Building troops

Authors: Jonathan Grudin
Posted: Wed, August 19, 2015 - 10:44:32

“Will you miss Khaleesi?” asked Isobel. At that moment, the samango urinated on Eleanor’s shoulder. “Ummm, yes?” Eleanor replied.

The primates at the Riverside Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre outside Tzaneen, South Africa were abandoned or confiscated pets, survivors of massacres by farmers who left newborns behind, injured by predators or motor vehicles, and so on.

Unexpectedly, the principal task of the volunteers (including my family in early July) on whom the center relies is not rehabilitating individual animals. It is building troops—establishing contexts that encourage and strengthen appropriate social behaviors in groups of vervet and samango monkeys and baboons. Many have no history of interacting with others of their species. For most volunteers, it is deeply engaging. Many extend their planned stays or return. Alpha volunteer Ben initially came for eight weeks; after two weeks he extended his tour to several months and was partway through a year-long return visit.

More predictably, a consequence of working closely with other primates is to reflect on similarities and differences between them and us. This yielded an insight for my work on educational technology design.

The cast

We joined three permanent staff members, a handful of local contract workers, about 35 volunteers, 140 baboons, 17 samango or Syke’s monkeys, and over 300 vervet monkeys. The 30 hectares are also home to several dogs (who get along fine with the monkeys), chickens, two ostriches, and wild troops of baboons and vervets. The volunteer population fluctuates seasonally, ranging from about 5 to 35. Primate numbers usually fluctuate slowly; most animals spend years there. However, a release into the wild of a troop of 80 baboons was imminent.

Covered wire-mesh enclosures for juvenile primates [1] comfortably hold a few dozen of them and us. They include constructions of suspended two-inch diameter stripped hardwood branches and bars on which the primates can race around. Larger enclosures house the older “middles,” in which troops are formed. The still larger pre-release camps are homes to the increasingly self-sufficient troops that are approaching release into carefully planned wild locations. These animals are often out of human view. Fences with an electrified top strand surround uncovered enclosures.

Major tasks

Food prep. Five hundred primates eat a lot. Tzaneen is in a major agricultural region. Riverside gets free or discounted imperfect food. Papayas, bread, cabbage, bananas, eggplants, oranges, and grapefruit arrive in truckloads and must be offloaded, stored in crates, and sorted daily for ripeness. Morning food prep is a major task: washing food and cutting it with machetes into different sizes for delivery in large bowls and crates to juvenile, middle, and main camps, with smaller quantities for quarantine and clinic enclosures that house a handful of animals. Milk with a pro-biotic is prepared for seven very young baboons and Khaleesi, the infant samango. Dozens of crates, machetes, and the food prep area are scrubbed or hosed down every day.

Enclosure cleaning. Equally important and laborious is the dirty, olfactory-challenging job of cleaning juvenile enclosures: removing food remains and excrement from everything and scrubbing it all down.

Monkey time. The other major task is to play with primates, particularly the juveniles. A group of volunteers sit in a cage [2], talking for an hour or more while baboons or vervets eat, race around, climb on the branches or the volunteers, inspect and present to the volunteers, and so on. Volunteers soon recognize the personality differences of different primates—and vice versa, baboons and vervets have favorite volunteers. We are teaching troop behaviors, taking the place of adult baboons or vervets and gently keeping them in line. The power of troop identification is demonstrated in daily walks to a distant pool. A juvenile baboon that escapes an enclosure may avoid recapture for days, but when a group of us let out all 11 baboons and walk to the pool, they race around freely (or climb up a volunteer to be carried) but do not try to escape. We then sit around the pool and talk as they play, racing around, mock-fighting, climbing trees, jumping onto and off of us, stealing sunglasses or hairbands, leaping into the pool, exploring odd things they find, and getting into mischief. After an hour we walk back, and they stay with us, a protective troop, and they return without protest to their enclosure. Social behavior is constant—individual baboons approach volunteers and present in different ways; we are told how to respond and what to avoid doing. Ben, the most familiar human, often had four or five baboons climbing on him as we walked along.

Other tasks. We harvest edible plants from areas outside the enclosures to supplement what grew in the larger ones, to familiarize them with what will constitute their fare in the wild. Another task is to assess troop health: We walk to the large pre-release enclosure, select a primate, and observe it for half an hour, coding its behavior in two-minute intervals. Other tasks arise less frequently, such as inserting a microchip for location monitoring into a new arrival or the ingenious process of introducing a new primate to a troop. And as discussed below, teaching newer volunteers the details for the tasks just described is itself a major task.

The fourth primate

In an unspoken parallel to baboon and monkey preparation, Riverside forms effective troops of volunteers, fostering skills that will serve them well when they leave. A month visit can be invaluable for resilient young people taking a gap year or a time-out to reflect on their careers. My family were outliers—most volunteers were single, with some young couples and siblings. Almost all were 15-35, two-thirds were women, and they came from the UK, Netherlands, USA, Belgium, Switzerland, Israel, and Norway. A chart in the dining room listed past involvement from dozens of other countries. Some volunteers had prior experience in centers focused on lions, elephants, sharks, and other species. We had previously visited a rescue center in Costa Rica.

