Smaragda Louw

Smaragda Louw

“We want animals to have rights because of who they are.”

L-R: Kathy Watson, Smaragda Louw, Prathna Singh, Kathy Raffray. All photopgraphs for this story by Jo-Anne McArthur/The Unbound Project.

On Fridays in South Africa, animals on sale for weekend sacrifices are everywhere. For those who follow local indigenous traditions, births, deaths, weddings, and cleansing ceremonies are all reasons to end animals’ lives, often painfully.

Traditional healers here peddle tea made from pangolins. Endangered species are sold openly in busy markets. Tigers can be kept legally as backyard pets, and South Africa is ground zero for canned hunting.

This is a tough place to be an animal rights activist.

It’s a good thing Smaragda Louw is tough too.

A mother of two grown children who spent decades as a child psychologist, Louw is chairperson of Ban Animal Trading, or BAT, a South African non-profit that she co-founded with a handful of friends in 2013. Through education, investigations, protests, petitions, media campaigns and more, the organization is working to turn the tide for all sorts of animals here, from cats and dogs sold online and in pet shops to those used in circuses, for their fur, and for experiments.

“We don’t want South Africans to see animals as commodities,” says Louw, whose petite stature belies nearly everything about her. “We want animals to have rights because of who they are.”

BAT is only a few years old and has no formal office or paid staff. But already it has made a name for itself as a formidable force that doesn’t back down.

I’ve just always had a connection with animals, since I was small.

Louw’s reputation is much the same, and she looms especially large in the minds of South Africans who profit from animal exploitation. Energetic and engaging, she is the kind of person who is willing to go anywhere to help those who can’t speak for themselves, including places she knows she isn’t wanted, like chummy closed-door meetings between hunters’ groups and the government officials who are supposed to regulate them. Or to a crocodile farm where she’s recognized and told to leave before somehow getting in anyway. Or to a municipal rabbit park accused of massive neglect, where she chats up a manager until she is sitting behind his desk, dictating what must improve.

Says friend Liane Craigie, “She is not afraid of anything when it concerns animals.”

Nor is Louw willing to apologize for what she knows is right. Recalling her answer when someone asked her recently to justify her efforts in a country with its share of human suffering, she says, “Because people can actually talk, and because there are other people doing this for people, so I prefer to do it for animals. I don’t have a problem if you work for people. That’s absolutely fine. But don’t criticize what we do.”

It’s a passion whose beginning Louw can’t exactly pinpoint, but it started when she was young. “I’ve just always had a connection with animals, since I was small,” she says.

A native of South Africa and a vegan, she has long been deeply disheartened by prevailing attitudes toward animals here, including the notion that animal rights is a movement only for privileged whites. For years while working as a psychologist, she dedicated whatever time she could to helping animals. She quit her job in 2010 to make activism her full-time purpose, co-founding BAT about three years later. The organization became an officially registered non-profit in 2015.

“Dealing with human problems and animal problems eventually becomes too much,” Louw says of leaving her first profession. “So, I chose to fight for animals.”

Of that choice, she says, “I’ve often thought there’s something in you that just tells you, ‘This is what you do.’”

By all accounts, Louw and BAT—now with a core team of eight women—do it well.

While the organization has embraced its menacing image to an extent, it has also been deliberate about not putting off potential supporters.

“Individually we may see things differently, but when we talk as Ban Animal Trading, we reach for middle ground,” Louw says. “We don’t want people to think we’re a fringe group. We want people to see us as something they can be a part of.”

That inclusive approach has served BAT well, with support for the organization—volunteers, media interest, online hits—exploding.

I’ve often thought there’s something in you that just tells you, ‘This is what you do.’

Indeed, Louw and some of BAT’s other core members have become so well known that they can no longer conduct undercover investigations themselves.

“She draws people in,” Cora Bailey, of Community Led Animal Welfare, says of Louw. “Smaragda has done so much for the profile of animal rights in South Africa. She’s been what people have needed.”

