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In his fascinating book, Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond hypothesises that the development of human societies was largely dependent on the availability of large mammals which could be domesticated. Societies which lacked these animals were more likely to remain as small bands of hunter-gatherers, as they lacked the easy provision of meat, as well as milk products, fertilizer, land transport, leather, military assault vehicles, plough pulling and wool. Humans who had access to cows, sheep, horses, llamas and the like tended to form larger and more stable societies; ones without tended to exist in a more hand-to-mouth way. And this would seem to be true for sub-Saharan Africa: until the introduction of cows and horses, societal development was considerably less advanced than in Eurasia and Central America. But wait, you say. What about elephants, hippos, buffalo, zebras? Surely they could have filled mans’ needs? The argument hinges on the distinction between being able to tame them, and being able to domesticate them. Elephants can be tamed but not domesticated, for instance, and the hippo is pretty resistant to either. Man is still trying to breed animals like the eland in South Africa, with a remarkable lack of success. And perhaps the best example of an animal almost impossible to domesticate is the zebra. At first sight, the zebra would appear to be a perfect candidate for adoption by man. Available in large numbers, strong, highly breedable, they would seem ideal. But the problem with the zebra is its volcanic temper. Zebras have the unfortunate habit of biting people and refusing to let go, and their temper and irascibility apparently get worse as they get older. Zebra annually injure more zoo staff than do lions. They are also nearly impossible to lassoo, as they can watch the rope and duck their head out of the way. So you can’t ride them. They are of a nervous disposition, and run at the slightest provocation, making them difficult to keep in captivity. So, in the final analysis, sub-Saharan africa might now looked like Milton Keynes if it wasn’t for the intransigence of the zebras. I’ll raise a glass to that…
When I was about 8 years old, I was given a superb book called the "Guiness Book of Animal Facts and Feats." It was packed with extraordinary records of the biggest, fastest, fatest and all other manor of superlatives relating to animals of all kinds. Much to my joy I found the book again recently, having not laid eyes on it for about 25 years, and gave it to my three sons. While browsing through it, I found this truly extraordinary story: The most intelligent monkeys are baboons. One of the most remarkable examples was a chacma baboon named Jackie, who was probably the only primate in history to reach the exalted rank of corporal in the army – and end up with a war medal. The baboon was discovered by Albert Marr on his farm in Villeria, in Pretoria, South Africa, a few years before the outbreak of the first world war and the two very quickly became attached to each other. The animal turned out to be exceptionally intelligent and took so readily to training that when Marr joined the Third South African Infantry Regiment he took along his companion as well. The friendly monkey was an instant success with the soldiers, and it wasn’t long before he was made the regimental mascot. As a result he was issued with rations, a pay book and a specially made uniform. Private Jackie was the perfect recruit. On the parade ground he was always smartly turned out every time he saw a passing office he would stand to attention and give a very correct salute. He was also very proficient at lighting cigarettes for his comrades in arms. In August 1915 the two privates salied with their regiment for the war zone and during the next 3 years the inseparable pair saw front line service against the Turks and Gemans and were also with the brigade during a campaign in Egypt. The baboon proved to be an extremely valuable aquisistion because he was a first class guard. With his acute hearing he could detect the enemy long before his human companions, and when he picked up anything he would either give a series of short barks or tug urgently at his master’s tunic. In April 1918 both privates were injured together. It happened in the Passchendale area in Belgium. The brigade had come under heavy fire and, as the air filled with the sound of deafening explosions, Jackie could be seen trying to build a fortress of stones round himself for protection. He never finished it – suddenly a shell exploded close by and a chunk of shrapnel hit him in the right leg, partly severing it. The same shell also wounded his master. Both soldiers were rushed to a British casualty clearing station where the baboon’s leg was amputated by a Dr RN Woodsend who later wrote an account of the incident: “We decided to give the patient chloroform and dress his wounds. If he died under the anesthetic perhaps that would be the best thing. As I had never given anaesthetic to such a patient before, I though it would be the most likely result. However he lapped up the chloroform as if it had been whisky and was well under in remarkably short time. It was a simple matter to amputate the leg and dress the wounds as well as I could.” Jackie made a full recovery and shortly before the armistice he was promoted to corporal and awarded a medal for valour. Jackie died in 1921 and was buried on his master’s farm.