Rubaiya Ahmad

Rubaiya Ahmad

“Even the worst day of doing something is better than the best day of doing nothing.”

Rubaiya Ahmad. Photo by Julie O'Neill.

Rubaiya Ahmad. Photo by Julie O’Neill.

Ask Rubaiya Ahmad about her proudest achievement on behalf of animals, and her answer is immediate.

“Stopping dog culling in Bangladesh,” she says.

Seven years ago, Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital and largest city, was a different world for free-roaming dogs. They were almost constantly hunted by government cullers as part of an ineffective bid to control the country’s rabies problem.

Friendly dogs, including beloved pets, were the easiest targets, sauntering over to anyone who stretched out a hand. Savvier victims were caught using badger tongs, devices on poles that clamped around dogs’ heads inside their mouths, causing excruciating pain. Cullers typically then injected dogs with poison and cut off their tails as proof of the kill. To inflate their numbers, cullers sometimes cut single tails into several pieces to turn in to their overseers.

One night, this happened to Kashtanka, a light brown, grinning dog who Ahmad had cared for since she was a puppy. Kashtanka was one of three street dogs Ahmad began looking after when she returned to her native Bangladesh in 2006 after a decade living in the United States. She was renting a tiny studio apartment at the time and felt it would be cruel to keep the dogs inside. But she’d had them vaccinated and sterilized, had bought them collars and fed them every day, and all of her neighbors knew they were Ahmad’s.

Two of the dogs, including Kashtanka’s mother, Rosha, were able to escape. But Kashtanka was young and trusting and likely greeted the cullers who grabbed and poisoned her. Ahmad remembers it like yesterday. She got a call from her building’s night guard saying that Kashtanka was being taken. She chased after the cullers and found Kashtanka in the back of their truck, lifeless, still wearing her collar, on top of a pile of other dogs.

“Even the worst day of doing something is better than the best day of doing nothing. It’s more difficult to do nothing.”

It was an experience that changed her life’s focus. Ahmad founded Bangladesh’s first animal welfare organization, Obhoyaronno – which roughly translates to “Sanctuary” – in 2009. In 2012, after Obhoyaronno launched a program to sterilize and vaccinate free-roaming dogs in line with World Health Organization protocols for rabies control, Dhaka city agreed to end dog culling. In 2014, Obhoyaronno successfully petitioned Bangladesh’s high court for a national injunction against culling, as well as against animal sports such as bull and cock fighting. There are still occasional incidents of dog culling outside of Dhaka, but today, for the most part, the practice has ended across Bangladesh.

Campaign literature“Whenever people tell me that what I do is really difficult and that they could never do it, I just tell them the same thing I tell myself when things get difficult: that it’s more difficult to do nothing,” says Ahmad, formerly an IT consultant. “On the days when I feel like I don’t want to do this anymore because it’s too hard, I remind myself that there was a time when I didn’t do anything, and I wasn’t happy. Even the worst day of doing something is better than the best day of doing nothing.”

“Any platform that allows me to talk about veganism, I take that opportunity.”

With Obhoyaronno’s clinic and spay-neuter program going strong, Ahmad has turned her focus to promoting veganism. Because of her work, local schools have adopted Meatless Monday, popular hotels and restaurants have added veg choices, and Bangladesh’s top-ranking grocery store chain has installed vegan sections. Ahmad gives talks on animal welfare and vegan eating almost anywhere she is asked, shares information and recipes on social media, and writes a regular column, A Vegan’s Diary, in Bangladesh’s largest English-language newspaper. She holds vegan brunches and recently launched a new online vegan food delivery platform, The Bangu Vegan. The venture delivers vegan meals every Monday, hosts supper club events and supplies vegan food items to local retailers. Ahmad also uses The Bangu Vegan to do advocacy and offer cooking courses.

“Any platform that allows me to talk about veganism, I take that opportunity,” Ahmad says.

In Bangladesh, even things as simple as vegan menu options are a breakthrough, she notes. She says figuring out the right messages and how to present them has been difficult, but it’s also been a big key to her success.

“We got our way by speaking in a language they understood.”

“We’ve focused very much on the scientific approach to things, as opposed to being emotionally driven,” Ahmad explains. “When we started talking about our dog population management program, we didn’t talk about animal welfare. We talked about rabies control and how many kids were dying of rabies in Bangladesh. We showed the government that how they’ve been killing dogs for 50 years has not changed the rabies situation – it escalated it, if anything. And in the end, they stopped killing dogs. We got our way by speaking in a language they understood.”

Obhoyaronno’s spay-neuter program has now sterilized more than 16,000 free-roaming dogs, and the organization recently entered into a partnership with Dogs Trust International that has allowed Obhoyaronno to expand its clinic and gain critical surgical training.

Ahmad has also taken a science-based approach in her efforts to reduce animal-product consumption.

“The less you create the divide of us versus them, the better, because no one likes to be judged or told what to do.”

“We focus primarily on the health aspect. Eventually, at the right time and with the right platform, we’ll bring in animal welfare, like we do with our dog work now. We openly talk about how inhumane it is to kill dogs, and no one questions that now.”

