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Even Baboons Get the Blues

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  • Ian Pitchford
    NEW YORK TIMES April 1, 2001 Even Baboons Get the Blues How an animal behaviorist became one of the boys. By ROB NIXON A PRIMATE S MEMOIR By Robert M.
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 30, 2001
      April 1, 2001
      Even Baboons Get the Blues

      How an animal behaviorist became one of the boys.
      By ROB NIXON

      By Robert M. Sapolsky.
      304 pp. New York:
      Scribner. $25.

      Robert M. Sapolsky had the good sense, from a writer's point of view, to do a
      lot of crazy things while he was young. Most of them involved baboons. The week
      he graduated from Harvard, he set out for the plains of southwestern Kenya,
      where he was to follow a baboon troop on and off for more than 20 years. He did
      so both in his professional capacity as an animal behaviorist and in his less
      professional capacity as one of the troop's low-ranking males.

      As a boy, entranced by the primate-filled dioramas at the Museum of Natural
      History in New York, he dreamed of morphing into a mountain gorilla. But his
      letter to Dian Fossey met with silence, and his scientific curiosity steered
      him toward questions of social organization that no forest primate could
      answer. Sapolsky resigned himself to abandoning all gorilla aspirations: ''You
      make compromises in life; not every kid can grow up to become president or a
      baseball star or a mountain gorilla. So I made plans to join the baboon

      Full text:


      A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons
      by Robert M. Sapolsky
      Hardcover - 304 pages (March 2001)
      Scribner; ISBN: 0743202473 ; Dimensions (in inches): 1.01 x 9.57 x 6.43
      AMAZON - US
      AMAZON - UK

      Robert Sapolsky, the author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers and other popular
      books on animal and human behavior, decided early in life to become a
      primatologist, volunteering at the American Museum of Natural History and
      badgering his high school principal to let him study Swahili to prepare for
      travel in Africa. When he set out to conduct fieldwork as a young graduate
      student, though, Sapolsky found that life among a Kenyan baboon troop was
      markedly different from his earlier bookish studies. Among other things, he
      confesses, he had to become a master of shooting anesthetic darts into his
      subjects with a blowgun to take blood samples, a mastery that required him to
      become "a leering slinky silent quicksilver baboon terror." He also had to
      learn how to negotiate the complexities of baboon politics, endure the
      difficulties of life in the bush, and subsist on cases of canned mackerel and
      His memoir is, in the main, quite humorous, although Sapolsky flings a few
      darts along the way at the late activist Dian Fossey--who, he hints, may have
      indirectly caused the deaths of her beloved mountain gorillas by her unstable,
      irrational dealings with local people--and at local bureaucrats whose interests
      did not often coincide with those of Sapolsky's wild charges. It is also full
      of good information on primates and primatology, a subject whose practitioners,
      it seems, are constantly fighting to save species and ecosystems. "Every
      primatologist I know is losing that battle," he writes. "They make me think of
      someone whose unlikely job would be to collect snowflakes, to rush into a warm
      room and observe the unique pattern under a microscope before it melts and is
      never seen again." --Gregory McNamee

      From Booklist

      "I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had
      always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla." Thus begins primatologist
      Sapolsky's reminiscences of 20 plus years studying baboons in Kenya. Originally
      intending to study the effects of stress on baboons, the author became enmeshed
      not only in the lives of his baboon subjects but in the social lives and
      politics of the people who live around his study area. Tales of darting baboons
      with anesthetic for physical examinations intertwine with stories of friendship
      with the local Masai village; visits from other field researchers (such as
      "Laurence of the Hyenas") intersperse with observing the overthrow of the
      baboon troop's alpha male while the author also deals with the post-colonial,
      bribery-ridden bureaucracy of Kenya. Humorous writing worthy of Gerald Durrell
      at his best mixes with hard-eyed descriptions of the reality of field work in a
      third-world country, and the good times and problems of the baboons tend to
      mirror those of their human neighbors. Sapolsky often wears his heart on his
      sleeve, and this emotional involvement combined with the scientific realities
      of the tales he tells makes for engrossing reading. Nancy Bent

