Remembering Rita Miljo, the “Mother Teresa of Baboons”
Rita Miljo, founder of the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education, a baboon sanctuary in South Africa, died in a fire last Friday evening along with three of her favorite baboons. The blaze consumed her home as well as the clinic and nursery night quarters. No other staff, volunteers, or animals were harmed.
Her loss is a tremendous one for the sanctuary community. “Just as Mother Teresa cared for the most persecuted humans in India, Rita cared for the pariah primates of Africa: the baboons,” Shirley says.
South Africa’s “vermin laws” have allowed people to kill native chacma baboons who are considered a “nuisance” (as when the animals raid crops planted by people who have encroached on baboon habitat). Baboons have also been used in lab experiments or can be injured by other encounters with humans, such as being hit by cars. Their body parts are even used for “muti,” South African traditional medicine.
At C.A.R.E., a 50-acre facility that she established in 1989 in the South African bush nearly 250 miles northeast of Johannesburg, Rita took in orphaned and injured baboons whom no one else cared about. She patched them up, raised them to be healthy and independent, formed them into troops, and tried to get them released to safe places back in the wild. According to the New York Times, “More than a dozen troops, totaling about 250 baboons, have been released in the last 20 years.”
IPPL has supported Rita’s work since 1997. We sent funds this past winter for drilling a new well, to help provide a more reliable supply of clean water for the facility. Oli Kuhnel, a friend and neighbor to Rita, wrote to tell us that the new borehole had been finished and “is working perfectly.” She even thought that it “maybe even helped to contain the fire on Friday. Without it the tragedy might have been even worse.” The cause of the fire remains unknown.
As described in an article published in IPPL News, Rita first became attracted to these intelligent, sociable, and resourceful animals when she took in Bobby, a young female chacma baboon. That was in 1980. Then, “before she knew it, people were phoning her for advice on how to rear orphaned baboons, and several landed on her doorstep for fostering.” Bobby was one of the three baboons to perish along with Rita.
Although, at age 81, Rita had turned over most of the daily operations of C.A.R.E. to others, she was still a source of inspiration to many. Born in what was then Germany, she was a one-time leader in the Hitler Youth. (“Only today, in hindsight, do I understand the total madness we were subjected to,” she is quoted as saying.). She moved to South Africa in the 1950s and overcame the deaths of her husband and teenage daughter in the 1970s. Her life became devoted to her beloved baboons.
As one IPPL supporter wrote to us, “The only positive thing to come of this is that Rita, her work and dedication, and the baboons will live on as a continuing global inspiration to all that care about primate conservation.”
(Photos courtesy of Attie Gerber.)