She says it’s important, too, for activists to see themselves as part of the communities they work in.

“The less you create the divide of us versus them, the better, because no one likes to be judged or told what to do. It helps me to remember that I couldn’t care less about animals when I was young, and I ate meat until I was 30 years old.”

The progress she sees, even when it’s incremental, motivates her to keep going.

Rubaiya Ahmad portrait“It’s the changes in the community, the changes in mindset – every time an animal is saved or someone chooses a vegetarian meal because of what I posted on Facebook,” Ahmad says. “It’s so funny, I’ll post something, and two or three people will comment, and I’ll think no one cares. And then the next week, five messages will show up with pictures of vegetarian food, saying, ‘Because of what you wrote last week, I cooked this.’”

As for what’s next, Ahmad plans to focus on legislative reforms to help Bangladesh’s animals. She knows it’s a tall order, but so was ending dog culling, and she says that’s been the biggest lesson her work has taught her – that nothing is impossible.

“No matter how absurd an idea may seem, if you put your mind to it, you can.”

 

Learn more and support Obhoyaronno – Bangladesh Animal Welfare Foundation and The Bangu Vegan.

Photos and interview by Julie O’Neill. Story by Corinne Benedict.

Seble Nebiyeloul

Seble Nebiyeloul

Seble Nebiyeloul

Co-Founder of the organization International Fund For Africa

 

Photographs by Jo-Anne McArthur.
Interview and text by Corinne Benedict.

Seble Nebiyeloul

Co-Founder of the organization International Fund For Africa

 

Photographs by Jo-Anne McArthur.
Interview and text by Corinne Benedict.

Seble Nebiyeloul was living in New York on 9/11, within walking distance of Ground Zero. The smell that hung in the air after the attacks is still etched in her memory, but she couldn’t pinpoint what it was until she passed a street vendor selling hamburgers.

“Animal flesh and human flesh, when you burn it, it’s one smell. That’s when I said no more animal products.”

“Instantly I said to myself, this was flesh I was smelling,” Nebiyeloul says. “Animal flesh and human flesh, when you burn it, it’s one smell. That’s when I said no more animal products.”

The epiphany made it suddenly clear to her: We are all the same.

“When you start loving animals, you don’t have boundaries. When I became an animal lover, automatically, I loved any creature.”

It’s an ethos that came to define her work with the organization she co-founded in her native Ethiopia a decade later, International Fund for Africa, or IFA, which serves humans and animals alike.

Photo: Children wash their hands in preparation for the plant-based meals offered by IFA at their school.

Besides its sizeable vegan food and health program for school children, IFA’s work has included vocational training for people with limited economic opportunities, improved sanitation in schools, a program that helps girls make reusable menstrual pads, significant investments in maternal and newborn health care, mobile clinics for working animals, sterilization and vaccinations for street dogs, and more.

Nebiyeloul was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Her mother was a secretary. Her father, vice minister of the private cabinet of Emperor Haile Selassie, was executed when Selassie’s government was overthrown in 1974. Nebiyeloul left for the United States a decade later when she was 19.

Photo: School children enjoying attention, and the cameras, at a school outside of Addis Ababa.

Nebiyeloul was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Her mother was a secretary. Her father, vice minister of the private cabinet of Emperor Haile Selassie, was executed when Selassie’s government was overthrown in 1974. Nebiyeloul left for the United States a decade later when she was 19.

Photo: School children enjoying attention, and the cameras, at a school outside of Addis Ababa.

She went to college in Kentucky and then studied health care administration at graduate school at the University of Maryland before settling in New York. It was the city’s many dogs, always out for walks, that helped ignite her love of animals. She bought a Maltese, but had to give him to a relative when her landlord said she couldn’t keep him. By then she was a vegetarian and had begun taking an interest in animal welfare and rights. Her next dog was a rescue. (About the seven dogs she has now, she says, “Without them, I couldn’t live my life.”)

Professionally, she climbed the ladder in the public health field. She was successful and happy but not fulfilled. When her job offered her another promotion to senior management, it didn’t feel quite right. Her cousin, Anteneh Roba, a physician then living in Houston, had been urging her to return to Ethiopia to help him with a nonprofit he was starting to alleviate some of their home country’s widespread poverty and suffering. It was the kind of mission Nebiyeloul had always wanted to take on.

“Yes, I was making good money, and I loved the work that I did,” she says. “But I’d done it. I’d proven to myself that I could do it – as a black womxn, as a foreigner. I’d reached what I wanted to be.”

She moved back to Addis Ababa to get IFA off the ground in 2011.

Nebiyeloul loves to cook, and she’s good at it. As she began building IFA – organizational development is another of her talents – she also began working to expose more Ethiopians to vegan food.

Photo: A healthy lunch, provided by IFA, for impoverished children at a school outside Addis Ababa. 

Nebiyeloul loves to cook, and she’s good at it. As she began building IFA – organizational development is another of her talents – she also began working to expose more Ethiopians to vegan food.

Photo: A healthy lunch, provided by IFA, for impoverished children at a school outside Addis Ababa.

“A lot of people came and said to me, ‘If we knew how to cook like this, we would never eat meat, not for animals but for the health reasons.’”

