Six months living with rescued and wild primates has deeply affected me. For the better – mostly – but I’m also left somewhat haunted by the similarities between us. I’ve seen shocking cruelty executed towards primates by disconnected humans who apparently feel nothing; not empathy nor compassion. I wonder just how much harm some people will inflict over a lifetime with such revolting behavior. I’m feeling profoundly conflicted by this experience. It’s been both heartbreaking and inspiring; how these two feelings can coexist superimposed on each other is beyond complicated. Suffice it to say: I have some serious reflecting to do in another hemisphere altogether.
Baboons and Vervets have been my daily companions for six months. I speak their languages and they respond. We communicate through body attitudes, facial expressions, vocalizations and touch. We’ve developed friendships: Some seek me out for comfort and protection when bullied by troop members. They express themselves and inform the troop with complex signals; but it’s not some esoteric code. Anyone can learn this – one must only pay attention for longer than it takes to pass judgment on another species as inferior.
There is a certain magic in communicating without human language. When I first arrived, it was all a mystery. But as the months passed I could sit down in the middle of the wild baboon troop next to Bud, the Alpha male, and it was business as usual. He understood I wasn’t a threat and I typically felt comfortable around him. Visitors were usually stunned by the sight though; and concerned I would surely be killed.
Adult male Chacmas are big and intimidating. I understand how people are scared of them and why they’ve earned such a nasty reputation. But there’s another side to baboons: attentive, curious, playful and supportive. I appreciate their directness; as opposed to the manipulative use of human language for all kinds of nefarious reasons. But among these primates, a simple glance or stare is enough to send a strong message.
I can’t help but think of them as people. Referring to them as “mere” animals has inadequate connotations and doesn’t represent their emotional intelligence. They’ve taught me valuable lessons and for that I am grateful.