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Michael C. Blumenthal, Old Dominion University's Mina Hohenberg Darden Chair in Creative Writing, spent three weeks last May in South Africa volunteering at an animal rehabilitation centre near Phalaborwa, located about 250 miles northeast of Johannesburg. An article he wrote about his experience, "Baboon Heaven," is featured in the December/January issue of Natural History magazine. (naturalhistorymag.com)

Like many of the volunteers, Blumenthal learned of the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education (C.A.R.E.) and the work of its director, Rita Miljo, and her staff from watching a program called "Growing Up Baboon" on the Animal Planet network. Harboring a fascination with primates since childhood, Blumenthal decided to embark on an adventure that would both satisfy a curiosity and provide a service - that of nurturing and caring for orphaned baboons.

Although the immediate assimilation process wasn't easy, it didn't take Blumenthal long to settle in to the routine and gain acceptance from the primates in his care. A typical day for the volunteers at the centre began with the daily preparation of several hundred feeding bottles for the infant baboons. In addition to feeding the animals and cleaning the cages, volunteers spent much of the day interacting with each different age group to teach them socialization skills. Or, as Blumenthal describes it, learning to behave like a baboon.

"By the end of my second week, I [was] beginning to feel a bit baboony myself," recalls Blumenthal in his article. "It's not a bad life, being the alpha male."

One fond memory of his trip is of a baboon named Dennis and his sister, Maggie, both of whom were between 8 months and 1 year old. Dennis and Maggie each sat on one of his knees, tenderly grooming him as if he were one of their playmates. The experience was a "lovely, tender, sensual moment," Blumenthal recalls.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Sooner than he would have liked, Blumenthal was faced with saying good-bye to the charges that had become his friends. He left, not only with a greater appreciation for these magnificent creatures, but with a greater sense of self as well.

"It gave me, I think, a deeper understanding of what it means to be human - as well as of what we have gained, and lost, in the process of our so-called 'humanization.' It also helped me to understand more deeply the great power of instinct," he said.

As all good writers do, Blumenthal also came away with a wealth of material. In addition to the article in Natural History magazine, a similar piece is slated to appear in The Washington Post Magazine next spring. Blumenthal currently is preparing a proposal for a biographical work on Rita Miljo, C.A.R.E.'s founder and director.

Recognizing how valuable and unique the experience was, Blumenthal is already making plans to undertake another primate adventure in the near future - this time to an orangutan refuge in Borneo.

"This experience changed me in making me realize, once again, how difficult, and yet rewarding, it can be to 'stretch' the horizons of one's own experience, to experience a world radically 'other' than one's conventional own. It also taught me that I'm braver than I thought I was."

Blumenthal's other forthcoming works include a reissue in paperback by Pleasure Boat Press of his award-winning 1993 novel, "Weinstock Among the Dying," in March or April. He also plans to release a new book of poetry, titled "And," in 2009.

This article was posted on: December 3, 2007

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