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 beans.
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.
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