The Women of C.A.R.E.

The Women 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.

Candace Laughinghouse

Candace Laughinghouse

“Womanism is about using your own experience to bring
a voice to the voiceless.”


C andace Laughinghouse is a powerhouse of a woman. PhD student in theology and ethics, wife, and mother to three young girls, Laughinghouse is changing the conversation about animal rights in theological and religious circles –– and far beyond. It’s easy to see why everyone from religious figures to leading feminists to African American activists are sitting up and listen when Laughinghouse speaks. She is funny, real, and paints an intimate picture of her family life, telling me how her daughter loves hooting her favorite word – “Poop!” – in public.

Growing up in Oakland California, Laughinghouse was raised in the folds of the Pentecostal tradition, in a church started by her great-grandfather. Her grandfather and father were both pastors, her stepfather a preacher. “The women were preachers, they didn’t call the women preachers though, that’s a whole other thing,” she says, laughing. Like most things with Laughinghouse, it’s a subject we’ll come back to from several angles.

Surrounded by cousins, life in Oakland was about church, music, and family. She was raised in a single parent home until she was nine years old. “I didn’t know we were struggling then. We were eating TV dinners and I thought we were rich… Early on, my mother let me know happiness was not in things.”

The only daughter of a single mother and a fierce grandmother who only recently passed away, Laughinghouse credits the support of strong women for the path she has taken. Though her grandmother would not have defined herself as one, Laughinghouse says the family matriarch was every bit a womanist – a term coined by author and social justice activist Alice Walker to refer to black feminism, which uses the voices and experiences of black women to challenge oppressive systems.

From an early age, her mother sent her to a school where the students came from diverse backgrounds. “She wanted me to experience something different than what we were a part of. That was the earliest stage of me understanding intersectionality… seeing how other people think, and being among others. That comes into the work that I do with having empathy.”

In fact, empathy is a theme that comes through strongly when Laughinghouse speaks about her work challenging patriarchy within the church – a community and faith that remains a strong part of her identity.

That was the earliest stage of me understanding intersectionality… seeing how other people think, and being among others.

Currently completing her PhD on the topic of theology and ethics, Laughinghouse came to study animal rights through a twist of fate. She was applying to law school when she heard about a joint degree in law and seminary studies at Emory University. She didn’t get into law school, but she began at the seminary school where the first class she took was in black church studies. Coming from a Pentecostal church, she says: “I thought I was going to teach these people, and then they started critiquing a lot of black church theologies that are responsible for sexism. I was really offended, I was trying to defend the church I was a part of; I was really challenged.” The experience taught her how to critique her own beliefs, while still honouring where she’s from.

It was in that first class that she began to study women in black Pentecostal churches and womanism. Soon after, an advisor suggested she look at the religious concept of the “breath of life” in animals, and she realised that a womanist theology could be used to challenge all forms of oppression, including of animals.

She decided to switch her focus. Finding that the majority of scholars writing about animal rights from a theological perspective were white men, Laughinghouse decided to chart her own path, bringing her unique voice as an African American woman to the subject of animals in religious theory. “Womanism is about using your own experience to bring a voice to the voiceless,” she explains.

Drawing on her own ancestry, Laughinghouse looks at animal rights from a framework of African and indigenous worldviews, incorporating principles of ecology founded in the interconnection of humanity, nature, and spirit. Her unique approach sees caring for the earth and for animals as both a religious and feminist action. By fighting against oppression of animals, she says, we are fighting all forms of oppression; and by caring for animals we are caring for all of creation, including ourselves. For Laughinghouse, that includes having a vegan diet: “If I’m going to be connected with nature, that involves the food that I eat.”

Standing at the intersection of so many schools of thought, Laughinghouse often finds herself an outlying voice in her communities: a womanist and vegan in theology circles, a woman of colour in animal circles, and an animal advocate in Pentecostal and African American circles.

Womanism is about using your own experience to bring a voice to the voiceless.

So how does she process standing apart in these movements? “Sometimes I feel alone, and I question whether I’m good enough, whether I should be doing this work,” she admits. But growing up in schools filled with such diverse peoples and worldviews, and attending a college where less than 5% of students were African American taught her the importance of communication, of finding a way to connect.

“How are you going to use your voice?” She asks. “When you have a truth, how are you going to make sure it’s received? If it’s negative, if it’s not constructive, then no one will hear it.” Laughinghouse approaches discussion about feminism and animal rights within her communities with respect and compassion. She sees hope in building connections with others, believing that they will reveal the ways in which we’re alike rather than how we’re different, while still refusing to compromise the hard truths involved in the fight for justice for nature, humanity and non-human animals.

If I’m going to be connected with nature, that involves the food that I eat.

