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The Shy Baboon

Monday, February 08, 2010 - 06:38 PM

In this podcast, a biopsychologist attempts to find an elusive bit of shared space across species lines.

Barbara Smuts, a professor at the University of Michigan, tells the story of trying to gain the trust of a troop of baboons in a remote area of Kenya in the 1970s.


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Comments [16]

loreli C. Whitman

When a biopsycholofist Barbra went to research baboons she had to start from watching 80 feet away. Each day she got closer and closer but sometimes they would show their sharp teeth. To strengthen the relationship between human and animal she slowly began acting like a baboon by making calls and sitting like them. This helped her understand the creatures and Barbra even said she started feeling like an animal. Not only acting like one, she began to be one even in the cave with each other when it was raining. This is a very interesting relationship because I know that I could never go into a cave or was close to a baboon. It makes me wonder if we are more alike to animals than we think.

Apr. 11 2015 10:10 PM
Roberto Lebron from Southern Florida (Alligator Country)

I happened to catch this podcast more than a year after it aired, loved it, and came here to learn more. I find it interesting that people will fight tooth and nail to defend the illusion that we are fundamentally different from simians and other animals, but then, comments areas are the breeding grounds of that lowly species, the troll. I'm going to learn more about Dr. Smuts's work. Please keep producing quality content like this, Radiolab.

Jun. 23 2011 11:22 AM
Donna grabow

I teach at an international school in Taif, a mountain town south of Meccah. The Saudi baboons raid the school garbage cans beg for food. They are so funny. We don't make them angry, but they like to spook the students by jumping over their heads between buildings. They chase kids from above on the roofs, and almost laugh.

Mar. 23 2010 12:23 PM
Heather Schwartz, Psy.D.

That was an absolutely beautiful podcast. I had, what we call in psychology, a parallel process experience with the story. At first, I was completely separate from the podcast, listening, but distracted (still looking at other things on my computer), but the more I listened, the more it became completely natural to become part of the story, to listen with my inner self (my animal self?). So that by the end of Dr. Barb Smuts' incredible story, I felt myself merge with the experience of the rain, the breath from the animals (I could imagine the smell of leaves fresh in the rain), and the feeling -- inside my chest -- of being with, utterly connected -- just as Dr. Smuts described. The story was beautifully told. Thank you, Dr. Smuts, and thank you, Jad and Robert! As always, Radiolab rocks my world!

Mar. 23 2010 11:05 AM

I was referring to the woman with the
baboons in that previous post.

Mar. 03 2010 05:36 AM

I really wondered what precautions
she took in case she was attacked.

Mar. 03 2010 05:33 AM

In my humble opinion, the thing that is incredible about Radiolab is its ability to make ideas and experiences most of us could never imagine aurally tangible; to give us a sense, even if it's only for a moment, that we too are there with the baboons, or spooning bloodflukes in a peaceful artery. It makes science experiential and visceral, which for those of us who've never been able to grasp it intellectually, is truly special. As for Barb Smuts--I for one am in no position to call into question the scientific validity of her work, and I'd wager most of us aren't. What's important about someone like Barbara Smuts--or even Grizzly Man--is that they dared to go out into the world and actively seek out answers to the difficult questions most of us will only ever wonder about at most--whether you agree with her goals or not, I'd argue it's impossible to deny that she (and Radiolab) have deepened our understanding of the links in communication between animals and humans. Which is a hell of a lot more than I've accomplished today.

Feb. 24 2010 04:26 PM

For Jason: I agree with you that Radiolab is a place for great stories, science and opinions. But I also think it is the mark of a great show to make scientists out of it's listeners. And that us lay people-turned scientific minds can pick out the descripencies in the story shows that 1) the story was really not that well thought out, or, hopefully, 2) that Radiolab has done well in educating the masses into thinking like scientists.

But, I for one, still adore Radiolab and can forgive a bad story every once in a while.

Feb. 22 2010 01:12 AM

A lot of people comment here about what the podcast proved or didn't prove, or what it answered or didn't answer. I think that's missing the point or the joy of listening to Radio Lab. Good questions are way better than good answers. (Good answers are rarely that good, anyway.)

Listening to Radio Lab is like sitting around the pub with Jad and Robert and hearing great stories, facts, and opinions about science. I love it.

Feb. 18 2010 01:03 PM

Oh my god, I cannot get past the ridiculous over-the-top sound effects. I really can't, I stopped after the dog-guilt part.

From what I did hear, I was disappointed in the hosts responses to the expert. The man's analogies were a stretch. Saying that attributing gratefulness to the whale is like attributing ungratefulness to a bear if it eats you after you free it doesn't make sense to me. A bear would eat you because that is its natural instinct. The only reason they even told the whale story was because it was an extraordinary event. If the whale had just swam away after it was freed, this would have been a presumably normal reaction and there would be no question of whether to attribute human emotions to the creature in the first place.
Cool story, but you need to either get better experts or ask them better questions, because what should have been a thought-provoking analysis just left me with lots of unsatisfied questions and no answers.

Maybe you addressed this later on, but I just couldn't listen to those godawful sound effects anymore. Jesus. Do all podcasts do this? Because this was kinda my first foray into the world of interesting non-music podcasting and if that's normal, I'm gonna have some serious problems.

Sorry. I really wanted to like this.

Feb. 16 2010 01:45 AM

I love the podcast... but I don't know about Barbara Smuts... Is she learning anything about baboons by pretending that they're humans? It reminds me of "Grizzly Man," the 2005 documentary about the moron who pretended bears were listening to him only to ultimately be eaten by them.

Feb. 11 2010 05:07 PM
Sylvia Stevenson

I would be interested to find out more about this troop of baboons that had never been exposed to humans-- and how it was that there was a fishing hut near their lake?

Feb. 09 2010 05:28 PM

This reminds me of a time I was backcountry hiking in Yellowstone. It was getting late so I was running around looking for our elusive designated campsite (2h1 if anyone knows what I'm talking about) and suddenly as I follow a wide bend around a large hill I see a large bison about a hundred yards away. He stopped munching and turns his head to me; I instantly stop running. We stare at each other and assess our intentions. I felt myself thinking "I mean you no harm". A moment later he goes back to his snack and I continue my journey.

They are probably harmless if unprovoked but I still believe that I communicated with a wild beast that day.

Feb. 09 2010 01:24 PM

I've really enjoyed this animal series, but this last podcast was a bit of a stretch. Of course I do not disagree that the scientist had a bonding experience with these animals, but I have had similar experiences with my own house cats. I think what this story does more than anything is show the human need of bonding and creating connections with the subjects that are being studied. It is the same with anthrologists studying different groups of people--they change themselves to fit into the same social parameters in order to be accepted to the group and thus the researcher can feel like he or she can see how the group truly interacts. There is no proof that the baboons moved over for her, there is no other reason why she would find killing and eating an animal appetizing other that her own deep desire to belong. This podcast just proves nothing more than we only see what our hearts hope to see.

Feb. 09 2010 02:05 AM

Another great show. That first clap of thunder made me jump.

Feb. 08 2010 10:47 PM
Luis from Argentina

Great series! You should make more shows about animals. What about their welfare? It's a good subject!
Keep on the good work!

Feb. 08 2010 10:30 PM

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