We play a game among researchers here that helps us keep a grip on non-field reality. Its called “Weird, or Not Weird?” I had a joke here and a side-story about the blind leading the blind, but I am only 85% certain that it isn’t offensive, so I’m going to err on the side of leaving it out. Lets just say that I feel totally confident in concluding that a bunch of already atypical academic hikers who spend months at a time in a forest following animals around like paparazzi for fun are perfectly adequate referees to judge strange human behavior. And if you want to argue me on that point- me and blind people leading other blind people are ready for you.
This is how the game works:
First, one of us does something, feels something, or reacts in some way that is questionably normal.
Let me give you a for instance: I realized that I now sleep through elephant trumpeting and splintering trees between gunshots and people screaming in the middle of the night. Yep, I sleep right through all that malarkey like a baby. Honestly at this point, I’ve been doing this long enough that I’m just thankful for not losing any precious minutes of dream-time…but then I wonder, is that weird? Or not weird?
…Does “unsettling in so many ways” count as weird? Ok, yeah. That might be weird.
Step two: put it to the panel.
“Dear Friends, Is [insert thought, feeling, observation, thing I did, etc. here] normal? Are you guys the same? Or am I totally off the grid?”
Step three: judgment.
As it turns out, 3 out of 3 other people at camp have slept through several of the nights that elephant shenanigans have woken me up… Once Margaret woke up when there was an elephant right at her window, but it was at her window, which is like 15 feet from her bed so the elephant was pretty much breathing and chewing in her ear. But mostly, everyone sleeps through it. So… No, I am not weird.
Step 4: escalation.
So I know that it doesn’t sound like the most fun yet, but what makes this whole process a game is the escalation. It is light-hearted and the situations are generally hilarious from start to finish. But the conversation very quickly shifts from “sharing is caring” into one-ups, some of which are absolutely hyperbolic and others oh so upsettingly not even exaggerated. It occurred to me recently that I have no idea what I would think if I came upon the dinner conversation as an outsider. It can go a little something like this:
Researcher1: I dropped my apple in the forest and ate it anyway. Weird or not weird?
Researcher2: Had you taken a bite yet?
Researcher1: [Looking a bit sheepish]…yes.
Researcher2: Did you even rinse it?
Researcher1: [Shakes head] …but it’s not like it fell in chimp poo or something.
Researcher3: Oh come on, everyone’s done that.
Researcher2: Truth. Ok, so not weird. When I’m alone, I talk to the chimps like they’re
people. Weird or not weird?
Researcher3: Is it weirder to talk to redtail monkeys?
Researcher1: When I’m not alone, and there are people right there, I still talk to the chimps like they’re people…
Researcher3: That’s probably a little bit weird.
Researcher2: I hide from every other mzungu (western person) in the forest.
Researcher1: Doesn’t everyone do that?
Researcher3: Today the chimps passed by the redtails and the monkeys got super quiet and hid…and so I also hid and watched the chimps pass from behind a tree.
Researcher2: Suddenly I resent peeing inside. Except when its raining, then I get mad that I have to go outside to pee… And I somehow do not find it all disturbing to come home from work everyday basically covered in chimpanzee pee. Every. Day. Weird or not weird?
Researcher1: A male chimpanzee made eye contact while he put his fingers… well, lets just say while he- he just really should have been focusing on the other chimpanzee instead of me while he did that. Weird or not weird?
[Pause in the conversation. Then a burst of laughter.]
Researchers 2 and 3: [In unison] Weird!!
[Researchers continue eating dinner.]
Researcher3: [To Researcher1] Did you just make happy food grunts over the cucumber salad?
Researcher1: Yes. And its totally not weird. For sure. Everybody food grunts. Even normal non-field people.
Researcher2: Definitely not weird. But what about this: I didn’t know which was more dangerous, rodent shit or getting unboiled tap water in my dinner…but it was the last plate to I flicked the rodent shit off of it, wiped it with a napkin, and went on as usual. Weird or not weird? It was the last plate…I’m going to take a Cipro just in case…
Researcher3: Earlier there was a big fat mouse licking a spoon in the kitchen and I was just so glad that it wasn’t a rat that I didn’t do anything. I just let it happen. It was a really cute mouse. Like Gus cute.
Researcher1: Feivel cute?
Researcher3: The Great Mouse Detective cute.
Researcher2: That’s just sounds adorable. Not weird!
Researcher1: So…I had that one chimp that I can never get hours on and they were headed into the swamp- basically into an elephant’s bed- I could hear and smell the elephants and there was fresh mud all over the trees. At the edge of the swamp I stopped and I thought about abandoning the chimp… and then followed her anyway…straight toward the elephants. Weird or not weird?
