Baboon bride

Baboon bride

The summer I turned 16 was the summer of Sgt. Pepper, and I took a job as a zoo guide at Jungle Larry’s Safari Island in Cedar Point, a big Ohio amusement park. My job was to be a groundskeeper, and eventually a caretaker of every kind of animal. My jungle identity was B’wana Mike.

I was the luckiest young guy in the world: sun-drenched 18-year-old girls, Lake Erie sands, a jungle outfit, a dorm room, the Velvet Underground, a 1967 Buick Special. I read books by Alan Watts, dressed in a Japanese bathrobe, and burned sandalwood incense from my window. All the girls were older because I lied about my age to get in. My challenge was to love them credibly, the way a sophisticated 18-year-old boy would. It was a summer of lies. I calculate that I did not tell the truth for a hundred days.

The opening weekend was Memorial Day. The loudspeakers played “Born Free” over and over morning to night. In my mind I always answered, “And now they’re in cages.” It was exciting because the animals had finally arrived from the winter compound. An animal that interested me was the wild olive baboon from Sudan. They have huge teeth, a reputation for viciousness, and vivid asses that no one wants to look at. In the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1932, a busload of Italian soldiers was attacked by a tribe of geladas, who tore the truck to bits and killed and carried off several soldiers. Baboons are fierce, we told ourselves.

We had a big male, Mombasa, and a smaller but equally noble female named Loma. They were incredibly strong and insane-looking. And Loma was in estrus. On the first day, we got a report that a group of Seventh Day Adventists was aghast because the two baboons were having sex in front of their group. We arrived in time to stake the two animals apart, so only their fingers could touch. This was at Jungle Larry’s instruction. Then the terrible thing happened. Mombasa strained all the next night and day to reach Loma. Around 5:00 a.m. the next day, he leaped up and the chain yanked him so hard his neck broke, and he died in a heap of sawdust.

Everyone was upset. We put Loma in a traveling cage and pulled blankets over the sides, like a widow’s compartment. We tried to carry on, as if nothing had happened.

My job included raking out the enclosure she and Mombasa had been staked out in. Everyone said, Don’t let the baboon get the drop on you. They can tear the eyes out of your head in two seconds. On the third night, after the show shut down, I was raking, and I felt a hand grab my pants pocket.

I nearly peed from fright. It was Loma, reaching through the bars of the cage. I put my hand on her hand, and she quickly grabbed it and pulled me down, till I was kneeling and facing her. I could barely make out her golden eyes in the shadow of the cage. I pulled back the blanket to see her clearly. Intensely, she turned my hand over and over and examined the pores of my skin with her eyes, picking microscopic particles from the back of my hand. She was grooming me.

Grooming is a major social activity among primates. It is one way a tribe of creatures living together can bond and reinforce social structures and family links. It brings peace even to violent families. I looked at Loma and realized, for the first time, how beautiful she was. And she looked at me as fervently. She was grooming me because she needed someone, and I was it. In the days and weeks left to us, we communicated entirely by touch and by seeing.

Summer wore on. Every day I worked, and chased girls when I got out. At night, however, I would sneak onto Safari Island and spend 15 minutes with Loma. One Saturday I drove to Hammond, Indiana to see a girl who left Cedar Point because I got too fresh. When I found her apartment and knocked on the door, a linebacker from Purdue opened it. “Get lost,” was all he said. As I raced back to Ohio, I knew Loma would be wondering where I had gone. When I got back, there was a commotion. “The baboon has escaped,” one of the guys said.

People gathered under a sycamore tree she had climbed up into. I saw her staring out over Lake Erie. I could see her realizing she was nowhere near home. There was no easy escape route for her to take. I called to her: “Loma… Loma…” She spotted me, hesitated a moment, then began climbing down from her high perch. I was so glad she was safe, and even glad to see her vivid ass coming down the last branches of the sycamore. She backed into my arms and held onto me. It was the only time I ever held her.

Four days later I was scheduled to leave, to start college. I couldn’t say goodbye, so I slunk away, and drove across Ohio. And I put her out of my mind, and lived my life.

12 years later I was visiting Ohio with my wife. I wanted to show her the zoo where I had worked. I was impressed that the animal areas were more natural now, and more hospitable. We came to the primates area. She was behind see-through nylon cables, not bars. There were eight baboons in with her—all babies and other females. Loma was white in the face now, but she sat like a queen on a log of green concrete, a great-grandchild, or a great-great clasped in her arms. Loma did not blink but she fixed on me. Life had moved on but she had survived and done well. She had made a career for herself in the jungles of Ohio.

That was my picture of our summer romance, and the beautiful creature who made a man of me.