She started with cooking demonstrations and then began serving vegan brunch at yoga classes that a friend was teaching. Nebiyeloul describes her food as Ethiopian adapted to be vegan, with influences from places like Asia, Spain, and the US. She goes for mostly fresh ingredients, lots of spices and herbs, and little salt.

 

The reaction to her cooking was almost always the same, she says – people were shocked that vegan food could be so delicious.

 

IFA’s vegan school food program, which uses Nebiyeloul’s recipes, now serves two meals a day to hundreds of children. It also provides employment for 10 cooks whom IFA trained in a style vastly different from most professional Ethiopian kitchens.

“I’m trying to teach the younger generation that in order to live, you don’t have to eat animal products.”

“Meat is a major part of our food, especially during the holiday time. It’s part of the culture. You have to kill animals. Usually I travel during that time out of Ethiopia. I find it difficult to stay here,” she says. “Animal welfare is a little bit acceptable in this country – I would say, five percent. Animal rights, forget it. It’s a very difficult concept.”

Nebiyeloul draws a line in trying to persuade people to be vegan. Mostly, she prefers to limit her efforts to setting an example, using food rather than words. Vegan cooking is her activism, she says.

“I always respect people’s space. I start discussions only when people express an interest.”

Seven years after its founding, IFA continues to evolve. The organization coordinates closely with A Well Fed World and is working toward sustainable solutions to Ethiopia’s poverty, namely holistic programming that addresses root causes, Nebiyeloul says.

More than 6,000 girls now have reusable menstrual pads, helping to keep them in school, and IFA is preparing to launch a new mushroom production unit to introduce the vegan staple to kids, generate income for IFA’s programs, and serve as a vocational training site for youth who’ve dropped out of school. Recently, IFA responded to a call for humanitarian aid for victims displaced by ethnic violence, providing food, clothing, mattresses and diapers for families in Ethiopia’s Oromia region.

Photo: Young womxn learn to design and sew their own sanitary pads.

More than 6,000 girls now have reusable menstrual pads, helping to keep them in school, and IFA is preparing to launch a new mushroom production unit to introduce the vegan staple to kids, generate income for IFA’s programs, and serve as a vocational training site for youth who’ve dropped out of school. Recently, IFA responded to a call for humanitarian aid for victims displaced by ethnic violence, providing food, clothing, mattresses and diapers for families in Ethiopia’s Oromia region.

Photo: Young womxn learn to design and sew their own sanitary pads.

As for the future, Nebiyeloul dreams of someday opening a vegan restaurant and a sanctuary for unwanted and abused donkeys and horses.

“As you grow older and achieve goals, you start to look back and say, ‘What have I done in life?’ I want to give to any other citizen what I got from life,” Nebiyeloul says.

“If you deal with people the right way, the world will be the right place to live.”

 

Learn more and support the International Fund for Africa.

Photos and interview by Jo-Anne McArthur. Text by Corinne Benedict.  

 

 

Cora Bailey

Cora Bailey

Cora Bailey

Founder of the organization Community Led Animal Welfare

 

Photos and interview by Jo-Anne McArthur.
Story by Corinne Benedict.

“I saw it, and once I did, I couldn’t turn away.”
The boy is small, far too young to be informing on people running dog fighting rings. But here he is, waiting for Cora Bailey under the appointed tree in the middle of a barren field.

“This is not a nice place,” Bailey, a petite blonde in her mid-60s, says of the neighborhood, a desperate, deeply impoverished part of Soweto, a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. It’s so dangerous here that few white South Africans dare to come.

But Bailey is different. She visits the townships daily. She knows this little boy well. She worries he’s already going crooked, spending time with the wrong people in the absence of parents. 

Photo: Cora with a rescued piglet at the Randfontein municipal dump site.

Where does she go? Why are we always hungry?

 
“Don’t pick your face,” she says, gently swatting his hand as he tells her what he knows about the latest dog fights and the drug dealers who are involved. Then the conversation turns to him. Bailey asks about his health and explains some relaxation techniques that might help his headaches. She can tell something else is wrong. 

“Tell me,” she says, and the boy, starting to cry, unloads. His mother is never around, he says. She doesn’t look after any of his siblings, so he is left to change nappies and beg neighbors for food. Where does she go? Why are we always hungry? He asks Bailey.

Founder of the organization Community Led Animal Welfare (CLAW) Bailey has dedicated herself to helping animals across Johannesburg’s townships for nearly three decades. It started in 1991, back when she was a board member for the local SPCA, before South Africa’s first democratic elections and in the midst of apartheid and a brutal civil war. 

“Most of that war was in the townships,” says Bailey, a mother of four and grandmother of seven. After massacres, she’d visit their scenes to collect the animals who had been left behind, injured and starving.

 

Quickly, Bailey learned a truth that has defined her life’s work:

If you want to help animals here, you have to help humans, too.

Photo: A monkey saying hello to Cora Bailey.

“It was never very easy to tell people how to look after their animals when you see the dire poverty,” Bailey says.

“We didn’t ever set out to do food parcels or community gardens or to counsel sick people. But it’s hard not to do that when they have nothing.”

