Admittedly, I was both gleeful to have my boy sitting with me, his feet propped up against my thighs with precious familiarity, and I was intimidated as hell (not to mention utterly vulnerable) having this huge male baboon with razor-sharp 2+ inch canines two feet from my face – something I’d never experienced. The more friendly and enthused the chattering from Gabriel, the more his huge and very real canines were openly displayed before me. Yes, he was my son, but he is also a wild animal with instincts, politics, and differences that must always be respected. And I’d been removed from his life for the last 6 years, so making behavioural assumptions wasn’t something I was keen to do.
Freedom ’14: Setting Myself & My Monkeys Free
I’m writing to you from the bush, from the deck over-looking the Olifants river at the Mountain Lodge that I used to call home. And I am complete. A huge chapter in my life that I just couldn’t close for these many years, at last has satisfying resolution. And I am at peace. I actually still have another 24 hours and to be quite honest, I’m ready now (…but my clothes aren’t… they actually do need this extra time to try to achieve a workable level of dryness out on the line). I’ve tied up all my loose ends here and I feel free.
While I did raise 9 orphans, the troop (KC) and single baboon (Gabriel) that are dearest to my heart and that I’ve most ached to see set free have now been released. Dream realised. It was a process begun 10 years ago – early in their fractionated lives – with the promise that one day they’d return to the wild – that we could be entrusted to set right what had been made wrong. And with the enthusiastic idealism that comes so naturally to burgeoning adults with unwavering passion in their hearts, there was no question that this day would come… that the necessary release permits that the government had no interest in issuing would be there, that the laws discriminating against these animals would be resolved by the time they were ready, that the general public distaste for these misunderstood and under-appreciated beings would be neutralized, that the perfect piece of land on which to release them would materialize, and that the maze of a flowchart ‘Can We Release Them?’ that had over and over lead to Not Possible for too many troops before them… would open up for KC Troop to slide right through to that elusive YES! Let’s Do It! at the perfect age and not a day later. It would work out… somehow. It had to.
As the years passed, and the naiveté of youth was tempered with time, I’ll admit, in dark, still moments that I couldn’t bear to look at head on, I’d catch a glimpse of fear that maybe our promise to them might not be fulfilled… That they’d live out their lives in captivity in too-small enclosures, growing stereotypic and frustrated as the years passed, their once bursting vibrancy dulling like an old coin one would rather not pick up. That possibility – even the whisper of it – was too heartbreaking for me handle. So I looked away.
Thankfully others did not. Stephen, my Scottish heart-brother and work partner with whom I discovering the baboons, the bush and early adulthood, never gave up through all the unbelievable hardships and innumerable moments when finding a way through seemed impossible. We both came to CARE at the tender age of 19 and discovered a passion in ourselves (under the tutelage of Founder and Director, Rita Miljo) that we would not abandon for anything imaginable.
At the age of 23, heart surgery was most certainly outside the realm of my imagination. I understand now that my destiny was not to stay there and it took a message of that magnitude to lead (or force) me onward toward my path of greatest service and realization. But I fought it like hell and I carried a great deal of guilt and shame for not fighting even harder when I finally realized that returning to CARE (four weeks after heart surgery as I was determined to do) was actually not an option. This journey back has finally enabled me to cut loose those last strings of guilt and shame that have weighed me down. I embrace the levity.
Stephen, now Director of CARE (and truly the best person for the job), has been at CARE this whole time. Fortunately for all the baboons at CARE, staying was his destiny. And through his hard work and dedication (and that of so many others), this release that we so fervently dreamed of has been born into reality.
It was with Stephen that I experienced the precious, precious gift of nearly two weeks in the bush amongst our KC Troop… witnessing their troop cohesiveness, experiencing their peace, and savouring truly every moment that I simply got to watch Gabriel BE. Thirteen hours in the field every day flew by like a warm, gentle breeze. I was so at peace, so content. Wanting nothing more than everything I had in those moments. Well… I guess that’s not completely true. I deeply wanted to talk to Gabriel, to groom him and be groomed by him in his most unique way which I will soon describe. The image of which continuously charms my heart and makes me laugh.
Normally, baboons lipsmack when they groom; basically they quickly open and close their lips with their tongue darting in and out, making a friendly and reassuring sound. Most males don’t do much grooming and aren’t the best at it, though Gabriel’s troop actually has a really high frequency of male grooming (with females, children and each other), an indicator (as I see it) of what a lovely troop they are.
Gabriel has this thing about his lips and his mouth. Ever since he was a baby, you’d often find him with his lower lip just hanging open.
I’ve seen no other baboon do this. And out on the release now, whenever he’d be sleeping, you could be sure his lip was just hanging out, exposing his gums and mandibular chompers. Sometimes you’d catch him having a really good snooze with his big, pink tongue starting to ooze out from between his teeth. Hilarious. So dignified.
But getting back to the grooming… as he embarked on his juvenile years (around 2yrs), he started trying to groom his mama from time to time. He’d sit alongside Cricket, the alpha female and pro-groomer, intently watching her grooming technique as she expertly sorted through my hair and skin, looking for little scabs or dry flakes of skin or dirt to kindly remove. Then he’d try. He’d climb up to bat with some lipsmacks and proceeded to mimic Cricket’s technique as best he could. This involved frequent pauses to look over at Cricket to refresh his memory. Then he’d turn back to my leg or foot or whatever body part he’d selected and proceed clumsily through the exercise.