Another big part of BAT’s success has simply been how hard the team works. Some days Louw and her teammates are organizing marches and answering calls and blowing up social media with posts about the horrors of live-animal export. Other days they’re in the field, checking on cruelty and neglect reports, following up on cases and carrying out investigations.

“I think it’s really important to have new stuff coming out, to show people what is really happening,” Louw says. “I think it gives us a little more clout to get stuff done. We’re not just an organization regurgitating what everybody else gives us.”

Adds Prathna Singh, a core BAT activist, “We’re using stuff that we’ve actually seen ourselves, so when we try to fight something, it’s because we know exactly what’s happening, and we’re bringing that to the public.”

While Louw has no qualms about going head to head with animal abusers and officials who protect them, she also recognizes the importance of working with the system where it is beneficial. BAT produces meticulously researched reports on animal welfare issues, such as pet sales and wildlife trafficking, and submits them to authorities with petitions and recommendations for change. Last year, BAT successfully persuaded three of South Africa’s biggest online classified companies to stop certain animal sales, and it is now working for a total ban.

“It’s a long road that we’re walking and we know that,” Louw says. But, she adds, “We’re making progress.”

She admits the need surrounding her can be overwhelming: The calls are constant; Louw is always on the phone. There are far more issues to tackle than there is time. There are always more animals to help.

People and society are always the reason why policies change, so we have to start by showing people that the commoditization of animals is wrong.

It’s why she’s had to learn to let some losses go, and to pace herself.

“It’s OK to have duvet days and pajama days,” she says.

It’s also why BAT has made education and changing minds a top focus. While working case by case and issue by issue is valuable, Louw is convinced that real change will only come when there is a true groundswell of compassionate action for animals—which she says is BAT’s ultimate goal.

“People and society are always the reason why policies change, so we have to start by showing people that the commoditization of animals is wrong.”

Among the less conventional tools BAT is trying is a soon-to-be-published children’s book covering milk, leather, wool and more.

Even though Louw describes the status quo in South Africa as a “free-for-all” where “anything goes,” she says she also sees reason for hope.

She sees it in the pro bono lawyers who donate their time to help BAT and in the local thrift shop and comedy club that contribute some of their profits.

She sees it in the activists who turn up for BAT’s events and in the animals for whom they’ve made a difference.

L-R: Prathna Singh, Kathy Raffray, Smaragda Louw

Yes, she says, BAT has garnered strong opposition from animal traders and exploiters. But that just means she and her teammates are finding cracks in the system, prying them open and getting somewhere.

And with most people Louw meets, she says, she finds no opposition at all.

“When we start talking to people and giving them information—they watch our videos and see our Facebook page—most people are actually really grateful, because they say they didn’t know.”

She sees it often when BAT hands out flyers outside of zoos and circuses and other places where animals suffer.

“People turn around and leave,” she says.

“Because they didn’t know.”

Thanks to Louw and her team, more people than ever know the truth, and one flyer and one rescued animal at a time, their work is changing the fate of animals in South Africa.

Learn more about Ban Animal Trading and support their work.

Josie Humble

Josie Humble

“Life is life, whether human, monkey, dog or sheep. Compassion doesn’t discriminate between species.”

Josie Humble at the Vervet Monkey Foundation. All photos by Jo-Anne McArthur/The Unbound Project

Every morning at the Vervet Monkey Foundation in Tzaneen, northern South Africa, Josie Humble is out of bed before 6 a.m. Her work day doesn’t end until she goes to bed that night, so interviewing her for an Unbound Project profile meant following along as she gave bottles to vervet babies, supervised medication and medical care for various others, directed staff, delegated, organized, caught up on paperwork, and made many rounds of the sanctuary to check on the individuals in her care. Seeing just a few days of Humble’s non-stop life caring for the hundreds of animals at the Foundation, it was easy to understand why she’d received so many Unbound nominations.

Since I was really young I’ve always had a passion for animals.