 

Bailey’s days are as varied as they are trauma-filled. Essentially, she spends them doing the best she can to alleviate suffering wherever she finds it, and in a place like this, it’s easy to find. 

Especially when you can’t seem to stop yourself from looking for it.

 

Especially when you’re the only one there is to call. 

Photo: Bailey and community members of the Randfontein municipal dump site.

Photo: Bailey chatting with friends and dogs in Soweto.

On the way to bring food to a man who is dying of AIDS, Bailey might rescue a dog who has been left for dead on the side of a road after being hit by a car or stabbed. On her way to talk to the police about illegally sold rat poison that is also killing dogs, she might hear about a toddler in need of a ride to a hospital after being badly burned by a cooking fire.

While visiting a child with cerebral palsy, she might get a call about a vervet monkey or chacma baboon who has been chased up a tree after wandering into a suburb. 

Sometimes Bailey arrives to find an animal whose limbs have all been cut off. Sometimes she finds a crowd at the base of the tree, in which case she’ll spend hours carefully persuading them to let her intervene.

Imagine how scary this must be for the monkey, she’ll say. He must want to be with his family again.

Whenever her phone rings – suicidal children, dogs with all four legs broken, alcoholic rampages – Bailey’s answer is usually the same, even late at night:

I’m coming.

She is at once as hard and as soft as they come.

 

Hard: Driving through Soweto, she spots a group of young men. They make money fighting dogs and selling drugs, and after Bailey made problems for them, they threatened to burn her house down, which, here, is well within the realm of plausibility. But Bailey doesn’t turn her car around or hurry by. She slows down, pulls up next to them, rolls down her window, leans out and stares. 

 

Soft: Inside a rundown hut, Bailey cradles a womxn named Petronela who has AIDS and is gravely sick. Petronela cries about her philandering husband, the pain of dying, and her worry for her children. Bailey listens, and then helps get her into hospice care. 

Photo: Cora Bailey with a semi-paralyzed puppy.

Bailey has been shot at and held up.

When a girl is raped, Bailey is often summoned instead of the authorities. Womxn with nowhere else to go have shown up at her veterinary clinic to give birth. She has been asked to adopt people’s children, which she has. She has taken on too many fosters over the years to count, both animal and human.

Among them is Moses, who is older now but still close with Bailey. He lives at a place known as The Dumping, a massive municipal garbage dump in Randfontein. Here, the poorest of the poor scavenge for scraps and criminals evading capture hide from the police, who are generally too afraid to come here because of the violence. But Bailey is loved at The Dumping and visits often. She arrives with food and veterinary care and leaves with broken people and animals who she and CLAW will try to piece back together.

 

Bailey finds Moses, who spent years coming and going from her house when he was younger. They chat as they walk The Dumping together. They find a runt piglet struggling desperately to keep up with her litter. Bailey scoops her up. Filthy and tiny, it’s clear she’s severely malnourished –– without the right nutrition soon, she may not survive. Next, they find a bone-thin dog so sick and pained that Moses has to carry him to Bailey’s car. With the piglet asleep in the front and the dog vomiting in the back, Bailey drives to CLAW’s clinic. 

Photo: Moses helping round up dogs for vaccinations and vet checks at the CLAW mobile vet clinic at the Randfontein municipal dump.

Located in Durban Deep, an abandoned mining town now plagued by crime, the clinic lacks running water and grid electricity. Sometimes there is power from solar panels, but they’re stolen often enough that Bailey is accustomed to getting by in the dark. She has no formal veterinary training but has saved many lives all on her own. In seconds she knows whether it’s parvo or poison or a tick-borne disease. She lifts the scruff of a neck and can tell the dehydration is severe. She sees ghost-white gums and knows she has to move quickly. 
After the vomiting dog is carried inside, Bailey starts his IV while she soothes him. Next, she goes in search of the appropriate milk for the piglet. She finds a farmer who is happy to give her some, and while the piglet gulps it down, Bailey advises the farmer on how to care for an infected spider bite she noticed on his hand. 

Bailey stays up all night with the piglet, who survives, is named Whammy and ends up at a sanctuary. The dog recovers too. 

 

Things don’t always turn out so well, of course: The animals whose wounds went neglected for too long. The dogs who’ve been too thoroughly destroyed, inside and out, by fighting. When euthanasia is the best choice, Bailey does what is needed, wipes away tears and gets on with whatever is next. Because what bothers her more than the animal in front of her, now at peace, is the one still out there who she might not find. 

“There are thousands of places we can’t reach,” she says. “The hardest part is when you stop and think about how much there is to do.”

For much of what she has done, Bailey credits CLAW’s team. In addition to a shelter, adoptions, and its physical clinic, CLAW offers mobile vet clinics in the townships, where long lines of people wait to have their cats, dogs and more vaccinated and examined. For humans, CLAW distributes food, runs community gardens, assists child-headed households, teaches people how to care for the sick and dying, organizes communities to advocate for things such as water and rape victims’ rights, and hosts community events and a children’s program in Durban Deep. CLAW also serves as a drop-in center for kids, where they sing, read, and soak up attention from Bailey as she imparts the importance of sterilization for their pets and compassion for all. For much of its existence, CLAW received international funding, but today it scrapes by on small donations. 

