by Misty C
Working with animals is never dull. It is hard, sometimes heartbreaking, but somehow each day had its quota of fun - and a trial of patience for someone, usually me. When I saw the white and blue SPCA vehicle pulling up into the grounds, I somehow knew that something different was about to invade my life. I don't know quite what I expected, most of our patients are birds of some sort. The shrieking that accompanied the brown clad inspector extricating himself from the van didn't quite fall into that category, however, it sounded almost human.
"Doug," I greeted him warmly, "what have you got for me today?"
As he finally emerged, I could see for myself. A tiny baby baboon was protesting vigorously in his protective arms. Definitely not a happy baby baboon by any means.
"She is terrified of men," Doug explained, his gray hair tousled from what must have been an eventful journey.
The baboon stopped struggling and stared at me intently, paying particular attention to my face. As far as I was concerned mine was an ordinary face with the usual accessories. She, however, decided differently. After brief consideration she concluded that I was the closest thing to a mother baboon she had ever seen, and without further ado, I was adopted. Doug was abandoned with positively indecent haste. She leapt the distance between us and I found myself with a hairy barnacle firmly attached to my chest. I wrapped my arms around her to comfort her, and thus sealed my own fate - blissfully unaware of what I was letting myself in for. Doug grinned at me, his weather-beaten face crinkled with a wolfish smile. He obviously knew.
"Have you got time for a stroll around the grounds?" he asked.
"For you, always," I replied warmly. Doug is an avid animal lover, and I enjoyed his visits. We walked slowly around the enclosures that housed all our animals. I pointed out new arrivals and slowed down in some cases for him to greet old ones that he himself had brought in.
Often these were animals that he had rescued from a fate literally worse than death, and brought to the Centre to recover before being released back into the wild. The mongoose in particular always seemed to recognize him and made a big fuss of his arrival. He found himself surrounded by brown little furry things, all busy marking his feet with scent glands near the base of their tail. Once that was accomplished they set about determining whether he had anything edible hidden on his person. On his haunches, Doug was soon covered in mongooses delving into pockets, ears - any cavity that promised to hold a tidbit. He often brought eggs for them, and they never forgot this for one minute!
The baboon ignored everything around her, and remained with her head buried against my chest, hands and feet clinging to my shirt. Having reared many monkeys who behaved in much the same way, I was used to this. We ended our tour back at his van, and I went off to open the gates for him. He was grinning from ear to ear as he drove through. "Good-bye, good luck!" He waved, and was gone.
I went up to the clinic to introduce the new arrival to the volunteer worker helping me for the day.
Candy was a very mature young lady of fifteen who was one of my most treasured helpers. She was one I could always trust to be loving and capable around the animals, polite to visitors, and friendly and helpful over the telephone. Workers like this were not easy to find. She took one look at what I had in my arms and fell in love. This was hardly surprising, Candy fell in love with everything that came in!
"Can I hold her?" she asked, eyes shining with excitement.
"Of course," I replied. Two kilograms of baby baboon already felt like four and I needed a rest.
Trying to pass her over to Candy, I discovered that we had overlooked one important point. We had omitted to consult our patient, and immediately discovered that her professional opinion was the one that counted. She tenaciously thwarted any attempt at removal, and hung on to me with grim determination that the barnacle family would have been proud of. Loud screams of disapproval were raised in protest at this unauthorized bid at kidnapping. Her arms and legs became like tentacles, seeming to multiply with our feeble attempts to dislodge her. Rather than distress her any further, I decided to admit defeat - for the moment anyway. She stared at me reproachfully, her large hazel eyes filled with fear. They spoke of suffering beyond our comprehension. Doug had told me that she had been confiscated from a man who had kept her chained up and delighted in teasing her. She never did get over her fear of men and was always wary and distrustful when one was around.
"All right, young lady, you win this round," I said, giving her a hug to reassure her. She sighed and snuggled against me, content now that the threat of removal was gone. Long eyelashes curved over her wrinkled cheeks. She had a wizened little face, with eyes that I found out later could sparkle with mischief.
"What are you going to call her?" asked Candy.
I looked at the baboon carefully, and immediately thought of Sophie, the old lady in the television series 'Golden Girls' that we had recently seen.
"Sophie," I said, and explained why. Candy agreed that the resemblance was uncanny. Anyway, we had a bush pig called 'Patrick Swayze', so why not a baboon called Sophie?
Feeding the little tyrant was simple. She took to a bottle with no prompting, and lay in my arms gazing up at my face with simple adoration until the last drop was gone. To be honest, her single-minded devotion was quite flattering - who doesn't enjoy feeling indispensable?