She is forthright in encouraging all people, but particularly women, to build these connections. “Your voice has to be heard. And there’s so much power when we not only just speak up but when we come together. Find other women to support, work together.”

So what’s next for the woman who is managing to write her PhD in the stolen moments between taking her daughters to gymnastics, chess, Bible study, play dates, grading papers and speaking to her church leaders about animal issues? “My husband always says: “Finish that PhD so you can get a J.O.B,” she laughs. But that is just the beginning. Her dream is to teach, to speak at schools around the country, and bring animal rights courses into diverse subject areas at colleges, demonstrating the interconnectedness of a variety of human and animal issues. It’s no small task.

“I may not see the end but I’ve got a job to do. And I’m gonna be a part of this.” After all, she reminds herself, “It’s something much greater than you.”

Photos by Jo-Anne McArthur. Interview and text by Anna Mackiewicz.

Avalon Llewellyn

Avalon Llewellyn

“I see my activism as a holistic attempt to educate young people.”


Avalon Llewellyn. All photos by Jo-Anne McArthur/Unbound Project.

“Just a reminder,” Avalon Llewellyn typed into her phone. “Hosting a VEGAN MEETUP ON SATURDAY!”

T he post on her Instagram account, @tiedyedtofu_, quickly amassed hundreds of likes. When the day came, two dozen people turned out, most of them in their mid- to late-teens, like Llewellyn. They were snacking on vegan doughnuts and sharing recipes and stories at a park in Llewellyn’s native Australia when her phone buzzed. It was one of her 12,000-plus followers, interested in joining the group but hesitant.

“She was 50 or 100 meters away and she didn’t know if she could come or not because she wasn’t vegan,” Llewellyn recalls. “She was so nervous. I think she was about 14. She said, ‘Do you think I can come along? Will everyone hate me?’”

Llewellyn assured her the meetup was judgement-free and open to all.

“She sat down and asked us so many questions,” Llewellyn says. “She went away with so much knowledge.”

Avalon Llewellyn

Now 17, Llewellyn first tried giving up meat when she was 12, around the time she launched her Instagram account. At 13, she went vegan, and in the years since she has helped inspire countless others to do the same. Her target audience is young people, and her main tool is online activism, although her efforts extend well past social media. At 15, she published a 100-page ebook, “The Modern Guide to Going Vegan at a Young Age.” In addition to in-person meetups, she mentors peers over email.

In all of her outreach, she aims to be approachable and understanding, a tack that she says works.

“I always say, ‘My direct messages are open. I’ll be your big sister. Email me about anything,’” explains Llewellyn, who is warm, articulate and brimming with dreams and ideas for the future. “I used to eat meat myself, and I was quite oblivious, so I approach it with kindness.”

There are lots of things for people going vegan, but what I found was there was almost nothing for young people who are still living with parents, who can’t choose everything. So I kept that in mind.

About her Instagram account, where she makes most of her connections, she says, “I seek a balance between education on animal rights, education on veganism, highlighting the wonderful world of vegan food, and posts to remind people I am just your average young person.”

Now in her last year of high school, Llewellyn has lived in Sydney her whole life and has loved animals and activism for about as long. She remembers carefully tracking and observing lizards in her backyard before she’d even started school. By age eight, she was scrawling messages onto homemade posters, including, Poachers should go to hell!

“They were these intense posters,” she laughs, adding that her parents helped her reconsider the hell part. “I had them all planned out – a poachers one, one about whales, a whole collection.”

Soon, Llewellyn was watching documentaries on palm oil and on animal agriculture’s impact on climate change. It was a video about the egg industry and its cruel destruction of male chicks that pushed her to give up meat. Her mother, creative director for a theater company, and her father, an English teacher, were supportive – an advantage that Llewellyn knows many young people don’t have.

About her ebook, she says, “There are lots of things for people going vegan, but what I found was there was almost nothing for young people who are still living with parents, who can’t choose everything. There’s peer pressure. There’s family pressure. There’s school pressure. So I kept that in mind.”

She credits her parents with giving her the courage to carve her own path.

“They always raised me to believe that I had a voice and I could fight for issues I believe in. They taught me to challenge things and always read every side of the story.”

As she’s gotten older and as her Instagram following has grown, Llewellyn says she’s learned a lot about effectively reaching people.

“At the beginning, I was unsure how to get a message across about an inherently violent industry, but still do that quite kindly,” she says. “I’m more able to articulate my ideas now. I can articulate why I’m vegan.”

I suddenly realized, wow, look at all of these people who are doing what they love and turning it into a career and activism. I was mind-blown.

Joining her school’s debate team helped, as did continuing to educate herself about factory farming and other industries that exploit animals.