Photo: Cora Bailey and Anna, a friend and community worker, in some of the community gardens in Soweto. CLAW staff and volunteer teach community gardening to Soweto inhabitants.

Over the years, Bailey says, she has seen progress. In the beginning, she had to beg people to let her treat their animals. Now, people wait hours in the sun for care or walk kilometres with sick pets in wheelbarrows or in their arms. She says the flipside of all the suffering and brutality she encounters is the enormous love that even the poorest South Africans often display for their animals. She believes that anyone can be a good pet owner with a little support, and that everyone deserves the chance to be. 
“I saw it, and once I did, I couldn’t turn away.”
Still, she continues to find herself in communities that have never had access to humane education or vet care. She continues to come across people who see sterilizing a dog as crazy. Then I won’t have a pet next year when this one dies, she still hears.

She says the problem is the overwhelming divide between haves and have-nots in South Africa. The haves must do more, she says.

“We’ve got to get out of this bubble.”

Bailey is technically retired now, having stepped away from the operational side of the organization she founded. All who know her, though, say that it’s is hard to imagine her ever stopping her work in the townships. They worry about her.

They also take inspiration from her. Bailey has influenced activists all over South Africa and beyond.

 

They also take inspiration from her. Bailey has influenced activists all over South Africa and beyond.

“Cora infuses everyone she meets with her passion to make the world a better place for all,” says Kathy Raffray, from the organization Ban Animal Trading.

“She’s a radiant beacon of hope in a very lost world.”

Photo: A sick piglet living at the Randfontein municipal dump in Soweto.

Bailey acknowledges the effects of it all.

“I can’t lie. Anxiety. Insomnia. I’m not always very together. It’s hard to switch off and find peace.”

Why does she do it?

“It was an accident,” she says. 

“I saw it, and once I did, I couldn’t turn away.”

 

Learn more and support Community Led Animal Welfare.
Photos and interview by Jo-Anne McArthur. Story by Corinne Benedict. 

The Womxn of C.A.R.E.

The Womxn of C.A.R.E.

“If I only lived for that, then I had a good life.”

Samantha Dewhirst (L) photo by Jo-Anne McArthur. Rita Miljo (R) photo provided by C.A.R.E.

It was a hot July night in 2012. Like most evenings, Samantha Dewhirst and Stephen Munro were gathered for a cobbled-together, family-style dinner with other volunteer staff at the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education, or C.A.R.E., deep in the South African bush.

With the sounds of wildlife echoing in the distance, they were chatting and laughing, sharing stories from the day – good medicine for a group of 20-somethings earning no pay for one of the most demanding and thankless jobs in animal protection: rehabilitating chacma baboons, a “vermin” species so despised by locals that for a long time, shooting them on sight was considered a civic duty.

And then one of their party stepped out onto the balcony and spotted it – a fire in the distance. The building that was burning housed C.A.R.E.’s clinic and orphan sleeping quarters as well as the second-floor apartment of the centre’s legendary founder, Rita Miljo, who was 81. Dewhirst, Munro and the others rushed to the fire. They managed to save more than 30 baboons, but three perished, along with Miljo, the only leader C.A.R.E. had ever known.

The main purpose in my life is to show people that baboons can be beautiful. And if I only lived for that, then I had a good life.

With hundreds of baboons in residence, few paid staff and little money, the centre was facing a sea of complex challenges, from permit issues to aging facilities to adversarial neighbours. Miljo’s death could easily have meant the end of C.A.R.E. But six years on, the centre is thriving, thanks to a group of young people, including Dewhirst, who stepped up when South Africa’s baboons needed them most.

“It was really scary,” Dewhirst, now 31, says of the time immediately after Miljo’s death. “I was in survival mode. All we could think about was making sure C.A.R.E. would survive.”

Of the years since, Dewhirst says, “It was very much, ‘If you want it to move forward, you have to push it, push it, push it.’

“And that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Born in 1931, Miljo grew up in Germany and hoped to become a veterinarian after the war. It didn’t work out, but she worked for a time at the Hagenback Zoo in Hamburg. In a 1953, she moved to Africa with a mining engineer whom she married. She fell in love with the bush and South Africa’s wildlife, buying a small farm at the edge of Kruger National Park that served as her family’s weekend retreat and would eventually become C.A.R.E.

She learned to fly and became a proficient pilot. It was an interest she shared with her husband until it took his life in 1972, when the small plane he was flying crashed. With him was their 17-year-old daughter, who was also killed. In a way, the loss emboldened Miljo; what did she have to fear when she’d already experienced the worst thing that could possibly happen?

Miljo met her first baboon around 1980 – an orphaned female she came across while traveling in Namibia. She smuggled her across the South African border and named her Bobby, living with her in busy Johannesburg before the pair moved permanently a few years later to Miljo’s bush retreat, about 400 kilometers northeast. Soon Miljo began taking in more animals, including other chacma baboons, mostly babies who’d been orphaned when their mothers were shot or poisoned. In 1989, she founded C.A.R.E.

