Rosalie Little Thunder

Rosalie Little Thunder

“When we talk about buffalo people, we’re not talking about buffalo and Lakota separately. It’s all one.”

“We live in a time when how to be a good human being in the natural world is diminished,” wrote Rosalie Little Thunder late one night in May, 2002, as she sat at her computer sending e-mails to dozens of Native and non-Native grassroots organizations. She was writing about the recent killing of 72 Yellowstone National Park buffalo in one day by the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL); so deeply embedded are these animals in Lakota spirituality that the news had kept her from sleeping.

A tenacious activist, member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, award-winning bead artist, and Lakota language teacher, Little Thunder worked to protect wild buffalo from the mid-1990s until her death in 2014. She wanted these last wild buffalo not to disappear and for Native peoples to have more agency in their fate. In 1999 she led a group of Lakota Sioux on a 507-mile walk across Montana carrying a sacred pipe wrapped in a bundle in her arms. The difficult journey was offered as a sacrifice to honor the spirit of the many Yellowstone wild buffalo slain over the past few years by the Montana DOL. It was an act, she said, of spiritual activism: “When we co-existed with the buffalo for centuries, we could see its role in the ecosystem, in the natural world, and we adopted its ways, so when we talk about buffalo people, we’re not talking about buffalo and Lakota separately. It’s all one.”

I had the honor of working with Little Thunder in 2001 as we fought together – her as an Indigenous activist and me as an animal rights reporter – to try to close down one of the world’s largest hog factories being built on sacred Lakota lands in South Dakota. With Rosalie as my guide, I visited Rosebud Sioux Reservation just as Bell Farms was trying to get an enormous hog confinement facility built as fast as possible, pushing the deal through without a complete Environmental Impact Statement. As we worked together, Rosalie often talked to me about buffalo, and the more she spoke the more I began to grasp the huge cultural divide between the domesticated pig trapped in industrial agriculture and the wild buffalo, struggling to stay free.

Buffalo once roamed the Great Plains 50 to 60 million strong. During the late 19th century, in a few decades, they were nearly exterminated by the U.S. army and commercial hunters. Now, they number less than 5,000. These few thousand that have found refuge in Yellowstone National Park are the last remaining herd of genetically-pure, free-roaming buffalo in the United States – yet they curiously fall under the jurisdiction of livestock management, a classification that has significant ramifications. They can still legally be slaughtered. Why? For committing the crime of grazing beyond the Park’s boundaries into the state of Montana. When employees of the Montana DOL capture and kill the buffalo, they claim they are merely doing their job – protecting the cattle that graze on public lands from the threat of contracting a disease known as brucellosis (though no documented cases of transmission between buffalo and cattle have ever been reported).

“When we see how the buffalo functions in its ecosystem, we hold it to be sacred.”

To understand how protecting these animals came to be so important in Little Thunder’s life, we need to look back to the brutal winter of 1996-97. Snowdrifts in Yellowstone that year were 10 to 15 feet high. As buffalo meandered down from the mountains in search of grass, they crossed state lines and the Montana DOL opened fire, killing 1,100 in a few days. Filmmaker and environmentalist Mike Mease was one of the few people who witnessed the bloody killings and the only person recording what he saw. Little Thunder saw the video, had copies distributed to dozens of different tribes, and met Mease at Yellowstone National Park to see the carnage for herself.

Outraged at the disrespect shown to an animal her culture holds sacred, she participated in a Day of Prayer for the Buffalo alongside many spiritual leaders near where the killings were taking place. The sharp sound of gunshots interrupted the ceremony; the Montana DOL had just killed 14 buffalo in a nearby field. Without hesitation, Little Thunder rushed to the side of the slain buffalo to pray for them. She was immediately arrested for criminal trespassing. Later that year, Mease and Little Thunder co-founded Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC), a grassroots organization that works to stop the slaughter that continues to this day.

Economic inequality often leads to the poorest communities being hit hardest by pollution and environmental impacts. Rosebud Reservation struggles with a housing shortage, high unemployment, drug addiction, and poverty – factors that can make daily obstacles feel overwhelming. Perhaps that was why Bell Farms picked Rosebud Reservation for an enormous pig farming operation. After a long and costly legal battle fought by Humane Farming Association on behalf of the Tribe and tribal activists – which went all the way up to the Supreme Court – the project was initiated but then stalled. Only two of the 13 hog production sites originally proposed were built, and 12 years later they both were shut down. This was considered a huge win for the tribe. Today, the remaining 48 hog confinement buildings that sit on these two sites are all dilapidated, their roofs falling down and large cesspools of pig waste remaining untended. In this community, that’s the price of winning. The price of losing would have been much worse.

What does it mean to be a good human being in the 21st century? Little Thunder would say it requires being in right relationship with other-than-human powers of the natural world, including animals. She would tell us that it means listening to our ancestors, and recognizing that the earth holds lessons for us, and not the other way around. “My children still feed my father’s spirit,” she told me once. Can we find a way to feed Rosalie’s spirit by our actions today? She dreamed of wild buffalo returning to her reservation in great numbers. “After I am gone, I want there to be buffalo on this Earth. Maybe the buffalo will help us be here a little bit longer. Maybe they will help us survive.”

“Sacredness has a purpose, a very obvious purpose – to have reverence and acknowledge the power of the natural world.”


Photos and video courtesy of the Buffalo Field Campaign. Story by Tracy Basile.

Freelance journalist Tracy Basile has reported on animal welfare, wildlife, indigenous rights, food and farming. Her work has been published in Orion, ASPCA Animal Watch, Animal Welfare Institute Quarterly, Indigenous Survival and Spirituality & Health. She teaches writing at Saint Thomas Aquinas College and lives in the Hudson Valley of New York.

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.