“A lot of it was learning as much as I could, because the more I knew, the better I could talk about it.”

Her interest in animal rights soon led her to other social justice issues, from racism and women’s and LGBT rights to the environmental costs of overconsumption and rampant plastic use.

“What I noticed was there was so much more than veganism that I could use my platform for,” she says. “I see my activism as a holistic attempt to educate young people.”

Like Instagram, she believes art is an essential tool. Besides writing and photography, she loves embroidery – among her recent pieces is one called “Daddy, Where did the Bees Go?” – and filmmaking. She took two years of film courses in high school and now hopes to make it a significant part of her future.

Llewellyn’s camera and an embroidery piece in progress.

“I suddenly realized, wow, look at all of these people who are doing what they love and turning it into a career and activism,” she says. “I was mind-blown.”

I used to eat meat myself, and I was quite oblivious, so I approach it with kindness.

For her year 10 work experience, she interned at Animal Liberation’s Sydney headquarters. When her supervisors discovered she knew her way around iMovie, they asked her to help edit undercover footage of rabbit and egg farming.

She calls the video she worked on “heartbreaking and shocking,” but adds, “It was an honor to have the opportunity.”

Llewellyn now works at The Cruelty Free Shop, Australia’s first vegan supermarket chain, and runs their Instagram. She also plays the piano, studies French, and loves her many potted plants, which she names (Flo, Beatrice, Mrs. Dursely) and frequently features on her social media.

In the near future, she says, she hopes to release an updated ebook, launch workshops on veganism and activism, and work on an animal rights-related documentary.

“I sometimes wake up with images in my brain or opening scenes of films I hope to make one day.”

Graffiti in Newtown, a particularly vegan-friendly area of Sydney.

Is it all too much for a 17-year-old who is also balancing friends, exams, and planning for the rest of her life?

Sometimes it is, Llewellyn acknowledges.

“This stuff gets a little overwhelming, when I’ve got 10 people wanting answers and loads of emails.”

She has scaled back her activism in recent months as she has struggled with mental illness, something she is open about on Instagram.

“I’ve been chatting with so many of you recently about mental illness, plants, veganism etc.,” she posted recently. “It has just reminded me of how wonderful every single one of you are and how proud I am that all of you are alive and hanging in there.”

She says that’s what gets her through harder days: all of the young people she connects with, and the change she knows they are making.

“I have a lot of faith in my generation,” she says. “I have a lot of faith that we’re going to be able to fix all of this.”

Follow Llewellyn on Instagram @tiedyedtofu_
Photos and interview by Jo-Anne McArthur. Text by Corinne Benedict.


The Black Mambas

The Black Mambas

“Their mindset has changed. They’ve seen that
women can do it.”

Yenzekile Mathebula (L) and Leitah Mkhabela (R). All photos by Jo-Anne McArthur/Unbound Project.

Balule Nature Reserve, part of South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park, is home to all of the so-called Big Five: rhinos, elephants, buffalo, leopards, and lions. A fair share of venomous snakes and hyenas roam its 150 square miles, too.

But the most dangerous creatures in this hot, unforgiving landscape are the human predators: poachers, often armed, looking to leave with bushmeat or valuable rhino horn.

Protecting this sanctuary is surely a task best left to men – big ones with guns, right?


For the past five years, a group of a few dozen women, all of them young and from communities immediately surrounding Balule, have been changing minds about what it takes to save wildlife. Now well known as the Black Mambas, their anti-poaching unit patrols unarmed, relying on keen observation, a visible presence and relationships with their neighbours over force.

Felicia Mogakane (L) and Siphewe Sithole (R)

“At first, people around the world thought that anti-poaching is a man’s job,” says Felicia Mogahane, in her late 20s and among the first of the Black Mambas when the nearly all-female unit launched in 2013. “They think women are there for taking care of babies, maybe cooking at home. They never thought that women can protect wildlife and do this dangerous job.

Their mindset has changed because of the Black Mambas. They’ve seen that women can do it.

Now with more than 30 rangers, the Black Mambas have been true pioneers in a profession that is heavily dominated by men, especially in Africa. Most of the unit’s members join shortly after high school, when many of their female peers are prioritizing marriage, home life or jobs seen as more acceptable for women.

Instead, Mambas spend months in intense field training, learning surveillance practices, compliance techniques and how to survive alone in the bush. Once in the unit, they spend three weeks away from home at a time, conducting long patrols, including at night, both by jeep and on foot. Often far from any backup, they dismantle poachers’ camps and snares, come to the aid of animals who’ve been harmed, and search for signs of intrusion, such as breaks in fencing, human tracks and even out-of-place rocks.

