Vanessa Barlow shares her thoughts and experiences of her time at the Vervet Monkey Foundation in South Africa, and how she decided to completely cut out animal products
I had never considered a vegan lifestyle while living in the UK, I had compassion and respect for animals but somehow this did not reciprocate in my diet. I had never really been exposed to veganism or realised the impact my lifestyle was having on the environment. On my arrival at the Vervet Monkey Foundation (VMF) I was expecting my first meal to comprise of raw carrots and lettuce but, surprisingly, it was spaghetti bolognaise – the taste was very similar but the ingredients were completely different. Stood next to the dinner table was Basil the rescued sheep who the VMF found nearly dead on the road when he was a lamb; he plays with the dogs, follows volunteers, and roams around free at the sanctuary.
As my stay progressed I learnt more about the cruelty involved in making animal products from various weekly documentaries we were shown. But it was not until I watched the video ‘The Best Speech You Will Ever Hear’ by Gary Yourofsky that it became obvious to me that my future would be void of any animal products, and I would do everything I could to educate more people what a difference a change in diet can make to animals and to your own health.
Although veganism has been a big part of my stay, my main reason for coming was to help the monkeys. Here on an internship with my University, I wanted to gain a greater understanding of monkey behaviour and how conservation efforts were impacting the welfare of this species – one that’s terribly misunderstood here in South Africa. The purpose of the VMF is not only to rehabilitate injured or abused monkeys, but to educate the community on how co-existence with this wonderful species can be achieved.
I arrived at the foundation in November last year. It was the beginning of baby season where we’d receive the infants that had been orphaned due to human interference; whether that be road accidents or mothers shot by farmers for trespassing on agricultural land. My first experience with our first arrival, named Gandalf, was one I will likely never forget. His big brown eyes stared up at me as I held him for the first time; barely two weeks old, his face pink and wrinkled and his body wrapped in a blanket, I couldn’t help but think of E.T. Without realising it I had made quite a fitting comparison, this baby thrust into an alien world, confused and calling for his mother, I was saddened by how humanity had altered his fate. After five months of caring for him, I cannot describe the overwhelming feeling I get now when I see him climbing trees and interacting with his own species.
Here at the VMF we run ‘The Foster Mum programme’ where orphans are trained to use feeding cages providing them with substitute soy baby formula in the absence of their biological mother. A ‘hands off’ approach with a minimal amount of human contact allows the babies to bond with their monkey foster mother ultimately ending in the successful integration into a social group, being adopted by their own foster mother, giving them a second chance at a normal life. I was very privileged to be part of this process, knowing I had helped the eighteen orphans achieve a better life. Although I enjoyed caring for these babies they should have been brought up in the wild with their biological mother and troop. Just recently we were called out to a local residential area where a Vervet infant was found with multiple pellet gun wounds, she was rushed to the vets but her injuries proved fatal with a collapsed lung and paralysis due to damage to her spine, sadly she had to be euthanased at the vets. No animal deserves to die this way because of hatred from the human race, let alone one that has just come into this world, it was a solemn day at the VMF as the reality hit hard.
Representing the VMF at the Global March for Lions protest in Johannesburg has to be one of my highlights of my time here. Canned Lion Hunting is a growing problem, especially as unsuspecting volunteers think they are helping by visiting lion parks that allow cub petting. The canned hunting industry is increasing in South Africa every year and the exploitation of volunteers is aiding this. We showed our support raising our homemade picket signs outside a Lion Park in Johannesburg, making visitors and general public aware of this neglected issue. It was a very empowering moment in my life and I hope to do more animal protests in the future.
Surrounded by mountains and a plethora of wildlife, the peacefulness and the beauty of Tzaneen is one of the main things that brought me here. With volunteers regularly visiting the nearby Kruger National Park and coming back with tales of seeing the ‘Big 5’, it is really incredible to see these rare and endangered species in their natural habitat. We also have weekend trips to the Debengeni Water Falls, where the elusive endangered Samango monkeys have been seen. Being close to Chimp Eden (a Jane Goodall Institute), we had the rare pleasure of attending a book signing in February by the legend herself where she gave an inspiring speech highlighting the achievements and success of her charity over the years, and also raised issues of the challenging future for Chimpanzees and other species in Africa.
I’ve been at the Vervet Monkey Foundation for seven months now and I ‘m still learning. With every day bringing new dramas, volunteers and staff work as a team to ensure the monkeys have the best quality of life we can give them. Living and working with a diverse set of people ranging from Swedish to Australian, I can honestly say I have made lifelong friends that I’ve shared this extraordinary experience with.
You can find out more about the Vervet Monkey Foundation at vervet.za.org