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[From the Archive]

Tommy, Beauty, and Baby

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Tommy, Beauty, and Baby had set up a harmonious household when a pet store offered an irresistible bargain in the form of an additional pair of young marmosets that nobody seemed to want because they had been injured at some time, the female losing a couple of inches of tail and the male two or three fingers from one hand. This led to a lesson in the social customs of marmosets. Beauty had not in the least minded sharing her home with Baby, but with the appearance of the newcomers there was trouble.

It began with Tommy, who apparently considered that a female with a bobbed tail was exactly what he wanted. He began making monkey-fashion passes at her, with struttings and touched noses. Beauty took cognizance of this intention of infidelity by attacking the newcomer so furiously that we had to get her out of there to save her life. That gave us two cages of marmosets, because we could hardly put the new female — who was tagged Sister — into another home without bringing her partner along. Tommy continued to gaze longingly across the room at Sister, plastering himself against the bars of his cage and going into a strut every time he could attract her attention until the infuriated Beauty would leap on his back and bite him. The question was not really solved until they had twins.

Tommy and Beauty were intensely proud. The first few days after the births consisted almost entirely of a series of summons to come and see the most wonderful pair of children yet produced on the planet.

Clearly, no one could maintain the peak of ecstasy in which Tommy lived during those first few days. He continued to perform his duties faithfully, but the desire to exhibit his new possessions tapered off and occasionally he even rid himself of them when he felt it was mama’s turn. Nevertheless, we were unprepared to see him nip first one and then the other on the head, and as the little arms reached gropingly for someone who did not come, he left both babies hanging from the bars of the cage and bawling their heads off.

Their mother went on placidly eating her breakfast, so in a natural human desire to help out nature I rushed to the rescue — and got myself well bitten on the back of the hand; after which Tommy resumed his charges by fluffing out his fur for them to catch and treated me to an angry scolding. It was not until the proceeding had been repeated two or three times that we realized that the babies were going to school — being taught to climb on bars and branches instead of fur, which is probably the most important single skill a marmoset can acquire. They protested this hard-hearted treatment as energetically as human children might, and an abused marmoset baby can fill a house with noise, but there was never the slightest danger for them. Their father was always at hand to collect them if anyone approached the cage, and if the baby missed its grip and dropped to the bottom, as sometimes happened, the little body was both too light and too supple to be hurt by the fall and one of the parents immediately retrieved it.

From “Emily Post and the Marmosets,” which appeared in the June 1949 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 165-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.


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June 2015