteers, all of whom had boundless enthusiasm and joy in caring for the animals,” she said.

Miss Lawrence said what surprised her most about the baboons was their personalities and social hierarchy.

“The hierarchy is very strict in their troop, especially with the slightly older kid baboons,” she said. “Like one time the lead girl took my hair tie right out of my hair. I turned around to go get it back and the rest of the lowering ranking ones mobbed me and were biting my legs in an effort to impress the leader. She didn’t care, she was off chewing on the hair tie somewhere. They were just babies so they only had little teeth. They didn’t break the skin or anything.”

Mrs Lawrence said the experience was really challenging. She went basically to keep her daughter company.

“It was great to do it together,” she said, “because we always had each other to talk to. I have to admit the conditions in the ‘mountain lodge’, where they house the volunteers, horrified me, initially. It was described as ‘rustic’, which was generous. The whole place was open to all sorts of critters, from bugs to rats, that came in through the wire mesh fencing surrounding the mostly open-air structure. But it didn’t seem to bother the other (much younger) volunteers, and it is amazing what you can get used to. Fortunately, our beds were enclosed in tents, so we had no night-time encounters with creepy-crawlies, but we saw plenty and our first day there was a snake in the kitchen. The first night we also heard lions no more than a few yards from the building, although we couldn’t see them in the dark.”

But she said she really came into her own at CARE and enjoyed mothering the volunteers. She discovered a new-found strength and resourcefulness within herself.

“I got dirtier than I ever imagined I would, and found out I was actually good at a lot of the physical work they asked us to do,” she said. “I’m actually pretty good with power tools. Who knew?”

The Lawrences were only there for one month but some volunteers stay for several months. These longer staying volunteers often become foster mothers for baboon babies. Their roommate was a foster mother of a baboon called Flicka.

“Flicka was an eight-week-old pinkface (baby) baboon,” said Mrs Lawrence. “She was the perfect roommate, cute as a button and never kept Freya or me awake. She woke Jules often, however.”

Miss Lawrence joked that she returned to Bermuda speaking pidgin baboon, as baboons have very distinct ways of communicating with each other.

“They make this lip smacking noise when they want to be friendly or to apologise,” she said. “They do that when they are grooming to let the other one know they are being friendly. They have a little giggle like a child. They make a noise like a chicken clucking when they are unhappy. There is a grunt you make to make to comfort them. When the mother tells the baby off or calls a straying baby back, she makes a grunting ugh sound. There also do something called flashing, which is a ‘screw you’ kind of look. They raise their eyebrows and stare very hard at the other baboon.”

Miss Lawrence got to work hands on with a slightly older baboon that had experienced a stroke and needed physiotherapy.

“She was very wobbly and couldn’t really walk, but she loved cuddles,” said Miss Lawrence. “She loved getting a tummy rub and was very spoiled at the vet clinic. She was very possessive of the vet, a young British guy. She decided he was her boyfriend. When two of the girls came down to the clinic to say good bye, she was making faces at them to intimidate them away from her man.”

One memorable experience for them was going on a five-hour drive to another facility with baby baboons in the car.

“Having a baboon in the car for five hours was pretty crazy,” said Miss Lawrence.

“The baby baboon was free in the car,” said Mrs Lawrence. “It was jumping around the car onto the driver and off. We took our car which was a rental. I let the CARE staff member drive because she knew the territory and was a lot faster. She was driving at 120K and with one arm moving the baboon away and then in the other hand looking at her global positioning system (GPS). On the way back we had two little baboons in the car.”

Miss Lawrence said it was fun to see the expressions on motorists faces, behind them, when the baby baboon appeared over the top of the back seat. Thankfully, baboons are nocturnal and slept for most of the way back.”

Unfortunately, Miss Lawrence and several other volunteers became ill towards the end of her volunteer stint. Her mother thought they caught an intestinal parasite when cleaning cages that were left empty after a troop was released. They decided to spend the last part of their South African trip in a hotel.

“She was so bad I decided we needed to leave and went to a lodge an hour away in Phalaborwa,” she said. “Although we were not happy about leaving CARE, once Freya was well we were able to rent a car and drive (which left our family half in horror and half in admiration) all over the place. We saw loads of things we wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and drove to a number of facilities where we had hands-on experiences with vervet monkeys, elephants, a cheetah and even a baby white lion. So it was just an amazing time for us.”

Miss Lawrence said while she enjoyed her time, her next volunteer project will probably be with a different animal or at a centre with a variety of animals.

“I do love baboons and their personalities are interesting,” she said, “but they do have a mean streak sometimes.”

A volunteer with a baby baboon who has fallen asleep on her face.
Baby baboon.
Adult baboon’s canine teeth.
A baby baboon gets a bath.
Social hierarchy is very important among teenage baboons.
Michele Lawrence with a baby baboon.
Freya Lawrence having her lenses adjusted by a baby baboon.
Freya Lawrence and baby baboon.
Volunteer quarters.

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Published May 20, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated May 20, 2013 at 9:17 am)

Never get in to a fight with a baboon

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