How I become ‘mother’ to an orphaned baby baboon

I’ve had some great adventures in my life from climbing icy mountains to fishing for piranha in the Amazon, but nothing quite compares to the experience of babysitting a smelly, mischievous orphaned baby baboon in Namibia.

During a recent trip to Africa I volunteered at the Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary near Windhoek where part of my ‘work’, alongside food prep, carnivore feeding, game counts and cheetah walks, was to spend the night with a baby baboon, bottle-feeding him and changing his nappy. As my friend Anneli said, ‘good baby practice!”

Cute baby baboon
Baby Demi who was bought to the sanctuary with a broken leg

There are currently several orphaned baby baboons at Naankuse  – all bought to the sanctuary when their mothers were tragically shot by landowners or like Lulu pictured below, rescued from people who cut off both her right ear and part of her foot in a barbaric act of witchcraft.

Rescued baby baboon
Lulu was rescued after being used for witchcraft purposes. Humans cruelly removed her right ear and part of her foot.

The rescued baboons at Naankuse can never be released into the wild as they are habituated and could end up being killed like their mothers. Landowners in Namibia see baboons as a pest and will often shoot them on sight.

Baboons are very cute and mischevious but also extremely excitable, vocal and over dramatic. They get offended at the slightest thing and will shriek, twitch, smack their lips and leap about as though the roof has caved in.  They communicate with a series of ‘eeks!’, ‘gnnn’ and deafening barks and roars but you quickly learn which are the theatrics and how to ignore them.

mischievous baby baboons
Baboons are mischievous, cute and dramatic. Here, two babies square off over a bottle of milk formula

At night the infants are collected from their enclosure by volunteers or co-ordinators on a roster basis – there is no pressure to have a baboon and the ‘baby sitting’ is completely voluntary. I’ve spoken to other volunteers who have all remarked misty-eyed at how ‘maternal’ and ‘wonderful’ their experience has been. “I cried my eyes out,” said one. “It was just such a beautiful experience.”

orphan baboon clinging to human
In the wild, baby baboons cling to their mothers for comfort and protection. At Naankuse, volunteers became surrogate mums for orphaned babies

Caring for baby baboons overnight is a necessary part of the animal’s rehabilitation at Naankuse as they are used to being held by their mothers in the wild and need to cling during the night for comfort.

“If you don’t let them cling, they think they’ve done something wrong so you must do everything with them attached to you,” says Camilla, one of the sanctuary co-ordinators as she shows me the ropes. Demi, a small baby baboon recovering from a broken leg, clings to her hip throughout the induction.

The rules are quite simple and sound easy ….. note how I say ‘sound’ easy!

  1. Baboon-proof your room as baboons are curious creatures and love to open everything
  2. Prepare a bottle of baby milk formula for your baboon at 6.30pm when you come to collect him.
  3. Shampoo and condition your baby baboon in the shower with you if you want – a good idea as baboons can get pretty dirty in their enclosures
  4. Put the nappies on back to front as baboons are clever and can undo the tags
  5. Bite a hole in the happy so you can thread your baby baboon’s tail through
  6. Change the baboon’s nappy while he is clinging to you. Do NOT lie him down as you would a Human baby
  7. Push the baby’s . . . er . . willy down inside the nappy to avoid being covered in pee (only applies to male baboons of course!)
baboon in nappies
Bottoms up! A baby baboon, complete with nappies, investigates the fire pit at Naankuse

“I feel it’s my duty to take care of this wee motherless creature…”

Like a ninja warrior, Camilla demonstrates with Demi shifting him from hip to hip as she positions the back to front nappy around his spindly legs. She threads through his tail, seals the tags and pushes down his willy. It happens so fast that Demi hardly even registers what’s happened and is still happily sucking on his bottle.