Born and raised in England, Humble’s journey to running a sanctuary in South Africa started early. “My parents were vegetarian and they decided to raise my sister and I vegetarian as well,” she says. Humble’s mother worked as a natural health therapist, and when she attended conferences to promote her work, Humble would be right there beside her with her own miniature table, encouraging people to sign petitions and handing out information about fox hunting, animal testing, and other animal issues. “I feel very privileged and honoured to have had that upbringing because it’s led me to where I am now.”

Determined to have a career helping animals, Humble was over the moon when her father brought home a pamphlet about an animal care course at Sparsholt College of Winchester when she was a teenager. “I didn’t even think [that] existed at the time. I got very excited about it and signed up… I was 16 at the time, and that was 20 years ago now.”

Throwing herself into the coursework, she found that she was just as passionate about the practical side of animal care as she was about the ethics and welfare principles that the students were learning about.

I learned how much they are like us.

But not all of the students made the connection that Humble did. As the only vegetarian in her class, “People used to joke about me being vegetarian, put an extra piece of meat on my plate, things like this,” but Humble persevered with her beliefs that all animals should be treated with compassion. “I’ve always tried to get people to change their ways of thinking,” she says of that time, not knowing that this attitude would be instrumental in changing the direction of conservation at a sanctuary half a world away almost two decades into her future.

After graduating, Humble’s hard work paid off when she was offered a job as a veterinary technical advisor in Somerset. It was a dream opportunity that allowed her to learn even more about caring for animals. Humble worked with the company for four years, but it was a fateful four-week sojourn that would set her on the path that would ultimately become her life’s mission.

Eager for new experiences and to learn about different animals, Humble set to researching opportunities online and her interest was piqued by the Vervet Monkey Foundation’s volunteer program in South Africa. Vervets are considered vermin in South Africa, making orphaned and injured monkeys a common occurrence, with few people willing to care for them. And while the living conditions at the sanctuary would have been daunting to most people, Humble knew this was for her. “It was vegetarian and very basic living, with no electricity. Volunteers were housed in tents; this was bush living and I thought: this sounds amazing.” She approached her boss to request the time off, and while she received the consent she was looking for, it was on the condition that she come back. She and her boss joked that Humble may fall in love with Tzaneen and the sanctuary; it would turn out to be more serious than either of them knew.

Your one condition is that you return, because I know you might end up falling in love with the place and the animals and not coming back.

“It was the best month of my life,” Humble says now, and then pauses, listening to the monkeys. “I don’t know what’s going on with them today. They’re like ‘something’s scary!’ Look how they suck on each other’s ears,” she laughs. The sanctuary that started off as a four-week sea change is her whole life now.

Josie Humbe

The decision to relocate to South Africa permanently seemed hard at first, but ended up being the easiest choice that Humble had ever made. After she arrived back in England, she was searching for a way to remain involved with the sanctuary remotely. When a position came up, however, it wasn’t remote: it was an opportunity to be the on-site volunteer coordinator. Humble broke her promise to her boss. “I remember being on the phone and my mind quickly turning, like could this actually happen? And I just said ‘Yes! I’m coming!’ And it was as simple as that!”

The logistics of moving to a new continent were all consuming, and amid the turmoil of selling her house, resigning from her position, and packing up her possessions, Humble had one main priority: “I knew that the only way I could go back is if I could bring my dog, Reuben.” Less than a year after originally volunteering at the sanctuary, Humble and Rueben returned permanently in February 2006.

After around two years of working at the sanctuary, Humble was diagnosed with a painful condition called fibromyalgia, which seemed like it might put an end to her work with the animals. She searched desperately for a solution. “After a couple of years being here I found myself unable to do the things I needed to do for the monkeys. I wasn’t able to walk around so much. I tried a lot of different medications because I wanted to be out there helping.”