      A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons
      Robert M. Sapolsky

      Our Price: $20.00
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      Format: Hardcover, 304pp.
      ISBN: 0743202473
      Publisher: Simon & Schuster Trade
      Pub. Date: March 2001
      sales rank: 2,522

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      From Our Editors
      For readers who love tales from the wild, especially ones about our closest
      relatives, like Gorillas in the Mist, Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford professor and
      research associate with the Kenyan Institute of Primate Research, has written a
      humorous and poignant memoir of the years he spent in the bush with savanna
      baboons. Sapolsky is a wonderful writer, and his previous books -- Why Zebras
      Don't Get Ulcers and The Trouble with Testosterone -- were both Los Angeles
      Times Book Award finalists.

      In this gem, the scientist and noted essayist trains a wry wit and a highly
      perceptive eye on his two-plus decades of observing baboon behavior in Kenya.

      Sidesplitting vignettes about monkey politics alternate with equally hilarious
      tales of misadventure on the backroads of East and Central Africa.
      Sciencephobes needn't be worried: there's nary a page of neuroendocrinology in
      the book.

      A supporting cast of tribal misfits, postcolonial weirdos and marginally
      psychotic truck drivers will keep you chuckling from start to finish.

      From the Publisher

      "I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had
      always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla," writes Robert Sapolsky in
      this witty and riveting chronicle of a scientist's coming-of-age in remote
      Africa. Raised in an intellectual, immigrant family in Brooklyn, Sapolsky
      wished he could live in the primate diorama in the Museum of Natural History.
      He wrote fan letters to primatologists, started reading their textbooks at age
      fourteen, and even learned Swahili in high school, all with the hopes of one
      day joining his primate brethren in Africa. Finally, upon graduating from
      college, Sapolsky's dream comes true when, at age twenty-one, he leaves the
      comforts of the United States for the very first time to join a baboon troop in
      Kenya as a "young transfer male."

      Book smart and naive, Sapolsky sets out to study the relationship between
      stress and disease. But he soon learns that life in the African bush bears
      little resemblance to the tranquillity of a museum diorama. He is alone in the
      middle of the Serengeti with no radio, no television, no electricity, no
      running water, and no telephone. His nearest neighbors are the Masai, a warlike
      tribespeople whose marriages are polygamous, with wedding parties featuring
      tureens of cow's blood. The victim of countless scams and his own idealistic
      illusions, Sapolsky nevertheless survives culinary atrocities, gunpoint
      encounters, and a surreal kidnapping, while witnessing the encroachment of the
      tourist mentality on the farthest vestiges of unspoiled Africa. As he conducts
      unprecedented physiological research on wild primates, he becomes evermore
      enamored with his subjects — unique and compelling characters in their own
      right — and he returns to them summer after summer, until tragedy finally
      prevents him.

      Here is Robert Sapolsky's exhilarating account of his life in the bush with
      neighbors both human and primate, by turns hilarious and poignant. The
      culmination of more than two decades of experience and research, A Primate's
      Memoir is a magnum opus from one of our foremost scientist-writers.

      From Library Journal

      Sapolsky (The Trouble with Testosterone), a professor of biology and neurology
      at Stanford and a research associate with the Institute of Primate Research at
      the National Museum of Kenya, focuses on his field research with baboons and
      experiences in Africa in general. He includes all the typical elements of
      recent popular field biology books (e.g., Margaret Lowman's Life in the
      Treetops, LJ 5/15/99): how he got his funding, set up camp, and his experiences
      with the animals he studies, but his hilarious writing style and sense of the
      absurd are fairly unique in the genre. He alternates tales of the baboons and
      their interesting social lives with his off-site adventures, which include a
      surreal kidnapping and an emotional pilgrimage to see mountain gorillas and
      muse on Dian Fossey's legacy. The book ends poignantly when an epidemic strikes
      the baboon troop. Recommended for college and public libraries. [Previewed in
      Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/00.] Beth Crim, Prince William P.L., VA Copyright 2001
      Cahners Business Information.