At the time, no one rehabilitated baboons for return to the wild, where the species lives in large troops with set social orders that individuals, especially adult females, cannot simply be inserted into. Miljo had no scientific training, but at her retreat in Limpopo, along the banks of the Olifants River, she paid close attention to a troop of wild baboons that she affectionately named the Long Tits. While Bobby showed Miljo how intelligent and loving individual baboons could be, it was the Long Tits who taught her the intricacies of their groups – their ranking system, dynamics, and various calls for danger, for mating, and for soothing their young.

With new orphans arriving at C.A.R.E. all the time, “You didn’t need to be a genius to say, ‘Let’s make our own troops,’” Miljo explained in one of many interviews she gave about her work.

Learning as she went, Miljo developed her rehabilitation model: Baby baboons were hand-raised by human surrogate mothers who were with them 24 hours a day, sleeping with them, changing their diapers and bottle-feeding them. (In order to thrive, orphaned baboons need the same kind of touch and comfort as human children.) Orphans were introduced to others, and eventually, entirely new troops were created that lived together and bonded for years at the centre before being released as groups at carefully chosen locations. A release – a gradual process in which a human stuck around to assist and then test and observe the group before finally leaving – took months.

People said it couldn’t be done, that it was madness to do it, and that she was mad to do it. And yet she succeeded.

It was hard work made even harder by South African laws and prejudice against Miljo’s beloved baboons. She had to be tough. When hunters trespassed onto C.A.R.E.’s land to shoot baboons, Miljo shot back, literally. Brash and direct, she was known for speaking her mind and was honest about preferring baboons to people; with baboons, she would say, you always knew where you stood.

To neighbours and South African officials who didn’t understand her, Miljo was regarded as an irritant, even as crazy. But to many others, she was a pioneer, revered for her bravery, determination and empathy.

“People said it couldn’t be done, that it was madness to do it, and that she was mad to do it. And yet she succeeded,” Will Travers, of the Born Free Foundation, said in a documentary about Miljo, Lady Baboon.

In an interview for the same film, Jane Goodall said, “We have all these different species in the world. Thank goodness there are people like Rita who are working for those that other people don’t like.”

Miljo eventually grew the 32-acre C.A.R.E. into the world’s largest baboon centre, with volunteers from around the globe and more than a dozen troop releases, including one attended by Nelson Mandela. Although she suffered from dementia toward the end of her life, with C.A.R.E. declining in some ways as she aged, Miljo remained dedicated to the animals she loved until her death. She had no misgivings about the cause to which she’d chosen to give everything.

“The main purpose in my life is to show people that baboons can be beautiful,” she said in Lady Baboon.

“And if I only lived for that, then I had a good life.”

To say that day to day life at C.A.R.E. is challenging is an understatement. Snakes occasionally find their way into the centre’s kitchen. Most buildings are encaged to keep out wild baboons and residents who inevitably get loose on occasion. It’s sometimes necessary to run from elephants, who have broken through fences in search of food during droughts. The nearest town is a 45-minute drive away. The heat is unforgiving. Volunteer quarters are small and shared. Even Dewhirst and Munro, who became a couple about seven years ago and live full-time on C.A.R.E.’s grounds, didn’t have their own bathroom until after the birth of their daughter, Sophia, now two-and-a-half.

Still, Dewhirst wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s just stunning,” she says, standing above the Olifants, taking in the breathtaking view that is C.A.R.E.’s backdrop. “It’s magical here.”

About the baboons, she says, “They’re incredible, intelligent and empathetic animals, and you can’t help but let them under your skin once you begin to understand them. You see past their impressive teeth and intimidating size. They’re just trying to survive and protect their families and feed their young in an unforgiving world.

“They steal your heart.”

Dewhirst first came to C.A.R.E. as a 19-year-old volunteer in 2006. By then she’d interned for Goodall and knew she wanted a career involving primates. She kept returning to the centre for temporary stays whenever she could, helping between visits with marketing and networking from afar. In the United Kingdom where she grew up, she took a job at Monkey World, an ape rescue centre, but found herself missing the baboons who she’d come to care about so deeply. After earning a master’s degree in primate conservation from Oxford Brookes University, she returned permanently to C.A.R.E. in 2011.

She wasn’t sure at first whether it was for good – her head was telling her not to let go of a salary, stability and her boyfriend in the U.K. – but then Miljo asked her to lead a project rehabilitating a group of baboons coming from a research lab. It was the push Dewhirst needed.

“I’m sorry for your boyfriend,” Miljo told her, “but so happy for the baboons.”

“To give up all of that,” Dewhirst recalls, “it was a huge emotional ordeal in my mind. But my heart was already here.”

The fire (the cause of which was never discovered) only strengthened her commitment.

In the months after the disaster, former C.A.R.E. volunteers and friends who’d lost touch with Miljo came out of the woodwork with support and donations. It was a critical boost, but for the most part, the early days without Miljo brought only grief and challenges.

Miljo had left the centre to Scottish-born Munro, who at 28 already had a decade of experience at C.A.R.E. under his belt. But Miljo had always been the decision-maker. They could call on C.A.R.E.’s board members for support, but on the ground, everything was suddenly on the shoulders of Munro, Dewhirst and a small group of other young volunteers.

