These Kids Know Their Baboons

Photos by John Heminway

It’s tough to get along with a bunch of grumpy beasts that have long, sharp teeth and aren’t afraid to use them.

No, we’re not talking about recess; it’s baboon life in east Africa.

Rachel and Benjamin Share-Sapolsky got a close look, thanks to their parents’ work. Their father, Dr. Robert Sapolky, and mother, Dr. Lisa Share-Sapolsky, do research on baboons.

The family is studying the baboons and learning that stress creates chemicals that can make it harder to fight off disease. It probably has the same effect on people.

The kids got to see Africa, helped out with the research, and even appeared in a National Geographic television special called Stress: Portrait of a Killer.

On the show you’ll see Rachel, 9, carefully taking notes and overhear their father quizzing them on baboon behavior.

“OK,” he asks, “which one do you think is higher ranking?” Baboons have a strict hierarchy (HI-ur-ark-ee), or ranking system. Every animal knows its place. Disputes are settled violently.

“Our guy,” answers Benjamin, 12.

He means the baboon they’ve selected to be tranquilized (TRAN-kwill-ized), or put to sleep temporarily, with a dart from a blowgun.

When the animal is asleep, the family research team moves in to test its blood chemicals, blood pressure, pulse, weight, and general condition. “Basically, if you’re a low-ranking baboon, you have high blood pressure, high stress hormones, and a poor immune system. These are not predictors of a hale and hearty old age,” the kids’ father says on the show.

Other research shows that people with low-ranking jobs have some of the same stress problems as baboons.

Rachel and Benjamin also saw that baboons aren’t the only ones under stress in Africa. “It had nothing to do with the baboons, but (it was hard) seeing all the poverty here,” Rachel said. “It’s so different from here. It’s really hard for people to do normal stuff, like getting enough food to eat.”

Nor were baboons the only wildlife they saw. Benjamin was impressed with leopards. “Because they’re really smart,” he said, “dragging their prey up into trees. They have great camouflage.”

It was a great, if unusual, trip for the family, said Dr. Sapolsky. “This is not exactly Take Your Kids to Work Day,” he said, “but if our kids want to know who we are and where we come from, this is pretty fundamental.”