Liam Casey, Toronto, The Globe and Mail – Zoology

November 30, 2015, Ottawa

A “vicious battle” extending over many months erupted among the female baboons at the Toronto Zoo after the matriarch died in 2014 and precipitated by contenders for her throne. The animosity was the cause of a closure of the baboon exhibit for several days and provided some valuable insight into the animals’ behaviour. Five of the six females suffered a number of injuries that required medical attention including lacerations, pulled hair and tail injuries. Two of the contestants required surgery to close deep gashes. The staff were concerned with the reaction of the public, who may not be initiated with respect to baboon behaviour. Maria Franke, the Curator of Mammals, added that even the private area where the baboons eat and sleep had to be modified to allow for more space and escape routes. The animals, described by Chris Dutton, the Zoo’s Senior Veterinarian, as being fine, are “incredibly tough and they heal well.”

The result of the prolonged combat has been that now two females sit on the throne, enduring an uncomfortable truce. Dr. Dutton believes that the rightful heir is biding her time until the other older contender dies.

Both baboons in the wild and those in zoos have societies that are run by females. That dominance follows family lines. The rightful heir to become queen would be the oldest daughter of the matriarch. One monarch, named Boss Lady, died and her daughter, the long-time queen ascended to the throne of the 12 member troop.

Differences in Betty’s behaviour in 2014 became apparent to the keepers, Ms. Franke and Dr. Dutton said. “She was changing her naturally dominant behaviour and she was hanging out with the subordinates and starting to slow down a little”, Dr. Dutton added. Betty was reported in the medical records to be lethargic and by early December 2014 she had stopped eating, causing her to be anesthetized so that the medical staff could examine her. A uterine tumor that had spread to her abdominal wall was discovered by exploratory surgery and it was decided that it was terminal. On December 5, 2014, at the age of 16, Betty was euthanized and then the brawling began.

Betty’s oldest daughter Molly, aged 6 years, who was the rightful heir to the throne, was deemed to be too young and not fully mature. An 18 year old “Putsie” saw an opportunity and Ms. Franke guesses that she was fighting to be dominant because of her age. The attacks happened at night away from the keepers so it is not certain who caused what injuries to whom. Over the next year, Putsie fared the best of the six animals with only one injury. Medical records disclose that Molly and her sister Susan suffered the most attacks early on, Molly being assaulted at least eight times in three months. Her left eye had been temporarily swollen shut and she had deep lacerations over both eyes and a gash to the bone to her nose. One wound required stitches. Susan suffered severe lacerations exposing the bone on the right side of her face.

Putsie’s other daughters, Katrina, Kate and Kalamata, were also attack victims and suffered various injuries. Dr. Dutton and Ms. Franke only intervened when a baboon required medical treatment, being loathe to interrupt the baboons’ Game of Thrones. Ms. Franke advised “You have to let their natural behaviour happen. They have to sort it out. In the wild a lot of times it’s to the death!” However, she added that a baboon has never been killed by another baboon at the Toronto Zoo.