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November 01, 2002 - Image 44

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2002-11-01

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African Adventures

Letters from her son inspire Ethel amassers book about his work with baboons in East Africa.


Staff Writer


hat's a Jewish mother to
do when her youngest
son develops a passion
for studying
baboons and elephants in
Ethel Wasser, 79, of
Southfield turned his adven-
tures into a book, The Baboon

Man: What's a Mother to Do?
(Singlish Publication Society, Oak
Park; $14.95).
Wasser spent six years writing
about her son, Dr. Sam Wasser, now
48, a professor of zoology at the
University of Washington in Seattle.
(She also has a daughter, Susan, 55,
living in Cincinnati and another
son, Paul, 52, of Southfield.)
Mostly through Sam's letters
home, the author traces how her
son's interest in animals led him to a
lifetime of travel and study in
Tanzania in East Africa.
Her son's strong interest in animals
led to him working for a veterinarian
after school, Wasser says. Her book
opens with stories of how Sam, then
a junior at Southfield High School,
saves the family dog on two near-
death occasions — including stitch-
ing the pet's profusely bleeding
wound himself when the vet is out
to lunch.
While a sophomore at Michigan
State University in East Lansing, he
found a volunteer research position
in Uganda that allowed him to study
more exotic animals.
Sam's first visit to Africa "was as
exciting as it gets," Ethel Wasser
says. While he was en route to
Uganda, soldiers of the former
Ugandan dictator Idi Amin looted
the camp where he was supposed to
"Somehow in this confusion," she
writes, "he managed to join another
study in the Masai Mara Game
Reserve in Kenya. He spent three
months there doing a study on lions
living in the wild."
That first visit to Africa changed

his life — until then he was going to Adventures In Mikumi
be a vet. He went on to graduate
In Baboon Man, letters to his mother
from MSU, the University of
and his late father, Frank, document
Wisconsin in Madison and earned
Dr. Wasser's frequent visits to East
his Ph.D. in psychology from the
Africa and his growing love for its
University of Washington in Seattle.
people and the animals. Without hid-
Today, his mother says, Dr.
ing the dangers of the bush, in his let-
Wasser is an environmental
ters, he often describes his adventures
biologist, animal physiologist
with a touch of humor.
in science, zoologist, repro-
Dr. Wasser write s how he was sitting
ductive biologist and conser-
under a fig tree in
vation biologist.
Africa "watching
He started out
the baboons
researching baboons and
when some of
the effects of stress on
them disturbed a
their relationships, espe-
beehive up in the
cially in reproduction.
tree. All of the
Eventually, his studies
baboons came
'19C4** 54M racing down
would be used to under-
* birS
• A MOTHER k\ 0 DO? (after peeing on
stand the relationship of
stress to reproductive
by Ethel Wash-
me) and like a
failure in humans.
dummy, I stood
In a phone interview,
there wondering
Dr. Wasser describes his
what they were
current work as studying
running from.
the DNA from animal
"Well, I found
droppings, useful in
out soon enough
helping to detect poach-
and was aflight
ers, learn about blood
myself. I man-
ties and diseases and
aged to get by
whether an animal is
with only four
stings. OUCH."
A father of two, Dr. Wasser has
In another letter,
written two scientific books and
he writes about the
received numerous grants, includ-
wonder of spying an
ing a Guggenheim, to support his
animal giving birth:
research. This year, the Center for
"Yesterday, Alison
Conservation Biology at the
[his assistant] and I
University of Washington endowed Dr. Sam Wasser
saw a female baboon
a chair in Dr. Wasser's name.
give birth. What a
Though his work has taken him
treat that was! She
from Africa to Upper Canada, he
had it up in a tree and literally bore
still follows the baboons two to three the infant right into her hand."
times a year. He owns a home in the
A highlight of the book is when the
Mikumi Game Reserve, a national
Wassers finally visit their son in
park near Tanzania's capital city, Dar
Tanzania in 1983. The story comes
es Salaam.
alive with Ethel Wasser's personal rec-
Dr. Wasser considers his work with ollections. She describes dining with
baboons as the most enriching part
the U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, who
of his career.
has taken her son under his wing, her
"What I miss about baboons is the surprising interactions with baboons,
contact," he says. "You could walk
warthogs and elephants, and seeing
right along with them. I knew their
stunning sunsets over the mountains
family history and saw the full rich-
in Mikumi.
ness of their social interactions. It
There also are references to Dr.
was absolutely spectacular."
Wasser's acquaintances with some

i lk


A. ,,, itonsvt,



well-known writers and anthropolo-
gists, including Joy Adamson, author
of the best-seller Born Free, Diane
Fosse and Jane Goodall, the latter who
asked him to read and comment on
her work with chimpanzees.
The elder Wassers begin their jour-
ney by bringing clothes, food and car
parts to Tanzania for their son and his
friends. Far from luxurious, they travel
through the bush with "Charles the
ranger, who went out with the baboon
researchers and carried a .457 mag-
num rifle."
Clearly a trip she'll never forget, in
her Afterword, Wasser reiterates how
productive and educational the visit
was, and how much her son's "com-
mitment to wildlife enriched her and
her husband's lives."
The other moving element that per-
meates the book is a young man's lov-
ing relationship with his parents, espe-
cially his father, so evident in Sam
Wasser's letters.
"My father was always my best
friend," says Dr. Wasser, who is get-
ting married again this fall. "He had
an unusual mix of fatherliness and
playfulness ... He was very blue collar
[he owned a car parts store in Detroit]
and could speak to any kind of per-
son. An ideal father."
"And husband, too," adds Ethel
Wasser, who dedicates the book to
Frank Wasser, who died two years ago.
When asked how he reacted to his
mother writing the book, Dr. Wasser
says, "At first, it was embarrassing. But
as I read it, I was really delighted
because she did a great job in captur-
ing all the moments."
He is also impressed at how accurate
his mother was in describing his theo-
ries: "It showed she listened!"

For a copy of Ethel Wasser's book, call
(248) 353-9709.

Ethel Wasser is joining the Local
Author Fair 1 . 1 a.m.-3 p.m. in
the Janice Charach Epstein
Gallery of the Jewish
Community Center in West

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