      From Publisher's Weekly

      Few would relish a job requiring proficiency with a blowgun as well as a
      willingness to put up with parching heat, low pay and copious amounts of baboon
      shit. But for Sapolsky (The Trouble with Testosterone), a Stanford professor
      and MacArthur grant recipient, it was literally a dream come true. As a boy in
      New York City, he'd wanted to live in one of the African dioramas at the Museum
      of Natural History. One week after graduating from Harvard in the mid-1970s, he
      got his chance: he went to Kenya to study social behavior in baboons.
      Hilariously unprepared for the challenges of living in the bush, the na ve grad
      student learned to deal with supply and transportation snafus, army ants and
      giant cockroaches, safari tourists, dinners of canned spaghetti coated with a
      mixture of sugar and rancid camel's milk, and surreal government bureaucracies.
      He developed great fondness for "his" baboons, whose behavior seemed uncannily
      like that of a bunch of quarrelsome human adolescents, and discovered that
      their interactions didn't necessarily conform to accepted theories. While
      Sapolsky's primate observations are always fascinating, his thoughts on Africa
      and Africans are even more compelling. As funny and irreverent as a good ol'
      boy regaling his friends with vacation-from-hell stories, Sapolsky can also be
      disarmingly emotional as in his clear-headed tribute to late gorilla researcher
      Dian Fossey, and his final chapters, which reveal his rage and impotence as he
      watched his baboons succumb to a horrific plague. Filled with cynicism and awe,
      passion and humor, this memoir is both an absorbing account of a young man's
      growing maturity and a tribute to the continent that, despite its troubles and
      extremes, held him in its thrall. Agent, Katinka Matson. (Mar. 1) Forecast:
      Heralded by Oliver Sacks and Edward O. Wilson, and with a well-placed excerpt
      of this book in Discover magazine, Sapolsky will venture out on a seven-city
      author tour that should help bring him to the attention of readers interested
      in animals, Africa, ecology and travel. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business

      From Kirkus

      From the author of The Trouble with Testosterone (1997) and Why Zebras Don't
      Get Ulcers (1993), a witty concoction blending field biology, history,
      hilarious cross-cultural mishaps, and hair-raising adventure. Sapolsky
      (Neurology and Biological Sciences/Stanford Univ.), the recipient of a
      MacArthur Foundation"genius" grant in 1987, has spent years studying the social
      behavior, emotional life, and stress-related diseases of baboons in Kenya. The
      title of his memoir's first section,"The Adolescent Years: When I First Joined
      the Troop," indicates just how closely attached to his subjects he became. What
      Jane Goodall did for chimpanzees, Birute Galdikas for orangutans, and Diane
      Fossey for gorillas, Sapolsky does in spades for baboons. Never mawkish, he
      reports their antics and their relationships with a remarkably perceptive eye.
      That same keen eye is turned from time to time on himself; his
      blood-and-milk-drinking Masai neighbors; a field biologist referred to only as
      Laurence of the Hyenas; Samwelly, the extravagantly inventive Kenyan whom
      Sapolsky hires to manage his camp; and assorted individuals he meets on his
      hitchhiking sorties around Africa. Among the most alarming of these is the
      malevolent Pius, a rough bush Kenyan truck driver who for days holds the author
      captive while forcing endless Coca Colas on him. Sapolsky writes of all this
      and more in an entertaining style that scintillates and charms, making it nigh
      impossible not to become an ally of both him and his sometimes
      all-too-human-seeming baboons. While not an autobiography per se, it spans the
      years from his first enthusiastic trip to Kenya when he was 21 to his most
      recent one, a much sadder affair—andforthebaboons a tragic one. A wild and
      wondrous account, filled with passages so funny or so brilliant that the reader
      wants to grab someone by the arm and demand,"Hey, you just gotta listen to
      this." Author tour
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