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Things do not change; we change (Thoreau)

By Robin Huffman, Safina Center Fellow

The other day at Ape Action Africa, the Cameroon sanctuary where I volunteer, director Rachel Hogan and I were marveling at how primates changed the course of our lives and others we knew. The paths vary but all due directly to our encounters with “our closest cousins.”

My own story is on my website, designer-turned-primate sanctuary volunteer/portrait painter/advocate following three months raising orphaned monkeys.

Here are a few of those individuals I’ve had the privilege of knowing, because of the new path I chose:

In 2001, Rachel Hogan, a shy 25-year-old, traveled from Birmingham, England to volunteer for three months at Ape Action Africa (then CWAF). When a baby gorilla arrived, his family killed by poachers, Rachel offered to care for the helpless 1 ½-week-old orphan. That decision sealed her course. She promised infant Nkan Daniel she wouldn’t leave until he had a proper gorilla home and family. For two years, he practically lived on her body – as he would have with his mother. And though Rachel fulfilled that vow in 2013 with a grand new forested enclosure, she never left. That shy young woman now leads the organization with a staff of 50 caring for 350 apes and monkeys, meets with government leaders and makes presentations across the globe.

Rachel Hogan with Shai. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Ari Handel, neuroscientist-turned-filmmaker. His story in his own words: “Don’t fall in love with your monkey.”

British-born Shirley McGreal, with degrees in French, Latin and education, planned life as a college language professor. While living in Bangkok in the early 1970s, though, she spotted crates at Bangkok Airport awaiting shipment to New York – crates crammed with monkeys destined for lives of experimentation, as they reached out desperately to passersby. Finding no group addressing the issue, she started the International Primate Protection League, preserving and protecting the world’s primates and maintaining a gibbon sanctuary in South Carolina. Thousands of primates are alive and thriving today because of Shirley.

Shirley McGreal with Courtney. Photo: Tom Boatwright

When Angela Maldonado was a business administration student in Colombia, she saw someone’s young pet Woolly monkey on a leash, and felt an immediate, profound connection. She rescued the monkey from that situation and named him Matias. After unsuccessful attempts to house him with other monkeys (in the zoo), she quit her job and took him to the Amazon jungle she herself had never seen. They lived there until she successfully reintroduced him to the wild. Angela realized this must become her life’s work. She obtained advanced degrees from England’s Oxford Brookes University in conservation and primate conservation. Angela is the founder and scientific director of Fundación Entropika, specializing in law enforcement to eradicate wildlife trafficking in their region and empowering communities to protect their natural resources.

Former army officer, journalist, photographer and adventurer Ofir Drori is an Israeli activist based in Africa. Fascinated with Africa as a youth, and traveling the continent, he believed his career would focus on humanitarian causes. His rescue and care of a traumatized infant chimp, a bushmeat victim in Cameroon, proved otherwise. Ofir dubbed him Future because “that is what I wanted to give him.”

Ofir with Future working on setting up LAGA. Photo: LAGA:EAGLE

That special day I saved Future was the day I decided to stay and pioneer a Wildlife Law Enforcement NGO fighting to save the last great apes from extinction.” He founded LAGA (The Last Great Ape) in 2003, now evolved into EAGLE network (EcoActivists for Governance and Law Enforcement).

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