We regard each other silently. We know that we’ve probably all done it- but none of us is ever sure whether the others are joking, or exaggerating, or confessing a bold and stupid truth. Either way, we can all be sure that it’s weird. Regardless of how safe* it is, we’ve become so used to elephants sitting right beneath our study subjects that we grit our teeth and bare it instead of fleeing like our guts tell us to. That is most definitely 100% weird.
Footnote: *This season chimpanzee field assistants and/or graduate researchers have detected elephants within 25m on 30-40% of days that we follow chimpanzees. I stopped counting nights that elephants have been in the yard, but I would estimate that they visit us upwards of 40% of nights. Given that frequency, we have accidently found ourselves within charging distance of an elephant less than 10 times and have been charged- collectively as a team of 9 chimpanzee researchers- 3 times this season. None of these charges, or those experienced in previous field seasons has resulted in injury either directly from contact with an elephant or indirectly from tripping, falling, running into things, etc. to flee from an elephant. This is not to say that elephants should be regarded without extreme caution. And, as you know from previous posts or listening to my elephant stories, I greatly respect and rationally fear elephant encounters. Rather, the point is to let you, dear reader, know that when I take a deep breath and step into the swamp, swallowing that rising knot in my throat in spite of a suddenly dessert-dry mouth, I am afraid and there might be a risk- but the numbers support that it isn’t nearly as dangerous (or, sadly, as badass) as you might think. It is a highly calculated risk erring very heavily on the side of not dying. What makes it so weird, is that I never thought in a million years that I would ever be comfortable taking this calculated risk.
Quiver is turning 8 this year- he’s at the edge of puberty and boy can you tell. He’s lanky- his legs are so long and when he stands he’s taller than everyone. Wallace and Quiver were born in the same month but Quiver is heaps bigger. And rougher. He’s always the one who starts the fight. Every time. He’s the chimp you have to keep you eye on because a branch might come flying your way if you turn your back.
But he’s also so gentle with his little sister. Sometimes he carries her away from the other kids clinging to his belly so can play with Quake all to himself. He dotes on her, grooming her often and always keeping a close watch while she tangles herself up wrestling much older and much larger partners.
Quake, Quiver’s tiny sister is 18 months old. She’s going through a fearless phase. When the big boys display, Quake puffs up too, all piloerect like she’s one of the guys. She stomps up and down the nearest tree branches, grunting and hooting in a low raspy baby-voice.
Recently I watched her wriggle out of her mother’s hands and head straight for the big boys. First she tumbled toward Tuber, a young adult male who is one of our fiercest hunters. She jumped at him and wrestled his hands for a quick jaunt before spinning away toward Lanjo and Eslom as they groomed. Eslom continued picking through his beta’s hair while Quake seized Lanjo’s hands and wrestled them to the ground. The Alpha’s concentration only broke when Quake fiercely tackled his hands as well, sinking her tiny teeth into his fingers and throwing her whole weight into his palms. His only defense was a swift counter-belly-tickle, which disarmed her immediately. Surrounded by adult males, she submitted completely, panting loud gasps of laughter through The Alpha’s tickle attack.
Quinto, their mother, is one of the most difficult females to follow and to photograph. She’s one of the few chimps that is still very camera shy. When I follow her, I pretend that I’m not looking at her and watch her from the corner of my eye. Then I take photographs of things that are near her, maybe another chimp that’s a few meters to her left or a tree or sometimes I just snap into space. Then I slowly pivot the camera toward Quinto until she’s in the frame. I’ve also noticed that her nerves seem to be tied to the act of me removing the camera from my bag. So another tactic I use is to wait until she’s too engrossed in grooming or playing or feeding to notice me taking out my camera. That’s how I captured this portrait- Quinto had just popped her head up from feeding on honey.
Disclaimer: These photographs were taken on my cell phone rather than my Nikon so please forgive the poor quality of some of the images. :)
7:00am: A 15ft tall elephant…
I waited for the sun to come up so that elephants and I wouldn’t surprise each other in the dark. I nearly had a heart attack when this one popped out onto the trail about 20m in front of me. The elephant, on the other hand, was totally chill and just continued on its’ merry elephant way.
9:00am: A cobra skin…
A nursery group of four females and their kiddies climbed up a big fig tree and happily chowed down. I realized that it was going to be a while. Ankle-deep in I took off my back-pack and started unfolding my ground cover thinking “Ohmygosh this is about to be the world’s comfiest forest nap…” Then I saw a some iridescent piece of something peeking out from under my boot…ooo a snake skin….a hunk of a really big cobra with three inch wide ventral scales kind of snake skin… I did not nap.
In the photograph, one of the KCP field assistants, Sezi, is helping me display the skin for you all. My thumb serves as a pretty good measure of scale.
11:30am: Oh, hey! A chimp!
Wait, is that my job? I was starting to think that I might be an elephant researcher…
This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.