On Baboons, Empathy, Prejudices and Human Value

Thinking about questions of people’s capacity for empathy, respect for life and the meaning of life as a whole lately, I’ve been sort of struck by the way people relate to the baboon population here on the southeast side of Cape Town. I wonder how much of the way people relate to these animals reflects the way they relate to other people.

The foundational premise of monotheistic ethics –– and of humanistic ethics that intentionally or unintentionally borrow there-from –– is that humans owe each other a certain amount of solidarity as the beings closest to God of all of his creations (known in Latin as the “Imagio Dei” principle). In ethical terms there is something close to a consensus that relative to the value of human life everything else is instrumental, or of secondary importance at best. Assuming that some human beings are of lesser moral value than the rest of us, and that we can use them as we like and then throw them away when we’re done with them, is considered fundamentally immoral these days by anyone who has spent even the briefest time contemplating morality. Since the fall of South Africa’s Apartheid system no mainstream public figure has dared to directly belittle the general concept of human rights for all people, regardless of color, gender or religion. The American broadcaster Fox News has been coming closer and closer to directly advocating treating certain people as a menace and others as disposable, but even they don’t dare to state this too directly. Many people –– Americans in particular –– are painfully ignorant about human rights, even while supporting the invasion of oil producing countries in the name of defending them; but no one will publicly deny that they are important, even while acting in blatant disregard for them.

But it seems that some people can more freely express the emotional reactions they have towards other people by projecting them towards other animals; and the more human-like the animals in question, the more useful they become as means of expressing attitudes towards other people. These attitudes can run from brutal hostility to careless disregard to fascination with the exotic to using them as a means of self-justification by way of excessive identification. And frankly I’m not sure which of these projections is most noble or which is most harmful.

For those of you who don’t follow my Facebook statuses on a regular basis, I had a pretty good thrill some weeks ago when I nearly locked myself into a confined space with an alpha-male baboon. I’d seen the baboon troop through the windows of the car and the house a few times, and I’d heard that they’d even been inside on a couple of occasions. But on the afternoon in question I happened to come down the hallway and see the front door open, and a relatively young baboon staring me straight in the face. My immediate reaction was to rush down the hall and lock the security gate across the doorway. As I was doing so I gave a quick shout, “The baboon troop is in the neighborhood!”

“Are any of them in the house?” came the reply from the other room. I hadn’t thought to check, and just then I heard a rustle in the kitchen. I quickly unlocked the gate again and came down the hall just in time to get out of the way of the troop’s big boss, ambling along on three legs as he cupped a large bag of marshmallows under his left arm. He turned to look at me to see if I was going to challenge him on the matter, and then nonchalantly walked out the door and perched himself with his prize on the front steps. I re-locked the gate and stood there and watched and took a few pictures as he calmly stuffed about 300 grams of marshmallows into his face before deciding to go looking for something to drink. At that point a few of the younger ones tried to sneak in for a few marshmallows themselves, only to get a very forceful rebuke from the boss.

There are information signs around the neighborhood warning against feeding these baboons, saying that these baboons are actually stronger than the average human, even though they weigh less than half as much as someone like me. The fact that the large males have teeth longer than a lion’s and that they have experience in violently eliminating competition is more than a little bit intimidating. But above all I realized that I really don’t know what I’m supposed to do in such a situation, what I’m actually allowed to do, and what tips might actually reduce my risk of coming to serious harm. So when I saw signs on the street light poles announcing that there would be a community information and feedback evening regarding the baboon situation of course I felt like we just had to go.

The event was very enlightening on a number of levels. Sitting on the stage at the front of the room was a political representative of the area, trying to show how in touch he was with his constituency. Standing in front of him below the stage was a lady hired to be a professional “facilitator”: a theoretically neutral master of ceremonies who was supposed to be keeping the whole meeting in order. Sitting in the front row were the semi-official representatives of the company that is getting literally millions in tax payer money to keep these apes under control in the region. It would be fair to say than none of the above were doing their job in a completely satisfactory manner. The rest of the room was filled with an audience of predominantly angry white men, with a few darker skinned folk who had also experienced some baboon vandalism of their homes.