In the unit’s early years, members say, many recruits’ families and neighbours were unsupportive. But that has changed as the Mambas, named after the deadly snake, have become internationally known and celebrated. They’ve been featured by countless newspapers, websites and television shows.

“I don’t want to lie,” Mogahane says. “At first my family was so negative about this idea. They said, ‘Don’t go. What about us?’”

Today, relatives take immense pride in her work, she says. And when she is home between stints in the bush, she is bombarded with questions from women who want to follow in her footsteps.

“They always ask me, ‘When are they going to hire more Mambas?’”

What has garnered so much attention isn’t just that the Mambas are among South Africa’s first black women to work as rangers. It’s that what they’re doing is working. Poaching in and around Balule has decreased dramatically since the unit began, including among rhinos, the main species the Mambas were created to protect. In 2015, their success earned them the prestigious United Nations’ Champions of the Earth award.

“We are the best,” Leitah Mkhabela, a Black Mamba in her early 20s, says matter-of-factly.

Mogahane adds, “It’s been insane. They love what we are doing.”

In the years before the Mambas, unit administrator Amy Clark says, two major poaching crises nearly wiped out Kruger’s rhino population, now estimated to be around 9,000. (South Africa is home to about 20,000 rhinos, far more than any other country.)

“Bringing the same tools out of the toolbox wasn’t going to work,” Clark says. “It had already failed twice.”

Convinced that bullets would never be the way, Craig Spencer, who founded the Black Mambas, decided a unit of women could be part of the answer, along with an approach based on deterrence and modeled after the British police: “bobbies on the beat” who are unarmed but well trained, highly regarded and ever-present.

Colin Mathebula and Felicia Mogahane

“The Mambas are the eyes and ears of the reserve,” Mogahane says. “We do visual policing. We look more carefully because we’re not carrying guns. When we’re patrolling in the bush and along the fence, we don’t have time to play.”

We are the best.

Also key is that Black Mambas come from the same communities as the poachers and would-be poachers they are working to stop. Part of their work involves teaching locals that live rhinos are more valuable to South Africans than dead ones. Besides setting an example and promoting their conservation ethos through their patrol work, the Mambas give environmental education lessons in local schools through a program called Bush Babies. They are certain that children of poachers are among those they reach.

Mamba NoCry Mzimba explains her unit’s success a slightly different way: “The poachers, they are afraid of the Mambas. They’re not sure what we’re capable of. That’s our secret.”

She adds, “When we started this, most people didn’t believe in us. But they realized they made a mistake.”

The Mambas acknowledge that their job involves danger and hardship. Many are mothers who rely on family and neighbours to help rear their children while they’re away, and while no Mambas have been killed for their work, they know that poachers have murdered many rangers at other African reserves.

“I sometimes think that they will come to our reserve and do the same thing,” Mogahane, who has two children, confesses. Of her kids, she says, “You wish you could be there to look after them. Sometimes it’s so stressful.”

But what they are protecting is worth it, and so are the now-shattered barriers they’ve broken through, she and other Mambas say.

The poachers, they are afraid of the Mambas. They’re not sure what we’re capable of. That’s our secret.

“I’ve committed myself to saving rhinos and wildlife,” Mogahane says. “I’m used to staying in the bush and doing my job and my beat. As long as I go home sometimes to see my family, it’s ok for me. The animals need my love. As a woman, I feel proud for myself. When I wake up in the morning, I’m like, ‘Wow, it’s me doing this.’ We are sending a message to young women that they must stand up and do things for themselves.”

Mzimba, who says she has loved animals and nature all her life, feels much the same.

“It’s ok,” she says of the job’s sacrifices, “because I’m trying to save animals. Now it is our time. It is our time as ladies to protect nature and make sure everything is better than before.”

She says she has two messages for her community – one for those who support conservation, and another for those working against it.

“To people who love nature, let’s save our wildlife animals. Let’s protect them for future generations’ sake. Because we love it, and I’m 100 percent sure that future generations will also love nature. So let’s do this for them.”

Mzimba pauses a moment, and then continues. “To poachers, you heartbreakers, you heartless people, stop poaching the rhinos. Because sooner or later, you will be poached.”

About the animals they are saving, another Mamba says, “They are just like us. They want love.”

Now it is our time. It is our time as ladies to protect nature and make sure everything is better than before.

She tells the story of one rhino in particular, a male whose mate was shot and killed by poachers. Ever since, he has avoided the place where the shooting happened.

“I can feel that he’s feeling pain. I can say they are just like humans,” she says.

“When they hear our voices, they know it’s us, and we can see they are happy.”

Learn more and support The Black Mambas.
Text by Corinne Benedict, photos by Jo-Anne McArthur.