Most days a volunteer or two left and others arrived, creating an interesting dynamic. Getting newbies up to speed on all tasks is critical. After a week, volunteers know the tasks. After two weeks, they are experts. After three weeks, most people who had had more experience have left, so they become group leaders. Group leaders are responsible for training new arrivals and getting crucial tasks accomplished. This means guiding a few less-experienced volunteers who have different native languages, backgrounds, and personalities. We saw volunteers grow in confidence and leadership skills before our eyes. Rarely do people develop a sense of mastery, responsibility, and organizational dynamics in such a short time while doing work that makes a difference. As a side benefit, future parenting of a messy, temperamental, dependent infant will not be intimidating, although this could differ for volunteers in a shark or lion rehab center.

Children and adults

Years ago, I watched schoolchildren who in large numbers shared an unusually long multi-floor museum escalator with me. I did one thing—watch them—but the kids were whirlwinds of activity, talking with those alongside, behind, or in front of them; hopping up or down a few steps; taking things from backpacks to show others; looking around and spotting me looking at them; and so on. In a few minutes, most shifted their attention a dozen times or more.

Juvenile primates are like that. One found a bit of a mostly-buried metal connector next to me at the pool and pulled at it, then quickly dug out the dirt around it, pulled more, brushed it off, pulled again, and then raced off to chase another baboon. Anything they found or stole, they examined curiously as they ran off with it, then dropped it. Their main focus was each other and us. Whether leaping in the pool or climbing trees, they tended to do it in groups, chattering constantly. When one of us retrieved a large hose they were trying to drag off, they looked for an opportunity to mischievously make off with it again.

The adult baboons in the pre-release troop are different. They usually walk slowly and focus at length on one task—harvesting and eating flowers or pods, sitting and surveying the compound, and so on. They interact less frequently—usually amicably, but not playfully. Adults and juveniles seem different species.

Adult baboon software developers would have trouble designing tools that delight juvenile baboons.

Implications for design

Watching them, I realized that although I’ve spent hours sitting in classrooms, I’d not thought holistically about a troop of children. “Ah,” you might say, “but it’s obvious, we know children are different. We were once kids. Many of us have kids.”

No, it’s not obvious. Differences are there, but we don’t see them. Painters depicted children as miniature adults for centuries before Giotto (1266?-1337), famous for naturalistic observation, painted them accurately, with proportionally larger heads. Today, a child is often seen to be a partially formed adult, with some neural structures not yet wired in—a tabula rasa on which to write desirable social behaviors. This focuses on what children are not. It overlooks what they are, individually and collectively.

Without unduly stretching the analogy, children monitor “alpha males and females” and figuratively hang on to favorites much as the juvenile baboons literally hung onto Ben. Video instruction will not replace teachers for pre-teens. Kids explore feverishly, test boundaries, learn by trial and error and from cohort interactions, and get into mischief more than adults do. They wander in groups, carrying backpacks stuffed with books, folders, and tools.

I hadn’t seen these distinctions as comprising a behavioral whole. Some, I hadn’t considered at all.

Tablets. For adults, carrying tablets everywhere is inconvenient. Making do with a mobile phone is fine. Seeing students as a troop, arriving at school with stuffed backpacks, it sank in for the first time that for them, adding a tablet could be no problem. With digital books, notebooks, and tools available, a tablet can reduce the load.

Learning through trial and error. Adults, including most educational technology designers, use pens, not pencils. I collected the pencils left around our house by Eleanor and Isobel. The problem isn’t finding a pencil, it is finding one with some eraser left on. Trial and error is endemic in schoolwork; a digital stylus with easy modeless erasing fits student behavior.

Color. Adults may forget that when they were children, they too were fascinated by colors. When collecting pencils around the house, I also found many color pencils and markers of different sizes. Unlimited color space and line thickness also come with digital ink.

Cohort communication. The pace of communication among students might be more systematically considered. Teachers often first hear about new applications from students. One Washington school district designates “Tech Minions” to exploit this information network.

Conclusion: the significance of troops

More examples of student-adult distinctions that inform the design of technology for students could be identified. More broadly, this experience brought into focus the salience of social behavior. Studies of primate intelligence focus on tool use—rocks to crack nuts or thorns to spear insects. Useful, but these guys eat a lot of things. Finding food may be a lower priority than avoiding being food: for hyenas, wild dogs, lions and other cats on the ground, for eagles, snakes, and leopards when arboreal. They organize socially and observe other species to increase safety. They work as a group when threatened. They have a range of sophisticated social behaviors. Could Riverside’s process for inserting a baboon peacefully into a troop be adapted for bringing on a new development team member?

Ummm, yes?


1. At Riverside the younger primates are called “babies.” I call them “juveniles” here because, although less than a year old, they are actively curious and mischievous, climb trees, fight and play together, and recognize a range of people and conspecifics—often resembling children or young teens. My daughter Isobel firmly notes that at times they act like babies.

2. Although called cages, these enclosures of about 15’ by 15’ by 10’ are spacious given the small size of the residents and their ability to climb the walls or retreat up into the branches.

Thanks to Eleanor Grudin and Isobel Grudin for Riverside details and reports from the juvenile enclosures, Gayna Williams for planning the trip, and Michelle Vangen for an art history assist.

Posted in: on Wed, August 19, 2015 - 10:44:32

Jonathan Grudin

Jonathan Grudin is a principal design researcher at Microsoft.
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