“If I only lived for that, then I had a good life.”
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.”
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Photos and interviews by Jo-Anne McArthur. Text by Corinne Benedict.