Les Gardiens de Zoo Accidentels

Guinea baboons, pictured above, are native to a small part of Western Africa. But you don’t have to travel there to see them — it’s common to find them in zoos around the world. In particular, there’s a large guinea baboon exhibit in the Paris Zoo; there are approximately fifty of them living there. What you’ll find are relatively small animals weighing about 40 pounds (18 kg) feasting on whatever they can find. Oh, and they can be mischievous, too. In 2018, the baboons caused the Paris Zoo to shut down when many of them escaped the zoo, resulting in an 80-person manhunt lasting nearly a day. 

Oh, and you should also bring a dictionary with you.

Guinea baboons don’t read or write or speak like humans do, but for animals, they’re pretty good at communicating. According to the Paris Zoo’s website, “the baboons have developed an elaborate communication system which contributes to the stability of the social order. Apart from the screaming, posturing, and different types of behavior, there are also facial expressions, involving subtler movements of the lips and even the eyes.” (Oh, and, also per the Zoo, “a female baboon’s bottom is also a method of communication. Bare and swollen, with hard skin, it becomes even redder and more swollen when she comes into season. The male can tell at a glance when it is time to mate!,” in case you were wondering.) 

But more importantly for our purposes, the baboons can also understand human language — kind of. Veronica Chrisp, a marketing manager at the Port Lympne Animal Reserve in Kent, England, told the Guardian that “obviously, they don’t understand the word as such, but it’s the sound they recognize.” In other words, if you say “lunch time!,” the baboons don’t really know what “lunch” means (or for that matter, what “time” means), but they do know that when the two-legged creatures make that noise, food tends to follow. Chrisp should know — because she ended up with a bunch of baboons from Paris. And they had never heard of “lunch” before.

In 2004 or so, the Paris Zoo’s baboons were a little more frisky than expected, and as a result, they had a lot more monkeys than they could possibly handle. (And keep in mind, this was before the Great Baboon Escape of 2018.) They sent 19 baboons to the Port Lympne Reserve. But there was a problem — the zookeepers in England spoke English, and the baboons from the French zoo had only heard French. As a result, Chrisp explained, “If we [spoke] English to them they just look[ed] completely bemused and [didn’t] have a clue what is going on.” On the other hand, reported the BBC, “when they used French words, like ‘déjeuner’ for lunch, the baboons came running.” 

Re-training the baboons to understand English commands proved ineffective, so the staff at the Reserve began to teach themselves a limited French vocabulary. It worked — the baboons responded to the familiar sounds. And when talking to the monkeys, the crew at Lympne Animal Reserve expects to continue to use French going forward.

Bonus fact: Or maybe the baboons really understood French? Okay, it’s unlikely, but there is some evidence that Guinean baboons can differentiate between actual words and fake ones. According to a 2012, as reported by Nature, “baboons can achieve one of the first steps in reading — the ability to distinguish real words from nonsense on the basis of the arrangement of their letters.” Per Nature, “the animals had free access to computer screens displaying four-letter strings of words that formed either real English words or meaningless ‘nonwords’ that resembled real words, such as ‘DRAN’ or ‘TELK’.” Over a 44-day period, the six monkeys sorted roughly 50,000 words and non-words, with an incredible 75% accuracy.

From the Archives: The Red Menace: The value of baboon butts to the world of espionage.