As she was struggling to find a solution that would get her back on her feet, Humble watched a lecture by animal activist Gary Yurofsky. Immediately, her life changed. “From that moment, I never ate cheese, eggs, or milk ever again… It was like a lightbulb moment like: what on earth am I doing? And why didn’t I see it in the agricultural college when I was actually there? How did I not see that?” she switched to a completely vegan diet and in doing so, Humble found the silver bullet that she had been looking for to improve her health. “After about six months of being vegan, I found my health dramatically improved and I actually came off all my medications.”

Her recovery let her re-dedicate herself to the monkeys with a new perspective on conservation. Humble’s motivations for moving to a plant-based diet weren’t simply about farm animals—she became passionate about the impact of animal agriculture on the environment, including the habitat of her beloved vervets. “Eating animals affects the environment, it affects the forests, it affects all wildlife everywhere,” she says, and hopes that other sanctuaries will make the connection and transition to plant-based diets for their kitchens, as the Vervet Monkey Foundation did shortly after du Toit made the change herself. “For me, working at a sanctuary and eating meat don’t go together at all.”

How could I go and eat a burger or a steak… knowing that we’re cutting down forest and planting massive monocrops to feed these cows?

One of the sanctuary’s other missions has always been to keep the animals as wild as possible, limiting human interaction and increasing each animal’s chances of living the most natural life possible. Humble worked with sanctuary staff to develop a method of helping orphaned monkeys learn to feed themselves and to bond with a foster mother. “That’s what I believe rehabilitation should be about,” she says. “Getting these animals wild and as happy as they can be back with their troop so they can actually have a real family in the wild rather than stay with us and spend their lives looking for attention from us.” The technique has been so successful that other sanctuaries in Africa are running their own pilot programs to help with re-wilding animals who have come into their care.

Humble and sanctuary founder Dave’s ultimate plan for the monkey troops that can live independent of humans is an ambitious project: The Vervet Forest. Right now, they are looking for a suitable piece of land—hopefully around 500 acres—that will be protected from poachers and loggers, helping not just the animals recover, but the ecosystem as well: “We don’t want it just to be a release site. The vervets help to repopulate the trees as well… We’d like to see everything thrive with them.” There are also plans for the Foundation to use the space to run education programs: “We’d like to run workshops on human-wildlife conflict, offer veterinary courses, primate courses, also about lifestyle and living. We’d like to educate people about reducing their carbon footprint and about how can they do something personally to protect the environment as well as animals. That’s the big vision and the big plan!” She laughs, but it’s clear that she’s serious about this big dream.

Humble and Dave are now the subjects of a documentary, also called The Vervet Forest. It’s a beautiful project that seeks to portray the monkeys not as vermin, but as Humble sees them, individuals worth caring about and worth saving.

Josie Humble

There is still a long way for Humble to go to achieve her dream of establishing The Vervet Forest, but her passion for her work and her tremendous empathy for animals keep her focused on that goal. “I think that everything I’ve done has basically led me to being here, doing what I can for these animals… By living true to my value and within my passion, I found my purpose.”

Learn more and support the Vervet Monkey Foundation.
Text by Sayara Thurston. Photos by Jo-Anne McArthur.

Lumka Golintete

Lumka Golintete

“Animals Are Precious:” Lumka Golintete’s Dedication to Community Led Animal Welfare (CLAW)

Lumka Golintete with dogs rescued by CLAW

Lumka Golintete with dogs rescued by CLAW

Lumka Golintete is often smiling even though she has witnessed so much suffering. Her energetic and compassionate nature has equipped her to deal with so many heartbreaking stories in her work as an emergency first responder with Community Led Animal Welfare (CLAW), an organization based in Johannesburg, South Africa. CLAW provides veterinary, rescue, and rehoming services within the various townships, and also runs a program of education with the intent to create a “culture of accountability” when it comes to the way animals are treated.

While CLAW’s primary focus is on dogs and cats, Golintete grew up learning to respect and care for many different kinds of animals. Her father taught her from a very young age that animals should be treated with respect. “We are supposed to treat dogs and cats like the way we treat each other as humans,” Golintete says when recalling some of the lessons her father taught her. He helped her to understand that it was important to speak kindly to animals and he modelled this behavior in the way he interacted with the many rescued animals who shared their home over the years.