Virtually the only agreement reached was over the matter that ideally humans and baboons should live separated from each other for the benefit of both. That in itself had a certain ugly echo of Apartheid to it, but since we are talking about separate species in this case it shouldn’t raise a moral problem. Even so I found the echo rather disturbing when one red faced white man yelled out, “I don’t care if they were here first. This is OUR land now and I refuse to live like a prisoner in my own home!”

On the other end of the spectrum, not present at the meeting but spoken of with distain by many present, were the volunteer ecological rangers –– one aggressive older lady in particular –– whose mission in life is to speak on behalf of the baboons and enforce their rights by keeping threatening to sue people who chase them away with sticks and stones, and by keeping people from getting back into their homes when baboons had broken in and were having a party there while the humans were out. That too has an uncomfortable echo of the past politics of this country, with certain white people assuming that they were qualified to speak on behalf of the indigenous population, as though they could perfectly identify with their experience…

Part of the basic information given by the officials at this gathering was to say what solutions were not in the cards. Those included killing off the troop of baboons in question, since the Chacma baboon is important to the overall ecosystem of the area and they have already been thinned out considerably. Nor is the idea of relocating them to a game reserve in another part of the country feasible, since the local troops are carriers of too many human diseases to be safe companions for others of their species. Thus if we want to live in what has historically been their territory we have to do so in a way that allows for a certain amount of live and let live.

Part of the question then is whether we have left enough space for them to live a dignified life after the fashion of their ancestors. This was a question that the white colonials here and the Apartheid government fundamentally ignored when it came to the indigenous human population. But in the case of the baboons, yes, they do have plenty of space to live naturally and flourish. The main problem seems to be that their fascination with the human element within their environment seems to have corrupted their traditional lifestyle. They like to pick through trash bins. They like the various human foods that are not found in nature. Sometimes they find young humans cute and interesting. (Kidnapping of young in both directions between our species is not unheard of.) They like climbing in the sort of non-indigenous trees that humans have planted around their homes. They like the types of fruits and vegetables that humans grow on their farms and in their gardens and vineyards. So the challenge is to discourage this interest on their part, because unlike Africa’s indigenous human population, there is no way for the baboons to become safely integrated into human environments on equal, respectful terms.

But then there is the problem of some humans actively trying to draw the baboons in for the novelty of interacting with them. There was talk of one photographer/film maker in particular using various treats to lure baboons into human habitats. That is in some ways the moral equivalent of white colonists intentionally getting indigenous peoples drunk as a means of taking advantage of them. It is a matter of using their attraction to experiences they haven’t naturally been exposed to in order to get what he wanted from them without any consideration for the dangers being caused for the ones being so indulged.

So making efforts not to attract the baboons into human areas by keeping them from gaining access to our food is a clear starting point. That includes taking better security precautions than we had to keep them out of houses and garden patches, and keeping garbage bins locked properly. That last matter also has its logistical challenges though, one of which is human garbage pickers. Here again, attitudes towards the baboons and attitudes towards indigenous peoples who have been kept in poverty start to get dangerously mixed together. In the name of keeping baboons away there was the largely unspoken intention of keeping undesirable people away.

There were a number of other interesting political undercurrents to the gathering. All of the various sorts of political posturing and animosities between interest groups were fascinating to watch, even though I knew most of it was going straight over my head. I don’t have any moral conclusions to draw from all of this, other than that people are strange, and they don’t always honestly consider their own attitudes carefully enough.

Knowing what we have to agree on with each other in order to have some chance of living at peace is quite a different matter from confronting our prejudices and anxieties concerning other creatures and other people. Distinguishing between those we consider to be above us and worthy of extra respect, those we take to be our equals, those we take to be our “pets” or “servants”, and those we take to be dangerous and inferior others is always going to be a complicated process; especially when our rational dispositions, our social contracts and our emotional reactions all contradict each other in making such distinctions. My hope, however, is that in relation to both animals and other humans we can encourage both empathy and rational, pragmatic thinking. We should genuinely care about others, and do so intelligently in terms of sometimes doing the sensible thing rather than whatever gives us warm and fuzzy feelings.

From there I would hope and believe that if we let those principles guide our behavior, and such behavior becomes a social norm, our contradictory emotional reactions will eventually fall in line. That won’t be a particularly immediate process, but we can still hope that it will work eventually.

And as always, other perspectives and clearer conclusions are most welcome here.



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Filed under Empathy, Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Risk taking, Sustainability, Tolerance

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