That doesn’t look too hard I think to myself as I wander off to baboon-proof my room which basically means throwing everything into a cupboard. I’m excited and nervous about having a baboon for the night and despite not being a mother myself, I feel it’s my duty to take care of this wee motherless creature.

baby baboon eating
Baby Demi munches on an almond in food prep

I go to the wire enclosure with the other volunteers to collect my ‘baby’ at 6.30pm with the bottle all ready. We are met by four excitable, shrieking small hairy creatures including one who is soaking wet and filthy having just thrown itself into a muddy pool. We all shrink back in horror from the unrecognisable creature plastered to the enclosure gate apart from one volunteer who steps forward reluctantly.  “Oh dear,” she says plucking the wet baboon from the mesh. “ This is going to be fun.”

Ha ha, I gloat. Glad that’s not my baby. Instead I’m fortunate to have inherited the ‘easiest’ baboon – a five-month old baby called Vlooi. Tragically his  mother was shot by a landowner when Vlooi was only two months’ old – the bullet skimming the baby’s tiny human-like foot – and the little guy was bought to Naankuse for rehabilitation.

Vlooi is a bit bigger than the others and much stronger than I imagined! He leaps into my arms to grab his bottle and then seems to register that he doesn’t actually know me so tries to leap out again. My attempts to soothe him are met with a wide-eyed stare and bared teeth. I’m holding on to his upper arm as I’ve been taught but he’s twitching, ‘eeking!’ and trying to reach Camilla. Oh help! ‘Give him his bottle!” someone shouts. I quickly put the nipple of the bottle between Vlooi’s lips and incredibly he goes limp, closes his eyes and falls immediately asleep in my arms. Ha! Drunk on milk.

sleeping baby baboon with bottle
A baby baboon fast asleep with his bottle

Like I said, baboons can be overly dramatic.

“He’s hot, smelly and has sharp claws. . . “

With Vlooi still fast asleep clutching his bottle, I make for the shower. Now, trying to remove your clothes when you have a furry beast attached to your body is by no mean feat. Every attempt to shift Vlooi on to my other hip is meet with earth-shattering ‘eeks!’, pulling of hair and biting of thumb – mine of course, not his. I turn the hot water on thinking the sound might sooth Vlooi but to no avail.  He is beside himself with rage at having been woken up and tries to leap out of my arms. . . again.

I abandon the shower and return to my room defeated, covered in mud, partially wet from the shower and wearing a shirt that Vlooi has managed to stretch beyond belief in his rush to get away from me. Great, now I’m going to have to sleep in my dirty clothes with a dirty baboon in my bed. This mothering thing is proving a lot tougher than I imagined!

I’m too filthy to take Vlooi with me to see the other volunteers so I decide I’ll hang out in my room and read a book. However as soon as I lean back on the bed, Vlooi begins to climb upwards using my arms and torso like a tree and promptly falls asleep across my neck still holding on to his bottle. I’m pinned and unable to move.  He’s boiling hot, smelly and has sharp claws. Now what?

Fortunately my room-mate Anneli arrives. “Help”, I squeak. “Can you take Vlooi so I can sit up without him running away?” She grabs the baboon and sticks him on her hip. He’s still asleep and totally relaxed. But as soon as she hands him back to me, his demeanour changes. More ‘eeking!’ follows, escape attempts and thumb biting before he decides he wants to sleep with his body draped over my waist in a weird half standing and half sleeping position, his little tail poking out of the nappies. He looks so cute that Anneli and I cannot stop laughing.

baby baboon in nappies asleep
Vlooi asleep standing up still sucking his bottle (photo by Anneli Ona, taken with iPhone)

Two hours later, after Vlooi has stuck his foot in my face several times and crawled into a space on the bed beside me, head on the pillow of course, he’s snoring and I’m exhausted.

I hardly sleep a wink. I’m too terrified I’m going to squash Vlooi and he’s going to scream the whole camp down. Camilla assures me there’s no chance of squashing the baboon as it moves with your body – whatever that means – but I’m not convinced.

sleeping baby baboon
Demi sleeping like a starfish and still holding to his empty bottle

Incredibly my little bundle of joy sleeps for 10 hours solid – waking only occasionally to sit up, stare vacantly into space and then plonk back to sleep, nearly always clinging to my arm apart from when he’s too hot. A couple of times I find him spread like a starfish against the brick wall of our hot room trying to cool down, while at other times he’s lying across the bed – all arms and legs – forcing me to cling to the edge.  The only drama is when he drops his now empty bottle during the night which results in loud protests and ‘eeks!’ until I retrieve it.