Day by day, with hope and hard work, they found their way.

“We weren’t able to let ourselves think too much,” Dewhirst says of the time.

By 2013, success started creeping back. With a permit and a location secured – both can be hugely challenging – they carried out C.A.R.E.’s first release in years. With Munro away for months camping with the troop, Dewhirst ran the centre without him, surprising herself that she was able to manage, she says.

The whole point is to get these animals out so they can be wild again and free.

C.A.R.E.’s newfound leaders kept pushing, and progress continued. In 2014, the centre finished a new clinic, which Dewhirst helped design along with other new buildings. Enclosures for resident baboons were upgraded; C.A.R.E. now has three massive semi-wild enclosures. The extra space for competition and hiding has allowed caretakers to introduce older male baboons – who before were thought capable only of living alone – into troops. All females are now on contraception, enabling them to replace some human surrogates for incoming orphans. In 2016, the centre completed a new nursery, as well as a visitor area and education centre – a long-time dream that is now in full swing.

“The whole point is to get these animals out so they can be wild again and free,” says Hannah Young, an American who, along with her now-husband Adam, was critical to C.A.R.E.’s survival in the years after Miljo’s death. “We have to have safe places to do that and a community behind us who wants that too.”

Young, who is now back in the United States after years at C.A.R.E., acknowledges that changing attitudes about baboons isn’t easy. “It’s daunting,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t start somewhere. We have to show people why baboons are important.”

They’re just trying to survive and protect their families and feed their young in an unforgiving world. They steal your heart.

Dewhirst agrees: “We know now that in order for C.A.R.E. to move forward, we need to invite people in.”

Besides C.A.R.E.’s extremely dedicated volunteers, Dewhirst says, the centre’s board members have made a huge difference, namely Karen Pilling and Annalize and Martin Piek.

“They were always just a phone call away to give much-needed emotional support and wisdom,” Dewhirst says.

Today, Munro and Dewhirst – the centre’s managing director and assisting managing director, respectively – are prioritizing releases and searching for a property on which to expand, with a goal of housing all baboons undergoing rehabilitation in semi-wild enclosures. Although they’ve refined her methods over the years, Miljo’s model of forming bonded, cohesive troops for release remains at the core of their work.

In addition to hundreds of baboons, known by name and regarded as family by Munro and Dewhirst, they are raising their daughter Sophia, who is at their side much of the time. Dewhirst says her family back in the U.K. worried about her decision to return to C.A.R.E. with Sophia after she was born, but Dewhirst couldn’t really imagine anything else.

“We’re making it work,” she says.

When she thinks about the future and all the possibility it might hold for C.A.R.E. and for Africa’s baboons, she likes to think of Miljo, who is buried on the centre’s grounds in a coffin she shares with Bobby, who died in the fire beside her.

Miljo was in her late 50s when she started C.A.R.E., Dewhirst notes, and in her 60s when she released her first rehabilitated baboons.

“I just think, wow,” Dewhirst says. “The amount that she achieved in that short space of time is really incredible.

“Who knows what we can achieve? We have so much time.”


Learn more and support C.A.R.E.
Photos and interviews by Jo-Anne McArthur. Text by Corinne Benedict.

Sharon Núñez

Sharon Núñez

“Animals need us to be in this for the long term.”

 

Numbers matter to Sharon Núñez.

How many media outlets covered her organization’s latest action? How many people did it reach with recent campaigns? How many viewed its last investigation? How many shared it?

And then there is the number she thinks about most – the only reason she thinks about numbers at all: How many animals have she and her colleagues helped save from some measure of torture or abuse?

“We roughly calculate that we were able to impact 40 million animals in 2017,” says Núñez, co-founder of Animal Equality. “We want every hour and every dollar donated to the organization to spare as many animals as possible.”

That focus on numbers, or, more to the point, on impact, has been Animal Equality’s biggest success since its launch in 2006, Núñez says. It’s also been a huge driver of the organization’s growth into the international powerhouse it is today.

Today we have an entire development department of six people working internationally. But back then, it was basically selling hummus sandwiches.

Just how far has Animal Equality come? Here, numbers are helpful too.

Three is how many people it all started with, and zero is about how much money they had. It was Núñez, Jose Valle, and Javier Moreno, all sharing a small apartment in Madrid, where Núñez, who is Irish-Spanish, grew up. To make rent, they’d take turns working while the two without paying jobs focused full-time on building Animal Equality, then called Igualdad Animal. To raise money for their activism, they hosted vegan dinners and set up booths asking for donations.

Twelve years later, Animal Equality operates in eight countries – the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, and India. It has 80 paid staff and an annual budget of $5.5 million.

“Today we have an entire development department of six people working internationally,” says Núñez, now Animal Equality’s international president. “But back then, it was basically selling hummus sandwiches.”

As Animal Equality grew, Núñez made a point of developing the skills she would need to lead it, including attending management courses, reading extensively, and learning from others in the movement. While she is quick to credit her co-founders and Animal Equality’s global staff and volunteers, they say her leadership has been critical to the organization’s expansion and effectiveness.