Through her work with CLAW Golintete encounters terribly heartbreaking situations as well as situations where kindness and compassion shine through. “Sometimes I have those days where I cry too much because of the things I see,” she admits. But it is frequently a case of mixed emotions because in a matter of a few hours she can move from seeing “good things, people treating their dog so well,” to “terrible things, someone being bad to a dog.”

So much of Golintete’s work is about taking care of the immediate needs of both animals and humans. She is often called to homes where the occupants are living in extreme poverty and she sees first-hand how this impacts the lives of everyone in the home, including the nonhuman animals. For example, she frequently encounters situations where both a human caregiver and their dog are “in a terrible state” because there is not enough food to go around. Golintete feels strongly about helping people so that they are in a better position to take care of the animals they share their homes with. “When you see things like that you can’t just take the dog away from them,” she stresses, “that isn’t fair.” Rather, in these situations she recognizes the need for compassion and takes practical steps like distributing food parcels.

Golintete cites a lack of education as the root cause for so much of the cruelty she encounters through her work with CLAW. “It isn’t that people are necessarily cruel,” she points out, but, rather, that “some feel that dogs do not need medications or vaccinations.” In South Africa it is common to have dogs for security reasons, and Golintete has also encountered many people who “believe that if a dog is too full he will be lazy and too sleepy to bark at intruders.” She has seen many instances where dogs are deliberately kept underfed in the hopes that these animals would then, in turn, act as better guard dogs. But, as Golintete points out, this is a counterproductive attitude—“most people want dogs to be security, but you can’t expect dogs to do this if they are hungry.” Likewise, she encourages people who have dogs for security reasons to bring them in the house and to not leave them tied up outside where they could easily be poisoned. “How is a dog supposed to protect you from outside?” she asks, “You are in the house, so isn’t it better to have the dog in there with you? They can bark and scare people off and nobody gets inside.”

When Golintete encounters cases of animal abuse she tries to remember the educational potential of the situation. She always aims to stay calm and to “make friends” with people so that she has the opportunity to teach them about treating animals with compassion. “Losing your temper isn’t effective because you haven’t passed any information to them besides anger,” she notes. “You have to try by all means to stay calm, stick to what you are saying, and make sure that they have learned what you are saying to them.”

Golintete understands that there are often cultural and social barriers to overcome when asking people to rethink how they treat animals.

People need to see before changing, you need to know and acknowledge stuff before you make change. It is different when you grow up in an environment where people don’t do certain things, it is also different when you grow up in an area where you are exposed to those things. It tends to be hard to change or move from what you are used to.

To this end, Golintete feels that there is tremendous potential in educational programs for children. When asked about future plans, she talks enthusiastically about her hope that CLAW can one day offer a “safe after school space for kids, a space away from some of the problems they encounter in their daily lives.” In Golintete’s vision of this program, children would not only be encouraged to work on their studies through various prizes and academic competitions, but they would also get to spend time with the rescued animals that CLAW works with and, as a result, have the opportunity to see animals in a new light.

Golintete’s work with CLAW is such an important part of her life. She is often on call to help deal with emergency situations, but even when she is not scheduled to work people often show up at her house to seek her assistance. She works long hours and has little time for socializing or hobbies, but she doesn’t seem to mind. “I think I’m happy with everything and don’t feel like I’m sacrificing much,” she laughs, “I’d rather be here.”

It is Golintete’s drive to help animals and to help people understand why kindness to animals matters that keeps her going through long days and tough situations. She wants people to understand that “animals are precious” and that “animals just need someone who can understand them.” She believes that there are many ways in which humans and animals are similar and that “animals do try to show how they feel, they do show every emotion.” One of the main problems she sees is that many people do not know how to pay attention to what animals are trying to communicate. “We just need to look deep in to them, to understand their feelings and to listen to them.” It is Golintete’s goal to encourage as many people as possible to do just that.