I’m also convinced he smells of pee but he won’t let me check his nappies.

I’m a failure of a mother.

At 5am, while it’s still dark outside and I’m finally just starting to nod off, Vlooi suddenly sits bolt upright and leaps off the bed before I can stop him. All I see are tiny black furry legs, white nappies and a long tail heading off across the room. Luckily my room-mate Anneli is awake and stops him from going any further.

We decide to check his nappies in the bathroom and are greeted by an avalanche of baboon poo. I am unprepared for the vastness of his waste. With Anneli holding a furious ‘eeking!’ Vlooi, I try to wipe his bottom clean with wet-wipes. Obviously this isn’t what his mother would have done in the wild but I’m desperate. It’s a terribly noisy affair but we somehow manage to get him cleaned up and changed without waking the entire camp.

baby baboon hands
At one stage, Demi crawled into my shirt and promptly went to sleep still holding his bottle. by Anneli Ona taken with iPhone

“I used to hobnob with the rich and famous. Now I’m cleaning baboon poop and pee off someone I barely know…”

An hour later, I’m sitting at breakfast outside with Vlooi asleep in a towel, my eyes are sunken and my hair is sticking up at all ends. My shirt is covered in baboon poop and soaking wet from where I’ve tried to wash it.  I’m completely traumatised. I glance over and notice the other volunteer whose baby baboon had jumped into the pool the night before, sauntering over with her wee charge asleep inside her sweatshirt.  She looks, well, positively radiant.


“How was your night?” I ask expecting a tale of woe worse than mine

“Oh great,” she replies. “I got my baboon into the shower, washed and conditioned him and we had a lovely quiet night and I slept really well. How about you?”

I’m unable to answer because at that very moment Vlooi wakes, ‘eeks!’, leaps out of the towel and tries to make another run for it.  My breakfast goes flying. Luckily Camilla arrives in the nick of time and scoops him up, ready to return the babies to their enclosure.

“Nappies off!” she commands as I grapple with the tags on Vlooi’s sides. “Believe me it’s better this way as I had a baby once who took off into the enclosure with his nappies on and it took us hours to retrieve him.”

two baby baboons with bottle of milk
Hey, that’s mine! Two babies try to wrestle a bottle of milk formula off each other

I notice with a tinge of envy that the volunteer at breakfast has somehow calmly and mysteriously already removed the nappies from her baboon’s bottom and he is sitting happily on her side waiting to be returned to his troop.

I am a bad mother.

I whip off the nappies. Vlooi ‘eeks!’ again and then poops and pees all over Camilla. I can tell she is not impressed.

“Oh god, sorry,” I say trying to wipe Camilla clean while crying inside.

In my previous life as a fashion media PR, I swanned around the place in designer clothes, attended glittering parties and events and hobnobbed with the rich and the famous. Now here I am cleaning baboon poop and pee off someone I barely know.

tired wild baboon

More or less tidied up, we head back to the enclosure and I say goodbye to Vlooi. He’s thrilled to be back in with all his other boisterous and dramatic furry friends and barely gives me a backwards glance.

trio of monkeys on a chair

And you know what? I actually feel emotional and sad to be saying goodbye. Despite my sleepless night and being covered in god know’s what, taking care of a motherless creature like Vlooi who has endured such hardship and loss at such a small age actually leaves me with a baboon-shaped hole in my heart for the rest of the day.

Later that day, I wave to him in his enclosure and he responds with a loud ‘EEK!’

Maybe I’m not such a hopeless mother after all.

baby baboon poking out its tongue

* With thanks to the special little baboons who feature in this post – Vlooi, Lulu, Demi, Dawie and Christa  – and to Anneli for being so understanding at 5am in the morning!  

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