Remembering Rita Miljo, the “Mother Teresa of Baboons”

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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.

Rita and baby

Rita Miljo was dedication to rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing South Africa’s native chacma baboons.

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.

Rita and Tito

Rita with alpha male Tito, during the release of Tito’s troop.

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.)

4 Comments.

  • Thank you for the article. Rita was really an incredible and very special lady. I was her first volunteer in the late 80’s until late 1996.Life has never been the same since I learnt to work with those incredibly wonderful primates. Rita and her passion has certainly left an unbelievable mark in my life and heart. My one solace is that Rita and Bobby went together. I do not think that they would ever have coped without each other.Thank you to all of you who promote the protection and well being of all the primates. Jenny Lodge

  • Having first learned about Rita through IPPL I have followed her work and the C.A.R.E. organization throughout the years. This is a tragedy on so many levels and her presence in Africa will be sadly missed. I believe her work will carry on in those who were devoted to this urgent cause and wish them Godspeed and best wishes in all their endeavors.I will continue to support them and hope that they can soon recover from this tragic loss.

  • Carolyn Bocian
    August 6, 2012 5:02 am

    I’ve just returned from Rita’s funeral and memorial service. Rita and Bobby shared a coffin and a gravesite. I can’t believe she’s gone but WOW what a life she lived! All of us who knew Rita cherish her as the fearless heroine of baboons. Rita, I imagine that your house in heaven is next door to Dian Fossey’s! I am so grateful to have known you, my friend. Thank you for sharing your life with us.

    The CARE staff and volunteers risked their lives to save the 40+ baboons that were in the clinic and nursery at the time of the fire. They are heroes too, and they’ll need our support to carry on Rita’s legacy.

    • Though the circumstances are tragic, it’s fitting that Rita and Bobby should be together in death as in life. We’ve been raising funds to send to C.A.R.E. to help the survivors during what must be a traumatic transitional time. Our hearts and thoughts are with everyone there.

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