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Photo by Rosie Free
Chimpanzee at the Mona sanctuary
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Photo by Rosie Free
Ever since she was a little girl, Claire Murray has loved monkeys. Back then she was delighted to see chimpanzees performing in a circus or on a television show dressed in nappies. Recently however, by taking part in a working weekend at the Fundación Mona near Girona, she learnt just how much these animals suffer at the hands of the entertainment and tourism industry.
The foundation was set up by vet Olga Feliu in 2000 in Riudellots de la Selva with the aim of seeking an end to the exploitation of primates in captivity. It is the only centre of its kind in Spain, a country whose proximity to Africa makes it an easy point of entry for the illegal shipping of these animals, and is currently home to 12 chimpanzees and three macaques rescued from various travelling circuses, a zoo, a circus trainer and other individuals who kept the animals for television work or as pets.
Nearly all of the animals at Mona bear mental and physical scars from their former lives and behind each and every one is a heartbreaking tale of human ignorance and abuse.
Female chimpanzee Romie, for instance, was born in the wild but then captured and sold to a photographer who took pictures of her with tourists on beaches in the Canary Islands. She was later sold on to a circus trainer and, when deemed too old to perform, was locked in a lorry and used for breeding.
“Chimpanzees have a bond with their offspring that lasts for life,” said Cristina Valsera, one of the head keepers at Mona. “Romie’s babies were all taken away from her soon after birth. Two of her babies, Sara and Nico, came to the centre in 2004 but she does not remember them. Too much time has passed.”
Sara was used on a late-night television show where she appeared as a baby dressed in nappies. When she arrived at Mona she had three broken ribs and deformed teeth. “She is extremely traumatised,” said Valsera. “She was living in a cage and if she misbehaved she was hit by the trainer. When she is upset she bangs herself against a wall.”
Her brother Nico was also in a very poor state when he was rescued and just as humans bite their nails when nervous, he would bite his hand. When he realised this behaviour earned him the attention of the keepers, he kept doing it. It was only later that they realised he had no feeling in his hand and discovered he suffers from a rare genetic disorder in which parts of the brain are formed abnormally. As well as operations to treat his condition, Nico has had to have four of his fingers amputated in the past two years.
Once chimps actually make it to the sanctuary, caring for them is expensive: apart from the cost of medicine and security, there is a lot of food to pay for—every week the chimpanzees get through 80 kilogrammes each of apples and pears and 75 kilogrammes each of bananas and oranges. In total, the centre needs to raise around €180,000 every year.
The Spanish government gives €12,000 annually towards the running of the sanctuary with other funding coming from charities like One Voice in France and the Brigitte Bardot Foundation. Much of the centre’s income however, comes from ‘working weekenders’ like Claire: a four-day working weekend costs between €460 to €520 depending on the type of accommodation chosen.
For Claire Murray, who found out about the sanctuary when she searched for conservation holidays on the internet, this is money well spent. “It is something I have always wanted to do but I did not know you could do it,” she said. “I think it’s great you can come here and do this. When I told people I was doing this, they said: ‘I’m so jealous. I would love to do something like that.’”
During the weekend, Murray, who lives in the UK and is a personal assistant to an employment lawyer, was supervised by one of the three head keepers, who are the only full-time staff at the centre. Working with them is a team of long-term volunteers who have committed a minimum of six months, working five days a week, to the project. Some of them come from countries as far afield as Peru, Australia, the US and Israel, while the working weekenders tend to be from the UK or other European countries.
A typical working weekend begins with an induction and tour of the sanctuary. Participants are then put to work doing jobs like cleaning the indoor sleeping quarters, collecting sawdust from a wood yard and fruit and vegetables from a wholesale market. Other tasks include helping in the design of devices to stimulate the chimpanzees and observing their interaction for Mona’s behavioural study programme.
They also help prepare snacks for the chimps before scattering them around the large semi-natural enclosure to encourage the animals to forage for food as they would in the wild. While the chimpanzees will never be able to actually live outside captivity, the centre aims to create an environment that resembles their natural habitat in African countries such as Tanzania, Uganda and Cameroon. And apart from providing their food and cleaning out their sleeping quarters, the keepers leave the animals to look after themselves, only intervening for medical reasons.
Mona is currently stretched to bursting point and, just as chimpanzees are an endangered species, the centre itself is living on borrowed time. It is built on land gifted by Riudellots town council for a period of 15 years. With its present funding levels, however, the sanctuary can only keep going for about another 18 months.
In addition to her job as head keeper, Cristina Valsera is in charge of communications, co-ordinating visits and fund raising, with the latter currently being her main concern. “The most important work is looking for funding,” she said. It is here that volunteers play another important role, with many continuing to support the centre financially after they leave.
After working at the sanctuary for six months in 2002, Lorraine Docherty set up the charity Mona UK and now raises over €30,000 a year for the centre. “I fell in love with the chimps and the people there and I promised Olga that I would help her raise funds and awareness about the plight of chimps suffering in captivity,” she said.
Talking about the working weekends, Docherty said “[They] are a wonderful way of learning about chimps and how to care for them in captivity as well as the funds going back into the project to help the primates. We have had very positive feedback from everyone who has gone on a working holiday with us and many of the guests continue to support us in fundraising and return visits.”
Following her weekend spent working at Mona, Claire Murray was clearly happy with her experience: “It was amazing. The people are all lovely and made me feel so welcome and at home. I had a truly fantastic time and would not hesitate to do it again. It certainly does inspire you to do some more work for them as all the keepers there—both workers and volunteers—care passionately about the chimps and macaques.”
For details about taking part in a working weekend at the Mona Foundation, long-term volunteering or simply organising a visit to the sanctuary, see their website: www.fundacionmona.org or e-mail: email@example.com