21 October 2010 by Julienne du Toit

Brainy beachside baboons

Everyone living around False Bay and the Cape Peninsula has a story about baboon encounters. Most are recounted with grudging admiration.

Freya Stennett, who runs Ticklemouse Country Fare in Pringle Bay, recalls how she, her husband and son-in-law were once packing and labeling rusks and biscuits around a table one day, chatting away.

“My son-in-law Luther was passing the packages to his left once they were labeled. For some reason we looked up, only to see this huge baboon quietly taking each packet from him, peeling off a rusk to stuff in his mouth, and then passing it onto an almighty pile, each parcel one rusk short.”

We heard countless stories of their cunning house raids, how they avoided the pain of cut feet by carefully removing sliding doors, not breaking them. How they opened doors by having one baboon swing from the handle and another take a flying leap at it.

Cape Point baboons in particular fascinate scientists because they eat so much seafood - mussels, limpets and crabs.

Dr Justin O’Riain at the University of Cape Town has speculated that access to seafood and Omega 3 fatty acids may have boosted the brainpower of Cape Point baboons.

Then again, apes from elsewhere also impress. Tame baboons have often been deployed as shepherds, for example. Bushmanland poet and magistrate W C Scully came across a baboon that carried trays in a bar and “helped himself to drinks every now and then”.

Then there was the famous baboon signalman of Uitenhage. The stationmaster had lost both his legs and trained his pet baboon to man the points.

The baboon invariably pulled the right levers, then caught offerings thrown to him from train passengers (he adored candles). The ape worked as a signalman for nine years until he died in 1890.

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