“One of the most important things about Sharon is her capacity to learn, and also her capacity to inspire others,” says Moreno. “In a world where leadership is usually based on authority, Sharon’s leadership is based on empowering the teams, creating healthy and safe spaces that allow people to grow, to improve, to make mistakes and to learn from them.

“One of Sharon’s biggest successes is her contribution to a generation of activist all around the world, with her determination, vision, courage, and audacity.”

We want every hour and every dollar donated to the organization to spare as many animals as possible.

Unlike many in animal rights, Núñez says she wasn’t drawn to animals as a child, she suspects because she never really saw them. Her family had no pets, and there were no farm animals in bustling Madrid.

While in college, she began taking an interest in social justice issues. One day, she came across a book that described what happens to cows used for dairy.

“I was so shocked,” Núñez recalls.

She went vegan overnight, and within a few months, she’d decided to dedicate her life to helping animals.

“I just couldn’t live otherwise,” she explains. “I just said, ‘OK, I need to deal with this.’”

After attending a talk by a well-known animal rights activist about the importance of activism, Núñez quickly got involved with the only animal rights group she could find in Spain, later working with groups in the UK. She was 26 when she co-founded Igualdad Animal. Valle and Moreno were 28.

“We really wanted an organization that was focused on defending animals,” Núñez says, “and we had very strong ideas on how we could accomplish that mission.”

Animals need us to be in this for the long term.

In the beginning, they focused heavily on drawing media attention. For their first action, they chained themselves to the entrance of a slaughterhouse. Soon they were lowering themselves from bullfighting rings and jumping onto catwalks where models strutted in fur. Following the example of activists like Australia’s Patty Mark, they began conducting open rescues. Animal Equality was the first to infiltrate Spanish slaughterhouses and present images from inside to the public.

“We had almost no resources, but we managed to get a tremendous amount of media,” Núñez says. “It was just understanding that if we wanted people to think and talk about animal issues, we needed to bring animal issues into their homes. We were constantly brainstorming ideas on how to do that.

“That really created a lot of momentum for the organization, and that’s how we started to build our name in Spain and get our first members and donors.”

By 2010, Animal Equality had opened its first office outside of the country, in the UK, although its efforts had long had an international focus. By 2011, Núñez and her fellow activists had made such an impact that powerful players profiting from animal exploitation – particularly in Spain’s fur industry – were going to extreme lengths to try to stop them.

That June, Núñez and a group of others were arrested in coordinated, armed raids that clearly had been spurred by their anti-fur efforts. Núñez was driving to film at a slaughterhouse with two other activists when their car was surrounded by police. Others were arrested at home, with authorities confiscating computers, cameras and more.

The activists came to be known as the Spanish 12. Núñez and most of the others spent five days in jail, with three activists remaining imprisoned for a month. In the end, no one was convicted, but Núñez considered a long prison sentence a real possibility.

“It was just incredible that the fur industry would have so much power,” she says.

In 2014, based on its philosophy that its efforts should impact the greatest numbers of animals possible, Animal Equality made the decision to focus exclusively on those raised and killed for food.

I’ve been inside hundreds of farms. I’ve seen mother pigs in crates giving birth and their babies just falling on the floor, with the mother pig unable to reach them. It’s horrific.

Today, the organization has presented more than 80 investigations from 700 farms and slaughterhouses in 13 countries, including several virtual reality videos. A top-rated charity, its campaigns, legal advocacy and corporate outreach have led to cage bans, farm closures and cruelty convictions.

Besides its focus on results and on high-impact media actions, Núñez says Animal Equality’s international approach has been key, as has the organization’s flexibility.

“We always say we only want to do what works,” she says, giving Animal Equality’s position on welfare campaigns as an example. Originally, the organization strictly advocated only veganism.

“It was through analysis and seeing the impact that welfare campaigns were having for animals that we were able to question our strategy. Today we have an incredibly successful corporate outreach department because we were flexible.”

Investigations have also been crucial, helping Animal Equality become known in each of the countries where it works. But Núñez adds they’ve also been the hardest part.

“That’s definitely been the most difficult thing for me,” she says. “I’ve been inside hundreds of farms. I’ve seen mother pigs in crates giving birth and their babies just falling on the floor, with the mother pig unable to reach them. It’s horrific.”

She still takes part in investigations, but not at nearly the pace she once did. She is now based in Animal Equality’s 10-person Los Angeles office, although she is often on the road or in the air, visiting other Animal Equality offices and speaking at conferences and events.

Her advice for others in the movement? On leadership, she says constantly seeking to learn has served her well.

“It’s an ongoing journey. I still think I have so much to learn and improve.”

She adds, “I think the most important quality in a leader, though, is respecting others, and I try to practice that every day.”

For handling the many stresses of working on behalf of animals, she encourages patience, perspective and self-care. For her, that includes daily meditation, less time spent on social media and more spent outside.

“Animals need us to be in this for the long term,” she says.

As for what that looks like for Animal Equality, “I just hope we continue being impact-oriented and flexible,” Núñez says. “And future successes will come from that.”


Learn more and support Animal Equality.
Photos and interview by Jo-Anne McArthur. Text by Corinne Benedict.