Not yet as popular as cats and dogs in superhero outfits, there is a growing category of YouTube video featuring magicians performing for various animal species. The latest one making the rounds on Facebook is a short clip of a baboon in a zoo enclosure watching a sleight-of hand card vanish through a glass barrier.
The video, only about 10 seconds long, shows a sleepy baboon sitting against the glass divider, clearly bored with the constant stream of visitors. But not for long. From the other side of the glass, a middle-aged man extends his hand. He’s holding a small white piece of paper or plastic, the size of a playing card. The man’s white baseball cap and red polo shirt don’t signal “magician” at first. But this guy is clearly adept at legerdemain. He shows the card to the primate, as if saying “This is a regular card from a regular deck.” At first, no reaction. The baboon’s half-closed eyes stay that way. It really couldn’t care less. After millions of juveniles sticking their tongues out at it, knocking on the glass day in and day out, who cares about yet another tourist, never mind the card brandishing?
Then, a flick of the wrist and POOF! The card is gone. The man shows his empty palm to the monkey. Now’s he got the animal’s attention! The baboon raises his eyebrows in apparent amazement, and a fraction of a second later, lunges at the man, jaws open wide. It is only thanks to the glass barrier that the man gets to keep all his fingers. The monkey looks in the man’s eyes menacingly. “You better produce that card now, or there’ll be hell to pay,” it seems to imply. The magician makes the card re-appear with another wrist snap. The baboon now looks much happier and reaches lightning-like for the card with his hand—but of course, there’s the glass barrier in between. Then the video ends.
There has been extensive online commentary concerning the meaning of the primate’s ostensibly all-too-human reaction. The general consensus appears to be that the baboon felt the magic in much the same way as a human spectator would. There have been some notable exceptions, however: in an interview for Caitlin Roper from WIRED, primatologist Frans de Waals noted that the baboon’s reaction might have been due less to the magic trick and more to unwelcome eye-contact from the human (many primates perceive direct eye-contact as aggression). One problem with that possibility is that the eye contact seems to happen only after the trick and the animal’s pounce (although it’s hard to know for sure when the initial eye-contact occurs, because we never see the man’s face).
Caitlin Roper also contacted me for my impressions on the baboon’s reaction. By the time we got hold of each other, her article had been already published… so you won’t find my opinion there. But this is my hypothesis: the monkey’s reaction was in response to the magic trick, but it was not the same reaction as a human would have had: at least a human over the age of 5.
I have put forward previously that animals’ perception of the conjuring arts –perhaps with the exception of great apes—is different from that from human adults. Sure, animals can be surprised by vanishing objects, just as humans can. But shock is not the only element of magic, albeit it is certainly an important one. There is also awe and enjoyment. Perhaps even happiness: a common reaction to a magic trick is joyful laughter. It’s not that the magic is funny, but that it is delightful.
But why should magic delight us? One possibility is that, just like a benign joke, a magic trick is a type of harmless transgression. You laugh in a magic show because, even though you’ve witnessed the breakage of physical reality, you know you’re safe. If you thought the magic was for real, you might be terrified. Or at least really annoyed.
That baboon did not have a joyous reaction to the magic.
Which brings me back to the issue of magic for adults versus children. A common misconception is that magic is intended for children, when in fact the best magic spectators are adult ones. Children under the age of 5, in particular, do not enjoy magic very much. I have heard magicians express this sentiment many times. The explanations vary: perhaps children’s developing attentional systems are less susceptible to misdirection than adult ones, or maybe young children have not yet developed strong theories about the laws of nature, so everything is equally magical (or non-magical) to them. Whatever the reason, I have had the opportunity to witness this phenomenon first hand. Six or seven years ago, Stephen Macknik and I visited theatrical pickpocket Apollo Robbins in Las Vegas, to plan a research study in which we were collaborating. We brought along our oldest child, then a toddler, for the trip. Apollo was kind enough to demonstrate extraordinary sleight-of-hand magic for our family: he gave our child coins, and then stole them without him (or us) noticing, only to make them re-appear in a different part of the boy’s body. Over and over and over. Steve and I were laughing helplessly, completely enchanted, thoroughly enjoying ourselves.
Our kid? Not so much.
He. Was. Mad. The bad man had given him some coins, and then taken them away for no good reason. What if the man had amazing prestidigitation skills? He had no right to steal those coins! The injustice! Our son started crying in anger. And yes, you guessed it: he kind of looked like a baby baboon.