All our primates are reared on cow's milk with a pinch of vitamin/mineral powder, as were all other small mammals that are brought in. We never encountered any problems on this diet despite the fact that many books on the subject insisted it was the wrong food. We did, however, add solid natural food to their diet as early as possible. In Sophie's case this consisted of fruit, insects, leaves, grass, eggs and meat. It soon became evident that Sophie had very fixed ideas as to what sort of foods were acceptable additions to her menu. She took small bits of fruit from my fingers or my mouth (they do this with their mothers in the wild) with a gentleness I didn't expect. Grapes and apples were "in" in a big way. Banana was "out", and just like a small child she would clench her teeth and turn her face away every time it was offered. Any attempt at forcing the issue was regarded as an attempt to poison her and rewarded with wild shrieks of outraged protest and indignation. I rapidly discovered that I was a very inadequate participant in a decidedly unequal power struggle on the important question of "who is the boss?". The answer to that question was simple - she was.
As the day wore on, I discovered what it felt like to have a Siamese twin, and it was not comfortable. By the end of the day, her two kilograms felt like eight. Any attempt to dislodge her from my arms was met with violent protest. Houdini could not have been more securely manacled. Unlike Houdini though, I could not escape. When faced with the dilemma of going home, there was no contest of wills, I knew when I was beaten by a superior adversary! I took her with me, and literally staggered the last few hundred meters to my cottage at the end of the grounds.
I made myself a welcome cup of tea and flopped down onto an equally welcome couch. I was exhausted. To my surprise, Sophie immediately left the safety of my lap and started a tour of inspection that was almost military in its execution. My cottage is tiny and open plan, but she kept a wary eye on me in case I should be foolish enough to attempt escape. She needn't have worried - I was too tired! I breathed a sigh of relief and sat there, watching her exploration with interest.
She smelled everything with great caution, and only really started to relax when she found my scent was everywhere. Ornaments were picked up and scrutinized carefully until she established that they were neither food nor threat, after which they ceased to interest her. She climbed up onto my bed and the sounds of foraging continued, along with an occasional grunt just to let me know she was still there. I was quite content to just lie there and let her get on with it, knowing that the establishment of territory was vital to her well-being. I must have dozed off, because the next thing I knew Sophie was sitting next to me on the couch, grunting softly to a bundle of clothing clutched lovingly to her breast. She had found my pajamas, and these became her most treasured possession - when I wasn't wearing them!
Sophie, I was to discover, had several quirks - in addition to her aversion to men. Along with my duties as senior animal nurse, I was also responsible for any out of hours emergencies as I was the only one living on the premises. It was most unusual for me to have a quiet evening alone. I was quite used to these interruptions and usually didn't mind at all. Sometimes people simply arrived at my door, at other times they telephoned first. Up at the clinic Sophie had ignored the telephone, here in the cottage it became a different story.
The moment the first call came through that night she ran screaming into my arms as if pursued by a swarm of bees. I was quite unprepared for her reaction when I went to pick up the receiver. I had barely started my "Good evening..........." when the telephone was ripped out of my hands and flung halfway across the room accompanied by a banshee wail that must have been heard blocks away. Clutching her tightly to my chest, I crawled under furniture to retrieve the phone to try again. Once more the offending object was subjected to violent abuse that I am sure the telephone company would not have cared for, with the same demonic cry that threatened to burst my eardrums - never mind the effect it might be having on whoever was on the other side! In desperation I threw a towel over her head and crawled under my desk to locate the receiver and complete the call.
"Hello? Hello?" At first there was a stunned silence on the other end. Then I heard an anxious voice inquiring, "Is that the place that takes in injured animals?"
Sophie, not at all pleased with being plunged into sudden darkness, screeched out a protest and fought like a demon to rid herself of her covering. Trying to ensure she stayed covered, I was in dire danger of losing the telephone again. In desperation, I said "Look, I'm having trouble with a baby baboon. Can you bring your animal in and I will explain when you get here?"
With that, I put the receiver down and released my captive, who demonstrated her displeasure by urinating all over my lap. A very bewildered gentleman arrived who was delighted to meet the culprit and also pleased to find out that the centre was not the madhouse it had appeared to be over the telephone. While I treated the injured bird he had brought in, Sophie kept her distance and eyed him with complete disdain. Her horror at my casual acceptance of a MAN in my cottage was quite obvious.
After he had left, I attempted to persuade her that the telephone was harmless. All my efforts were in vain. As far as she was concerned it was an alien species directly involved in the extermination of baby baboons. Nothing could convince her otherwise. In the end I had to resort to some really devious strategy to keep the peace. I turned the telephone tone down to the softest level possible, and covered it with a large towel. I kept another large towel handy to throw over her head every time I had to take a call. In time she learned to accept that the covering of her head meant I had to be excused from motherhood for a few minutes. This process was all very well when I was alone in my cottage, but often people would arrive and be standing there while I had to take the call. They probably doubted my mental capacity until I explained the reason behind it all.
