Groom like a baboon


Baboons groom but don’t have to; humans may not groom enough.

At least, that’s what I’ve learned from recent observations.

At the Bronx Zoo a couple years ago I left friends flitting around in the butterfly enclosure and zoomed down to see the baboons. I can’t get enough of being in the presence of these huge, colorful primates with their long noses that look more like a dog’s, and their close-set, serious eyes.

The baboons were grooming, as baboons do. They run their hands over each other’s bodies, slowly combing over backs, arms and heads, appearing to look for insects, scabs, dry skin, dirt. When they found something, which was often, they appeared to pop it in their mouths, although maybe they were flicking it to the side -- I wasn’t sure.

Now I know that they were doing neither -- they were playacting.

A sign at the zoo explained that baboons groom whether or not they find anything; more often than not, they are doing it just because.

Looking to understand what makes baboons tick, I contacted Larissa Swedell, Ph.D., an anthropology and biology professor at the City University of New York. The origin of grooming, she explained, "is hygienic, and it certainly does serve a practical function in that it helps with removal of dirt, fleas, ticks, scabs -- you name it. But most of the time it is simply a tool for social bonding." So whether or not they are finding bugs on each other, they’re bonding.

Swedell went on to say that grooming has been compared to the evolution of human language. Our language helps us survive, like when our ancestors shouted, "Tiger!" That practical edge helped language evolve as a part of human existence.

But the vast majority of what we talk about on a day-to-day basis has little to do with tigers and the like. According to Swedell, gossip and chit-chat are a "social bonding behavior," that can be likened to grooming.

I’ve been taking a page from the baboons, though, and doing more grooming.

Having been scared enough times by finding deer ticks attached to us, and spending a lot of time in high grass and woods, my family does tick checks on ourselves and each other at least once a day. We know enough people who have had Lyme disease, including some longer-term cases with complications, that we really want to avoid it. We check each other’s backs, arms, underarms, scalps and more for those tiny little insects.

You can’t wait around and hope to feel the tick’s bite. Did you know that when deer ticks bite they spike their saliva with a little anesthetic so that you don’t feel pain, along with a spritz of antihistamine so that you don’t itch? A thorough visual check is a key defense against a potentially chronic illness.

After we had to pull a couple of engorged ticks off of the back of my son’s ear, with him screaming bloody murder the whole time, he wasn’t that wild about the "tick check." But now he understands that a tick check is usually painless, and he helps us make it easy.

Still, doing a tick check is something I look forward to about as much as flossing, so I thought back to those baboons and wondered what keeps them grooming each other for hours at a time against invisible invaders. Remembering that these activities help us stay connected and take care of each other seems like a good frame of mind.

The social ties forged by this activity are a great case study in resilience; next week I’m going to write a review of "The Resilient Farm and Homestead," a book by Ben Falk, who has a homestead in Vermont. Today, I’ll take a question.

I got the following inquiry from Dummerston. "I was freezing last winter in my A-frame. I got some quotes for several thousand dollars to replace the single-pane windows. Is that a good idea?"

After heard this I followed up and learned that the roof of the A-frame -- which is most of the exterior surface area -- is totally uninsulated.

To make this home truly comfortable and less wasteful, that has to change. There will be a lot of details to work out, but a good approach might be to install a thick layer of rigid insulation right on top of the current roof, and install new roofing over that. If by chance the roof needs to be replaced anyway, you could consider these projects as a package.

Window replacement isn’t such a bad idea, though. Although that roof is sucking out a lot of heat, you might feel the heat loss the most through the single-pane windows.

We feel warmth through radiation -- that’s how we feel the heat from the sun millions of miles away. But put yourself in the sun’s position. All that cold, dark space around feels cold to it. Like the sun, we humans lose heat through radiation, with that cold single-pane window sucking the heat out of our bodies very effectively.

Replacing the windows might improve comfort enough to be a worthwhile project. But before you consider wholesale replacement, look at adding storm windows, or interior "energy panels" made from a simple wood frame and a stout sheet of plastic. These would improve comfort at much less expense.

But you really have to think big picture on this project. If this is a home you want to make comfortable and fuel-efficient for the long-term, it could be a candidate for a deep-energy retrofit, including adding insulation, addressing those windows, and looking at air-sealing and other projects. All of that could require some real money -- maybe financing.

Thanks for reading and keep your questions coming to

Tristan Roberts is Editorial Director at BuildingGreen, Inc., in Brattleboro, Vermont, which publishes information on green building solutions. You can learn more at You can reach Tristan at


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