Sudden Love: A Very Improbable Gorilla Valentine : Krulwich Wonders... Part of the art of being a field scientist in Africa is to make the animals think you're not watching them. So Barb Smuts had to learn to make herself very dull, and to never look a gorilla in the eye. Then one day, the strangest thing happened.
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Sudden Love: A Very Improbable Valentine

Hear Why Barb Smut's Glasses Got All Steamy

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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And now, in the spirit of Valentine's Day, we thought we'd tell you a love story. This one's set in Africa, involving someone very big and hairy who sees someone kind of small, wearing glasses. And according to NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich, it was love at first sight.

Professor BARBARA SMUTS (Psychology, University of Michigan): Hi, this is Barb.


Barbara Smuts is now a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. But years ago, she was a field biologist in Africa, where she studied chimps and baboons. And to do that, she had to learn to make herself uninteresting to the animals around her so they'd go about their business.

Prof. SMUTS: Right.

KRULWICH: So she practiced being dull.

Prof. SMUTS: Yeah, shy and pretty boring.

KRULWICH: Which is why she would never look an animal directly in the eye, right? You wouldn't...

Prof. SMUTS: Yeah, you don't give anybody a hard stare. And if you are looking at someone and they look at you, you don't continue to look at them. You turn your head away.

KRULWICH: All of which made it really interesting one time when she was up in the mountains of Rwanda, visiting a wild gorilla preserve with her friend Dian Fossey. And she was led to a group of female gorillas, wild gorillas sitting together in a patch of forest. So she carefully approached.

Prof. SMUTS: You walk and move as gently as possible.

KRULWICH: And keeping a safe distance, she then sat down to watch.

Prof. SMUTS: Yes.

KRULWICH: Then you noticed someone was giving you the eye. Who's giving you the eye, and what happens next?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SMUTS: Well, I caught the eye of this young adult female who was sitting across from me on - it was kind of almost like a circle, and she was on the other side, maybe 12 feet away. So we locked eyes for a few seconds. She kept looking at me, and I kept looking at her. And I was - inside, I was making this enormous effort to beam her way my feelings about her, which were entirely positive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: 'Cause you kind of liked her from a distance, yeah?

Prof. SMUTS: I did. I did. I loved her from a distance.

KRULWICH: Why? Because she was such a big animal and you were ...

Prof. SMUTS: Well, they're beautiful animals, mountain gorillas. And she had a sweet expression on her face, and I just thought she was terrific. And she'd been looking at me.

KRULWICH: This is so eighth grade. So then what happened?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SMUTS: She got up, and she walked over to me. I was sitting on the ground. She stood right in front of me, and she pressed her forehead up against mine. I remember this very clearly because I was wearing glasses, and they got all steamed up from her breath. And then she wrapped her arms around me. And she held me for a moment, just a few seconds. And then she let go, and she went back and sat down. And I felt like, gee, I must be OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SMUTS: I'm not a bad person.

KRULWICH: Well, when you were wrapped up in the gorilla's arms, did you feel scared or did you feel ...

Prof. SMUTS: No.


Prof. SMUTS: Oh, I just felt so lucky and honored and thrilled. And I asked Dian Fossey later, I said, is she in the habit, does she go around hugging women? And she said: No, that's not something she does. So...

KRULWICH: So to this day, Barb has no idea what happened, why she was chosen, why it felt so strangely welcome and right. Barb is a scientist, yeah, but in this situation, there's nothing to measure. There was no data, no pattern, no history - just a sudden rush of feeling, and then it was over.

Prof. SMUTS: Things happen when you spend time in wild places and tune into the animals. Things happen that you can't explain.

KRULWICH: Robert Krulwich, NPR News.

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