No wonder Doug had wished me luck! Sophie was proving to be a handful. Her third quirk was even stranger still. While I had a welcome bath, she romped around quite happily on my bed, hugging my pajamas. My bed, it seemed, was her chosen playground. As long as she could see or hear me she was happy to amuse herself. I wondered how long my pajamas would withstand the treatment they were getting. At the rate she was going I would have the dubious privilege of being the owner of the first pair of pajamas to be hugged to death. Wherever she went, they trailed behind her, hooking onto furniture. Surprisingly, when I came to put them on she relinquished them without the struggle I was prepared for. Hopefully she was getting tired.
The trouble started when bedtime arrived. I turned down my duvet, and all hell broke loose. Sophie, it seemed, had some serious doubts concerning the integrity of my pillow. She screamed and tried desperately to convince me that it harboured life forms detrimental to society and to baby baboons in particular. When I covered the pillow with my duvet she calmed down immediately. I tried again. Utter panic and loud screams accompanied her dash into the comparative safety of my arms. The pillow just sat there. I had no idea that I had been sleeping on a menace to man and monkey-kind.
When I failed to respond to the imminent danger of attack from the pillow, she decided to rectify matters by herself and launched an angry blitz on the offending object. With loud screams and bared teeth, she advanced on her hapless victim, throwing it down onto the floor violently and then trampling on it for good measure. Only when she truly believed that she had succeeded in beating it into submission did she come back to me, whimpering and grimacing - a sign of extreme distress in a baboon. After that I was careful not to uncover the monstrous object until she was asleep.
Wild animals, I discovered, have their own ideas concerning what constitutes a comfortable bed. I had assumed that Sophie would at least attempt to commandeer mine, but I was wrong. She built her own bed under a chair. To this end, every available bit of material was utilized. Some I agreed to, some I didn't. She thought that my tablecloth would be the ideal base for a bed, and I of course disapproved. Three times I retrieved it and returned it to the table, and three times it materialized back under the chair. Remembering who was the boss, I compromised. She used the tablecloth. Then my dirty washing was added to the growing pile. It looked like the laundry business was about to become a thriving industry. Clothing, however, was not enough. After a brief but thorough inspection of her billet, she decided that something was missing. Newspapers and magazines joined the growing heap that to me never resembled in the slightest anything that I would wish to sleep in. The paper was carefully shredded, which was all very well if I had finished reading it, but on subsequent days I found myself having to put a brand new magazine back together like a jigsaw puzzle. This required a lot of patience on my part as many pieces were missing entirely and presumed dead.
Once she was happy with her efforts, she curled up amongst it all and went to sleep. I quietly sneaked my pillow out from under the duvet and did likewise. During the night I kept waking up and hearing mysterious crackling noises as she shifted into a more comfortable position. Otherwise she never stirred until morning.
The first thing I remembered to do when I heard her stirring the next day, was to hide the pillow under my bed. I am not a morning person, left to my own devices I would probably sleep till ten and not function properly till noon. On work days, however, this was a luxury I could not indulge in. Even so, when I glanced at my watch I was horrified to find it was only 5am. Obviously her biological clock was set differently to mine. I was stuck with her ladyship though, and had to learn to accept this deviation from my normal routine with as much grace as I could muster, at what I considered to be still midnight. Half asleep, I put my arms around her when she climbed onto the bed and lay there absently cuddling and grooming her. This proved to be my undoing. Grooming was patently a highly pleasurable experience, and her single-minded pursuit of this pastime became her main aim in life.
Fortunately for me, she soon learned that the rest of the staff and volunteers would also perform this function in return for a cuddle. She concluded that this was a small price to pay, and thereafter would cuddle any female who was willing and able to groom her in return. We soon learned her signal to begin grooming, and life became a series of single-handed pursuits, the other hand was always on a furry baboon. When soliciting grooming, she would sidle up and 'grin' at us, if her signal was ignored, she would begin screeching with distress. We thus abstained from ignoring her. This was fine in the confines of the Centre, but many a time I had to take her out with me into public places. In the supermarket, she found that riding on the trolley was highly enjoyable, but every time my back was turned she would hop off, locate the nearest female, and beg her for a grooming. Of course these strange women had no idea what she wanted and did not respond. Sophie's sudden rages on these occasions sent more than one terrified lady scampering for the door with the culprit in hot pursuit! In order to pacify her I had to groom her and gradually coax her back into the trolley to continue shopping. It became a very lengthy business.
