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Abused and abandoned primates: We must give them a voice

By Robin Huffman, Safina Center Fellow

Volunteering at primate sanctuaries caring for the monkeys and apes I paint is a very large part of what informs my portraits. I often spend months with them, seven days a week, cleaning their cages and habitats, laundering swaddling cloths and hammocks; selecting, preparing and serving their food and drink, offering bottles of milk hourly through the night; gathering fresh leaves, branches and other forest treasures; spending hours observing them and figuring out safe and intriguing enrichment options to keep these highly intelligent and emotional beings surviving and thriving.

It is always with mixed feelings when I see a primate brought to a sanctuary, knowing that once these orphans arrive, they will be as safe and as cared for as the sanctuaries can possibly manage, but at the same time angered and mourning the often tragic circumstances that caused them to need to be rescued in the first place.

Frodo the mandrill. Photo: Robin Huffman

Here is how I often think of it: We don’t know their stories. We know what the people who bring them TELL us. But that is often not the truth. And some come to the sanctuary with no history at all, dropped off secretly. The only thing we know about them then is their physical and emotional condition, their illnesses and wounds, physical and psychological.

Rocky the chimpanzee. Photo: Robin Huffman

Why did Bertie the chimp’s owners cut his ears off?

Bertie the chimpanzee. Photo: Robin Huffman

Why was Patates the female baboon kept in a welded metal drum for 10 years?

Why was Legolas the vervet monkey housed in a cage so small for so long that he’s deformed?

They look straight at us. They see us. But do we see them? Everything in their world was taken from them by humans, and the rest of their lives will be unnatural. They have lived through unspeakable events. Even so, we often sense they forgive us.

Emilie the Agile. Photo: Robin Huffman

We know their stories from the point they arrive at the sanctuary. And then we can tell their stories. We MUST tell their stories. We must be their voice in the world.

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