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(I can't believe what I'm about to write.)

So, if the baboons are that intelligent, is there any possibility that public executions would work to make clear what the penalty is?

Hi Frances:
Speaking of baboons. When I was in South Africa during the summer, the following words on a sign caught my eye near a baboon proof garbage container: "VOER VAN BOBBEJANE VERBODE" which translates into "FEEDING OF BABOONS PROHIBITED." I assumed the sign was meant for humans rather than the more intelligent baboons.:) Apparently, baboons can be quite violent. We were told that if they snatched your bag or knapsack to just let them have it as all they were looking for was food and would drop it fairly quickly. Have you been to the Western Cape area?

Livio - That's about where these photos were taken -at Storms River Rest Camp, just west of Knysna.

I showed the baboons we encountered the same respect that I show bears. But I couldn't believe other people's attitudes. I told some people we met "be careful, there are baboons on the trail ahead" and their reaction was "Wow! Great!" In some ways baboons are more easily led into a life of crime than bears are - most people have enough sense to stay away from a bear, but a surprising (to me) number seem to think "oh, baboon, how cute."

Of course "let them have the food" reinforces the baboon's rational calculus that the benefits of a life of crime outweigh the cost.

Perhaps Chris S's solution of public executions is the right one?

Humans have any number of traditional anti-crime measures that would, no doubt be equally effective applied to baboons. Unfortunately, this doesn't make a very strong case for their use. If you had to choose one, tar and feathering is very colorful and would be a great tourist attraction. I propose that those caught feeding the baboons be forced to apply the tar.

"is there any possibility that public executions would work to make clear what the penalty is?"

Pour encourager les autres?

Mind you, if public executions of the past are any indication, if you gathered up all the "innocent" baboons to watch the execution of a single babboon for stealing garbage, the audience would probably greatly enjoy the execution, while using the chaos as an opportunity to steal more garbage.

Bob, yup, Peter N nailed it when he said "Humans have any number of traditional anti-crime measures that would, no doubt be equally effective applied to baboons. "

In other words, not effective at all.

I suppose if you did it often enough, it would resolve the problem - no babbons=no problem. There is a downside...

What if we executed people who fed the babboons or failed to adequately store their garbage? A bit extreme, I guess, but probably effective. And there are lots of humans...

What about deporting the baboons to Australia?

Deportation to Australia would simply cause an ecological disaster there.
They have enough weather trouble there without adding another imported invasive species (besides rabbits, cane toads, brits, etc.)

Bob, you're doing it wrong. What we need is some Singapore-style public caning of baboons. That way, the survivors can limp through the park with their keloid scars and terrify those who are still at the preliminary calculation stage. This improves the quality of information going into those calculations. Baboons are, by nature, gregarious risk-takers, and like similar humans they may underestimate costs. Public caning both raises the cost and reduces asymmetry.

Is PETA monitoring this discussion?

On a less Swiftian note, anyone who has the time and proximity should visit the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary in Minnesota if you have the chance. The issue of feeding the bears but managing their comfort around humans is managed very well there. The bears and their cubs get regular food (and healthcare) as a result, and there is great entertainment for the humans without demeaning the animals.

Shangwen " like similar humans they may underestimate costs."

I suspect that, like humans, baboons may tend to engage in hyperbolic discounting, that is, pay very little attention to future costs/benefits. This is a problem with the argument that I made in the post about baboons making rational choices.


I thought about that, does Home Depot sell electrified garbage cans? Not enough to kill them, just enough to make them look like Doc Brown from "Back to the Future". Should have the same effect.

My concern is that the Baboons might grow to like it. My father used to go hiking in Montana and he'd bring along a can of pepper-spray to deter bears (which, in Montana, was deemed to be a sign that he was either insane or a certified communist, since everyone else on the mountain was packing heat. Mind, they were also riding horses). Unfortunately, according to the local rangers, some of the bears had started to develop an affinity for pepper spray (perhaps as a result of misuse), completely undermining the purpose. You'd think electrocution or canning might not have the same effect, but there's no accounting for baboon tastes...