She also took to propositioning children that visited the Centre, and one little boy had a memorable visit indeed. I had not noticed that she had approached him and was begging to be groomed. When he, unaware of what was required of him, did not react, Sophie of course bared her teeth at him and screamed. He did what any sensible person would have done under the same circumstances - he ran. Sophie was not about to lose a potential hairdresser so easily, and took off in hot pursuit, the two of them heading for the parking area outside the grounds. I yelled at him not to run, that she only wanted him to groom her, but he was by now deaf to anything bar the sounds of a baboon hunting him down with what he must have been convinced, was nefarious intent. Sophie eventually caught up with him and tackled him by throwing her arms around his legs and tumbling him to the ground. By the time I reached them Sophie was sitting on her victim, who, in turn, was sobbing his heart out. I dusted both of them off and explained to him exactly what she had been after. We went back inside the grounds and he settled down on some stairs with the tyrant and obliged. Sophie lay back against him, eyes closed with bliss. When the boy's mother came looking for him, he insisted that he did not want to go home. He wanted to stay with his 'friend'!
Her fear of men became a problem too, and after one incident in the local post office, I learned to be very wary of letting any man near her. I was standing in the queue, while she sat on the floor next to me playing with my shoelaces, and pulling faces at the people behind me. My attention wandered and I never noticed that a man had approached what he thought was a very cute little primate and was attempting to befriend her. She reacted with terror, lost control of her bowels, and for lack of a better weapon, started picking up the offending substance and throwing it at her tormentor. For several minutes utter chaos reigned, and I had a hard time calming her and her victim down. By the time I did so, we were all covered, and the accompanying smell was something else. I had to vacate the post office, business unfinished and take both of us home for a much needed bath. How the gentleman concerned explained his clothing to his wife I don't know. If he told the truth he must have had a very difficult time convincing her it was indeed true. After that, heavy as she was, I kept her in my arms and warned off any friendly approaches made by men.
Having Sophie in my cottage at night and on my days off proved to be an education - sometimes even a costly one. Whilst I was bathing one night, I could hear her grunting and presumed she was entertaining herself on my bed. I lay back and closed my eyes, letting all the cares of the day melt away. In this trance-like state, it took a while for me to realize that there were some rather odd sounds coming from the direction of the kitchen nook. I hastily dried myself off and went to investigate. Sophie sat grimacing at me in the middle of an appalling mess. She had unpacked the refrigerator, eaten what appealed to her Epicurean palate, and discarded the less interesting items all over the floor. I surveyed the disaster area with horror and disbelief. Sensing disapproval from her 'mother', she ran to me crying, the epitome of a repentant child seeking solace for wrong doings. When Sophie ran for comfort, there was no pushing her away, she stuck like glue. I carried her to the bathroom and got back into the bath with her. It was the first time I had ever bathed in apricot jam, raw eggs and mayonnaise, and having done so, found that it was an experience I would rather not repeat. I tried locking the refrigerator. Her ladyship knew exactly how to turn a key. After that I locked the door and hid the key, careful to ensure that she was not watching where I hid it!
Jewelry boxes, stationary drawers and kitchen cupboards were all investigated in turn. I found that after a while I owned single earrings and pendants with no chains. She not only removed things from their rightful place, she added items of her own choosing. In my jewelry box I found objects that were undoubtedly being saved for some obscure purpose I could not work out. Bits of egg shell, stones, broken pens, paper clips. Nothing was ever where it should be, and I learned to be crafty enough to locate a useable pencil from the toilet bowl, earrings from out of the sugar bowl and keys from the trash can. I received some very strange looks one night after inviting a friend around for dinner. As far as she was concerned taking knives and forks out of the piano stool was not common practice in other homes she had dined in. Of course, she had never visited a home with a baboon in it!
As Sophie got bigger, so did the problems. Just as I had reached desperation point, the solution appeared - in the form of the arrival of a second baby baboon. Sophie took one look at the little male sitting forlornly on the clinic floor and 'fell in love'. From being the baby, she became a passable mother, even trying to carry the baby around. She groomed him, played with him, and even attempted to hold his bottle for him. Every time she gazed at him, adoration shone from her hazel eyes. I was abandoned virtually overnight. I housed them in a large primate cage and the transition from house to cage went smoothly. As long as she had her 'baby', she was happy. The two of them spent hours amusing visitors, playing tag around the cage and romping on the floor. A third baboon arrived at a later stage, and he too was accepted without a fuss. Finally, they were all three transported to the Drakensburg mountains, where a troop was being formed for release back into the wild. I missed her at first, and even found it a bit hard to refrain from keeping knives and forks in the piano stool! I must admit though, that the peace restored to my life was welcome. Especially since I knew it wouldn't last for long!