All in the Family: Owen & my Cousin

Owen is always watching.

Owen is always watching. Copyright AAAS/Science

Science Magazine published my story about working with Baboons and my cousin coming to visit me.  If you have a AAAS or Science magazine subscription, you can read it on their website.  If not, here it is (slightly longer).

All in the Family

  • Garth Fowler, PhD
  • Science 3 May 2013: 549.

When I was a sophomore in college, I won a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant to study primate social behavior.  I spent the summer working with a troop of Baboons, about 20 in total, living in a primate facility.  The Baboons were housed together in a large building that had an outdoor courtyard, where they dozed lazily and foraged for seeds that the caretakers would toss to them.  Part of my research was observation.  Everyday I would spend an hour sitting and watching the Baboons, and every 5 minutes I would record, on a piece of paper, which Baboons were socializing with one another.  The dominant Baboon was a 10-year-old male named Owen.  Most often he just hung out atop the 20-foot perch in the open section, and occasionally would grunt and threaten anyone that entered the observation area.

At the time my cousin (lets call him Brandon) was entering his senior year in high school, and visited me as part of his college tour.  We headed down towards the primate center, and along the way I explained to him about the Baboons.  I told him that we would be in an observation space that separated us from the Baboons by large, vertical bars.  The Baboons could reach their hands through and touch us, but the bars were close enough together that when the Baboons balled up their fists, they could not pull their hands back through.  Since my cousin was new to the facility, the younger Baboons would probably be curious enough to reach through and grab his clothing, but nothing more than that. I gave Brandon some yogurt-covered raisons to offer them as treats.   “Most importantly,” I told him, “You have to remember that Baboons threaten each other by showing their teeth and staring you in the face.  So try not to do that.”

When we entered the observation room, I went and got my notepad and timer, and started to pull out my chair so I could begin my recordings.  As I had expected, when Brandon entered the younger Baboons immediately came rushing to the bars to get a better look.  A young baby Baboon – about 2 months old – came up to the bars and started tugging on Brandon’s shirt, begging for treats.  My cousin reached out his hand with raisons, looked the infant right in the face, and with a big smile said, “Look how cute he is.”

Immediately, Owen – who had been watching intently from atop his perch ever since we entered – jumped to the ground and came rushing towards Brandon.  My cousin had unknowingly threatened the youngest member of Owen’s troop, and Owen was going to teach him a lesson.  Owen grabbed Brandon with his hands, pulling him up against the bars.  My cousin was trying to push himself away and yelled for me to do something.  I knew there was no way Owen could get out or really hurt Brandon, and at worse a piece of Brandon’s shirt would probably tear off in Owen’s hand, bringing this all to an end (Once, when I had fallen asleep with my feet propped against the bars, Owen had ripped a piece the sole off of my shoe and kept it for days).  Since Baboons are troupe animals and the other males were watching to see what I would do, I decided the best thing was to sit down and wait for Owen to finish with his threat.  For about two minutes (it probably felt much longer to my cousin) Owen continued to whip my cousin back and forth against the bars like he was a rag doll.  Finally, Owen let go of Brandon – who fell back from the bars onto the ground – and climbed back up to his perch, howling and jumping, declaring victory over my cousin.  The whole troupe was in chaos – the females and younger Baboons ran into the enclosed section of the facility, and the other males were now threatening me through the bars.  I put my stuff away and helped Brandon up from the ground.

“Now what do we do?” he asked.

“Now we go play tennis,” I said as we left the observation room, “because you’ve pretty much ruined any data I might collect today.”

Owen is now very famous in our family. The story has often been retold at family reunions and for years Brandon received occasional postcards of Baboons from our other cousins (there are 21 of us), with the poorly scrawled words “I am watching you, Owen”.  During the rehearsal dinner for Brandon’s wedding, the priest asked his brother if there were any good stories that would be fun to share during the homily.  The next day, the priest said, “Owen is very sorry he is not here to wish you happiness. “ My cousin’s finance turned and mouthed, “Who is Owen?”  Brandon just shook his head, and mouthed “Never mind.”