Zookeepers Hope New Baby Heralds End to Domestic Violence at Baboon Enclosure

Natan is leaning back and enjoying life. What could be better? A sunny day, warm rocks, not too many visitors and most importantly - Natasha is treating him very well.

The 10-year-old male baboon, at the height of his prowess and status, observed with a friendly look the small female rummaging in his fur, plucking out all sorts of treats. Natasha is the pride of the Haifa zoo: She is taking care of the alpha male while raising a child.

The zoo staff hopes that after five tragic years, this baby baboon will be the first to reach maturity. The baboon family in Haifa only recently emerged from an emotional and bloody episode that threatened the harmony of the baboon enclosure.

The zoo's veterinarian, Dr. Ayelet Shmueli, says it all started in 1998, before renovations at the zoo, when the baboons still lived in a miserable and depressing metal and concrete cage. The reigning male at that time was Adam, a giant 15-year-old baboon at the height of his power. All the cubs born in the cage were his, and he subdued the other males using terror and fear.

Seven years ago, when the cage started to get crowded, Adam was sterilized in order to halt the population explosion.

"Today we wouldn't do that. At the time it was acceptable," says Shmueli.

Zoo officials regret the move also because of what happened afterward. The forcibly imposed impotence made Adam frustrated and embittered. At around the same time, in 2000, Natan, then a young 6-year-old baboon who had mated with the females in heat behind the leader's back, became active on the margins of the group.

The unfortunate Adam knew that the baby baboons were not his, and started taking vengeance. For several years the zookeepers would find the infants torn apart, having been cruelly murdered.

"Initially we thought it was a female who wasn't able to take care of her cub. Afterward we realized that Adam was the killer. We caught him red-handed once," says Dr. Shmueli.

The zoo staff was already considering isolating Adam permanently, which would have shortened his life, but then a change suddenly occurred. The combination of Adam's reduced hormones and the Natan's simultaneous maturing led to Adam's immediate deposal. A week ago Natan's son was born, and Adam realized that his reign of terror was over. He started to spend time with an old female, and since then they have been sitting in the corner and "gossiping" about their friends.

However, it is not at all certain that the leadership change will end the violence in the showcase. Zoos know that violence among monkeys stems, among other causes, from boredom - like teens who hang around with nothing to do.

The conference of zoos in Israel held two weeks ago was devoted to nurturing creativity in intelligent animals in captivity. They weren't talking about a macrame class. Rather, zookeepers try to hide food, in an attempt to make the baboons search, as they do in the wild.

At the Haifa Zoo, the zookeepers stick food in cracks in the wall and inside bamboo shoots, and leave whole coconuts - which the baboons attempt to crack open with rocks. This forces the baboons to come up with creative solutions to find food, like they would do in their natural habitat.