Photo supplied by Shirley Strum
Source: Photo supplied by Shirley Strum

In one of the most widely read posts on the Animals and Us blog (here), I discussed whether a troop of hamadryas baboons living in a garbage dump at Taif, Saudi Arabia kidnap puppies and raise them as pets. The post was inspired by a two minute YouTube clip taken from a British nature documentary. You can watch it here.  

I found this unusual inter-species relationship fascinating because I have argued that humans are the only species of animal that keeps pets. (See this Psych Today post and this article on the evolution of pet-keeping.) While I wrote the post several years ago, it continues to generate discussion. Some commentators are convinced that the Saudi baboon-dog relationships are indeed evidence that other species keep pets in the wild. Others, like me, are skeptical that these interactions are analogous to human pet-keeping. Many of the comments on the post were thoughtful, but none of them were written by baboon researchers—until now.

A Researcher's View of Baboon Kidnapping Behavior

Recently, Dr. Shirley Strum, weighed in on the issue. Dr. Strum is professor of anthropology at the University of California at San Diego. She has been conducting field research on baboon behavior in Africa since 1972. She has written many scientific articles on the behavioral ecology of olive baboons and is the author of Almost Human: A Journey into the World of Baboons. While surfing the web, she stumbled onto the Animals and Us post and the YouTube clip.  With her permission, I am reprinting her comments on the video:

I watched the short baboon clip on YouTube. I have studied olive baboons for 43 years. What I see in these hamadryas baboons makes sense from the baboon point of view. Adolescent and adult males kidnap baboon infants (as buffers against aggression in olive baboons) and baboon juveniles (as a new member of a male's harem in hamadryas baboons). In the clip, the puppy's distress is similar to that of a kidnapped baboon infant in olive baboons. Eventually, the mother gets the infant back but if it lasts too long, the infant becomes disoriented and doesn't know who is mom. This sometimes results in the infant’s death.

I assume that if the feral group of dogs at Taif were to move off separately, the puppy could be isolated among the baboons, but it would be unlikely to survive without a source of milk for the young pups. We don't see any puppies grow up [with baboons] in the video, only mixed groups of baboons and dogs as adults. The puppy video shots show a pathetic youngster.

This is definitely NOT pet keeping from the baboons' point of view. Interacting with other species sometimes happens, and if the two species spend a lot of nonaggressive time together you could have play and grooming as well from the baboons to the dogs. The baboons I study try to play with hyrax (who ignore them), and so baboon juveniles will slap the hyrax in frustration. But in our recent research, the baboons and hyrax are now feeding on a common new resource, an invasive cactus, and the two species are much more intermixed.

I'm not weighing in on the uniqueness of pet keeping but just confirming that these baboons are not keeping pets, even though they have more interspecies interactions than usual because of their common food source and distribution.

Dr. Strum sent me several of her articles describing the circumstances in which olive baboons will grab infants and temporarily use them as “passports” and “buffers” to facilitate their interactions with other adult baboons. (See the references below.)  

The Bottom Line

There you have it. The kidnapping of babies and infants is indeed part of the behavioral repertoire of some types of baboons. There is no evidence, however, that the baboon-dog relationships observed at the barren garbage dumps of Taif are fundamentally analogous to the relationship that I have with my cat. That being said, I would love to see a systematic study of these canine-primate interactions.

Speaking of which….a recent field study of geladas (a large baboon-like monkey) and wolves in the grasslands of Ethiopia raises a host of fascinating questions about the evolution and ecology of relationships between monkeys and dogs in the wild. Read more about this fascinating study in this Psychology Today post by Marc Bekoff. 

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Hal Herzog is professor of psychology at Western Carolina University and author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat; Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals

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References

Strum, S. C. (1982). Why males use infants. In Primate Paternalism ed. D. Taub. Pp 146-187. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold

Strum, S. C. (1983). Use of females by male olive baboons (Papio anubis).American Journal of Primatology, 5(2), 93-109.

Strum, S. C. (2012). Darwin's monkey: Why baboons can't become human. American journal of physical anthropology, 149(S55), 3-23. 

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