I’m back at the baboon rehab center in South Africa. When I was here a few years ago, the babies were Mica, Oscar and Pippin. They’ve since grown into big kids happily playing and foraging with their baboon families in big “semi-wild” enclosures. The enclosures are on plots of regular African land with an electric fence around the perimeter (no roof) to keep them in and danger out.
Despite having loved them intensely, I can’t talk to them anymore. When they get released in a few years they need to fear people in order to survive. So I’ll only look at them from afar. This process can be heart-breaking for the humans involved but true love often breaks our hearts. True love is sacrifice and putting the needs of your beloved in front of your own. And these baboons need other baboons.
Often babies arrive because their mothers have been hit by cars or shot. Some have been owner relinquish from the exotic pet trade. The babies here now are Beast, Beauty and Troy. Two of them still have pink faces. They climb and play on the structures we design for them and on trees. They forage and communicate. We lip smack with them (which means “I like you”) and giggle/grunt to help them feel safe in their new environment. They love each other and the surrogate human aunts and uncles who fawn over them 12 hours a day. They have surrogate human moms and dads who sleep with them so they’re never alone.
When the baby is well-adjusted, s/he gets weaned off humans and onto a surrogate baboon mom. The director of the center knows the personalities of each adult baboon well enough to know who would be a good Forever Mom for each baby that arrives.
The weaning happens in an “Intro Cage.” On one side of the cage sits the human surrogates, on the other side is the baboon surrogate mom, separated from the humans by a fence with a hole big enough only for the baby to fit through. The baby will increase time spent in the baboon section of the cage and decrease time spent with the humans. The weaning is complete when, one day, dusk descends and the baby doesn’t want to return to the lodge with humans. Human contact now stops, save for milk bottles a few times a day (we merely stick the nipple through the fence.)
When Mom and Baby have spent a few weeks alone together, their bond is strong enough to bring them to an enclosure adjacent to Mom’s original troop. For a few weeks they can only communicate with the group through the fence. For the safety of the baby, everyone in the troop needs to accept him/her before they can have physical contact.
To integrate into the larger group, select individuals are allowed in the Mom/Baby enclosure, usually a few adult males and some kids. This first wave of family introductions means there are troop members to vouch for the baby. They tell the others, in essence, “He’s cool. Leave him be.”
When the baby finally gets introduced to the whole troop (on the scale of a few months,) there will still be an “out,” just like in the Intro Cage where a small hole in the fence provides the baby access to a private and safe area.
The mothers that were killed loved their babies. So did the moms whose babies were stolen from them and sold on the black market. But a sweet baby baboon grows into a beautiful man who who can rip your arms off and sever all your arteries. Nature doesn’t intend for him to live in our houses. I’m thankful that the babies who come through this rehab center get to live their dharma of being wild baboons in a troop.