Bob, the problem with a park full of baboons that resemble 80s character actors is that it attracts more humans (I'd sure go), thus making things worse. On the other hand, there is some evidence that animals are quick to kill any of their own that exhibit odd behavior or changed appearance (for example, animals with epilepsy are often killed by their fellow pack members). So the sub-fatal electrocution option may also lead to outsourcing of the capital punishment option. This may appear efficient in the short run, but in the long run it means more rapid selection of super-baboons (cf Simon's point on meddling with ecology).

Well, the super-baboons might not eat the garbage. They'd eat the people. How do you think we ended up as the Planet of the Apes?

Peter N: given the balance of harm done, I propose that baboons apply the tar to the tourists feeding them.
As for deportation the more enterprising baboons to Australia, if it works like the last time, Aussies would welcome them as they would probably get a better stock than what was left behind....(with apologies to my Pommy friends)

Also baboon labour markets are much more efficient than “sophisticated” human labour markets: in particular there is no unemployment in baboon labour markets (or indeed in caveman labour markets).

If a baboon’s belly is full, it just sits around doing nothing. That’s not unemployment because the baboon is not looking for work.

In contrast, if a baboon wants work, it sets out to look for food. Hey presto: it has instantaneously found “employment”.

Now why does that work? Well the reason is that baboons (and cavemen) and TOTALLY FLEXIBLE when it comes to the wage they’ll work for. If they spend all day foraging and find nothing, their wage is zero. But apart from feeling hungrey, that doesn’t bother them too much. Clearly we have much to learn from baboons and cavemen. And that’s not meant as a joke: there are actually lessons for us here, as I tried to explain in a recent blog post about caveman labour markets:


Ralph - thanks for that link. Oddly enough, that touches on subject of a half-composed post that I was planning to work on today or tomorrow - though that post is about elephants, rather than baboons or cavemen.

I think the issue is why do people want stuff? Baboons want stuff to fill their bellies. People want stuff for status, and for the things taht status generates (power and/or sex). Our lust for status isn't satisfied as easily as our lust for food...

You know, when some enterprising South African puts the baboons to work coding Blackberry Apps (a million baboons typing on a million blackberries) PETA's going to blame you guys.

Simon, do baboons eat rabbit or cane toad? In any event baboons are likely to be a less bothersome invasive species. Worst case scenario, you shave'em, give'em a can of Fosters, and teach them how to surf and they'll be indistinguishable from your average beach bum. People won't even know they're there.

I wonder what the entry of baboons into a given profession might do for the status of that profession? Lawyers might want to consider it.

For a wonderful book about baboons in their element, I cannot recommend Robert Sapolsky's book highly enough.

This piece contains a story that makes for a great epilogue, although it also stands on its own (reprinted here).

Marcel - fascinating. I like this: "The fanciest part of the primate brain, in other words, seems to have been sculpted by evolution to enable us to gossip and groom, cooperate and cheat, and obsess about who is mating with whom"


I don’t think the distinction between filling bellies and trying to acquire status symbols is the crucial point here. To illustrate, suppose baboons could get enough to eat with only one hour’s work a day and that they spent the rest of the day collecting the sort of things that magpies collect (shiny objects, as I understand it) so as to impress potential mates. Suppose moreover that baboons were prepared, if the worst came to the worst, to work all day despite finding no shiny objects.

In that scenario, you’d get automatic full employment, as is the case where baboons work most of the day just to find food. I.e. the point that is of interest for economists is that where the workforce is infinitely flexible as to the wage it will accept, one gets automatic full employment.

Ralph - But baboons will not be prepared to work all day if they have no expectations of finding shiny objects - they're not stupid.

I'd put it somewhat differently. When everyone has access to the means of production - the forest, for example, or the garbage can - no one is unemployed. Unemployment=no access to means of production.

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