La Vie Quotidienne of a Primate Sanctuary Volunteer

By Robin Huffman, Safina Center Fellow

Sometimes I characterize my life as BP and AP–Before Primates and After Primates. And after logging almost four years of volunteering at primate sanctuaries in Africa and the U.S. since 2007, I tend to forget how different my lifestyle is from that of my former corporate colleagues, clients and friends. It’s certainly not one they’d consider “normal.”

Following are a few of my activities at Ape Action Africa in Cameroon.

• The first thing I do upon arrival is buy a dozen buckets, Cameroon coffee and a machete. Machetes are the “Leatherman” of the jungle. And the buckets…well, one can never have too many buckets at a primate sanctuary in the rainforest! We pump or schlep our own water for everything from drinking and bracing bucket showers to laundry and cage cleaning.

Pumping water. Photo: Robin Huffman

My buckets collecting rainwater. Photo: Robin Huffman

Washing machine. Photo: Robin Huffman

• Caring for an infant monkey is a round-the-clock affair, making fresh bottles of human baby formula every four hours (including throughout the night, by flashlight, as we only have electricity three hours a day), and feedings up to several times hourly. They sleep in a small cloth-lined transport cage next to my bed or on it, inside my mosquito tent.

Sunshine the baboon getting milk. Photo: Robin Huffman

• Morning chores include cleaning one or two spacious cages, where young monkeys live before joining troops in the large forested enclosures. Cleaning these cages and providing leaves and enrichment are critical for their health and wellbeing. Highly intelligent, mischievous and active, they’re easily bored. We also always have to be vigilant about safety (think of a toddler, except with ten times the dexterity and determination).

It’s one of my favorite parts of the day. As I clean, scrubbing the floor on my hands and knees, covered in sweat and monkey poop, a colorful array of revved-up juvenile guenons bounce off of me as if I’m a jungle gym.

• The monkeys in my care are on the receiving end of my passion for food and preparing it. Food is love…and enrichment. I keep a bounty of fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs and nuts for the three feedings a day I give them. They virtually quiver with excitement at choosing among the array of colors, textures and flavors.

Food for monkeys. Photo: Robin Huffman

• I generally provide fresh leaves daily, usually wild ginger, wild sugarcane or banana. Grabbing my machete, I follow the old rust-colored dirt logging road, then veer off into the jungle. No matter how hot or dry out in the open, here it is always cool, moist and lushly scented.

Leaf gathering. Photo: Robin Huffman

• I’ve been painting primate portraits ever since my first volunteer stint, when I fell in love with–and painted–Maasai, the first infant monkey I ever cared for. So one of my primary activities at sanctuaries is painting: signs and artwork, mission statements and educational displays, billboards and buildings. I’ve painted on shipping containers, car bumpers, 1/8” plywood, doors, discarded iron cage doors, abandoned refrigerators, electrical boxes and confiscation crates. The sanctuary leaders allow me tremendous artistic freedom. One could hardly ask for more. I get to manifest my love for the primates through my art.

Painting the education building. Photo: Alex Benitez

7 Comments on “La Vie Quotidienne of a Primate Sanctuary Volunteer

  1. Well done Robin, you are an asset to all sanctuaries you volunteer at. I am so happy to have met you and am still glad to see you when we are both in Cameroon at AAA.

  2. Hi Robin it is so great to see what you are doing and to know how important it is to you does primates are so lucky to have you and for those who do not know your artwork is stupendous

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