I obviously adored these practice sessions, though they sometimes left me with painfully removed scabs and still-attached hairs, as well as the occasional bloody nose. When he would over-zealously shove a grooming finger up my nose and see the warm, red stream of blood that followed, he would look instantly stricken with remorse, hold one or both hands to my face and stare at me, both uncertain of what to do next and mesmerized by what was happening.
Possibly my favorite aspect of Gabriel’s grooming was what happened to his mouth while he did it. When it comes to intelligence, Gabriel has top marks; when it comes to coordination… not so much. As I mentioned, normally baboons lipsmack nearly continuously while grooming. But Gabriel would concentrate with such determination while he groomed, that he invariably couldn’t keep up both grooming and lipsmacking, and the lipsmacking would unravel. His tongue would keep going but his lips would get out of sink and fail to close completely at their due intervals. In short order, the lip action would be abandoned entirely and his lips would retreat to a pulled back position revealing his big teeth. Then the tongue would miss a beat, grow intermittent, and succumb to the simple pleasure of curling over in the side of his mouth. Every so often his mind would check back in with his mouth and he’d throw in 2.5 proper lipsmacks before devolving back into the gaping mouth, wriggling tongue mode.
Out on the release, I knew I could have interacted with him directly: talked and chatted with one another (me with words, him with baboon chatter and excited grunts), sat together and groomed. But with the exception of some excited hellos my first couple days, I didn’t do any of that. On my second day, I rested under the prime real estate of some small, shady trees watching Gabriel forage a few meters away. Satisfied with his yield of grasshoppers and grasses within his radius and sleepy from the sun, he stood up, walked right up to me and sat beside me, sharing the umbrella of shade. He pinned his ears back and chattered to me in the full belly- and shoulder-bouncing unmistakably friendly way of baboons.
He soon closed his eyes and started to doze, lower lip peeling away, mouth creeping open, tongue peering out. I sat there, still, and waited out his cat nap. It was clear then that I couldn’t allow myself to directly engage him any further, tempting as it was. No more saying his name which he responds so readily to. No more lipsmacks. A baboon who is comfortable approaching people, even if he is the friendliest baboon in all of Africa, is a danger to himself. He would easily terrify the average person; they would not see his friendly, goofy sweetness. They would see his size, his power, his teeth, his proximity and his potential. And scared humans are dangerous humans.
At this point of their very long rehabilitation process, to continue to engage or encourage interaction with him would have only satisfied my selfish urges for touch and connection, and held him back from the critical reverse-habituation process he and his troop are now in. It was hard – my urge to be near him was strong – but there was no way it could trump what I knew was ultimately in his best interest. When he woke up, and casually walked across my legs to resume foraging, I knew it would be irresponsible of me to allow that to happen again. So as hard as it was, from then on, whenever he walked towards me, I walked away. When he’d look at me and pin his ears back, I’d bite my lip and try to explain with my eyes.
I channeled all my desires to grunt, lipsmack, and groom him through my binoculars and distanced gaze in fierce laser beams of love that shot through my eyes. And I groomed him vicariously through the other females and juveniles… finding deep satisfaction when he’d have a grooming bout with a really thorough partner who’d remove the dirt from the corners of his eyes, attend to the scratch on his nose, clean out his nasal nuggets, check his teeth and ears, and rake through his hair from head to tail. And I felt such pride every time I’d see him groom anyone (which he did quite a lot). My heart and smile would feel like bursting when I’d see that now at 10 years old, fully grown man of a baboon, he still can’t lipsmack and groom at the same time. Mouth agape, lips pulled back, tongue wiggling on its side between huge canines… this being I love like no other!
The tremendous journey Gabriel is stepping into is just beginning, and our journey together is at last complete. I don’t believe I will see him again – a thought which considered on its own is quite sad, but when looked at within the context of the bigger picture is far surpassed by pride, joy and gratitude.
The other dream that I sustained for all these many years is that of studying the release process to scientifically demonstrate the validity of CARE’s rehabilitation process to both increase support and to add to the scientific literature and primate conservation on a larger scale. The whole reason I spent two years of my life schlepping around the forest in Costa Rica chasing cat-sized monkeys through trees, up and down cliffs, was to gain the skills, experience and connections I’d need to return to the baboons to study the rehabilitation and release process at CARE. At the end of my contract in CR I was too burnt out to jump into the grad school position I had lined up and thus returned to Chico and my business in its latest iteration.
Out on the release with Stephen I was able to apply the skills I had acquired to implement a data collection system for the releases that will allow them to be analyzed in a scientifically meaningful way. And I don’t need to be the one to do it (as much as I completely love data collection in the field). Stephen can do it now. And he can train others. Others still who have the energy and enthusiasm to analyze the data, write papers and get them published. I don’t need to be the one to do all of that. I made my offering. Mission complete. Heart at ease.
And finally… I’ve seen the center. I’ve seen all the magnificent changes that have been made. I’ve seen the vision for the future and met the TEAM of dedicated people loving every moment of their journey and offering here, doing great work, taking their turn. I’ve knelt in the ruins of Rita’s home and at her grave, shed my tears and honored both her and the fire that took her life two and a half years ago.
There is peace in my heart. Completion. Freedom. No need to linger in the past. I’m ready to step forward. There is a new space in my heart ready to embrace what comes next on this epic journey of mine. I thank you all who helped me witness this dream come true: the liberation of this troop, and unexpectedly, that of myself.
Thank you Thank you Thank you
Love Love Love.