The important role Monkey World has in protecting primates
16:13 07 November 2016
Dorset has provided a safe haven for our closest relatives for nearly 30 years. Jeremy Miles went to Monkey World to discover the important role this countryside sanctuary has in protecting primates
I’m deep in the Dorset countryside at a sanctuary for, among others, former TV stars and photographic models. I’m hearing horror stories. Some of the residents have severe psychological problems. Others display historic injuries.
It might sound like a new branch of The Priory but this is Monkey World, the Ape Rescue Centre near Wareham. This 65 acre site - founded nearly 30 years ago by the late inspirational zoo-keeper Jim Cronin MBE - offers a safe and supportive home to more than 250 chimpanzees, gibbons, orangutans and other primates.
Many have been rescued from appalling misery. Snatched from the wild as babies they were trafficked as performers in circuses and TV shows or used as props for beach photographers.
While some have been beaten or force-fed tranquillisers, others have been nearly killed by misguided kindness. Kept as house-pets isolated tiny cages and fed leftover scraps from their doting owner’s dinner table. The result for animals which need a specific diet and interaction within sharply defined social groups is invariably behavioural problems and severe malnutrition.
Dr Alison Cronin - Jim’s widow - shakes her head sadly as she relates the catalogue of abuse that has been meted out to a number of her simian residents. Some have been beaten into submission or had their teeth extracted to stop them biting people. Others were forced to dress in human clothes and worked for up to 16 hours a day.
She sees the results of brutality and mindless exploitation every day yet still struggles to understand why. “How crazy is it that human beings, who are considered the most intelligent species on the planet, are so abusive and neglectful of our genetically closest living relatives?” she asks.
She points out that chimpanzees share 98.6 per cent of their DNA with humans, a fact reflected in their family groups, their societies, care of their infants and in their emotions. “Happiness, grief, fear - they experience all those things - and yet people are totally ready to abuse and neglect them under a wide variety of circumstances.”
Her late husband Jim Cronin was a tough-talking New Yorker with a passion for animal welfare, who arrived in the UK in 1980 to work at John Aspinall’s famed Howletts Zoo Park, near Canterbury in Kent. Driven by a desire to rescue and rehabilitate chimpanzees and other monkeys suffering at the hands of beach photographers on the Spanish Costas, he was soon ready to go it alone and established Monkey World on the site of a disused Dorset pig farm.
He had needed a location away from other zoos and wildlife parks where he could attract tourists to help fund the care of the animals he rescued. The site, near Bovington Tank Museum, was perfect. Using a small business loan courtesy of the Thatcher government he started building the refuge that today attracts 350,000 visitors a year.
Alison, a fellow American, met him when she was still a PhD student studying primates and biological anthropology at Cambridge University. She had taken a holiday job rescuing dancing bears in Spain and became interested in the specialist fences that Jim was using for his Monkey World enclosures.
The couple hit it off straight away. She describes the unusual circumstances of their meeting as “a little spot of Karma”. They were married in 1996 and the couple worked relentlessly to rescue and rehabilitate monkeys from Spain, France, Greece, Austria, Israel, Cyprus, Dubai, Mexico, Taiwan and many other countries including the UK.
Sadly Jim - a force of nature who had always seemed utterly indestructible - died aged 55 after a brief battle with liver cancer in 2007.
Alison dealt with her grief by throwing herself into continuing the work that had been so important to both of them. It’s an endless job. Providing monkeys with stability, social groups and proper care is paramount but most cannot be returned to the wild. “The problem, particularly for the chimpanzees and orangutans is that there’s nowhere for them to go back to.”
The rescue centre’s aim is not only to give the animals as natural a life as possible, but also to inform and educate the visitors. The vast majority understand but, along with the endless stream of stuffed monkey toys that arrive in Alison’s office, are almost daily emails from people who want to pet and hug the animals
“They’ll say ‘Can I come and cuddle Paddy?’ You just have to laugh because Paddy’s a 55 to 60 kilo ripped, male chimpanzee could quite easily tear them apart. People just don’t get it. That is the harm of the TV and entertainment industry. The images they portray mislead people.
She says that even the legal trade in monkeys as pets in Britain represents a “huge and significant” animal welfare problem. Earlier this year she told a Government select committee of the thousands of monkeys in British pet shops each year and purchased as easily as a goldfish.
The tragedy, she says, is that while marmosets, capuchins and other small monkeys are highly fashionable as house pets, few people actually know how to care for them. Unscrupulous traders are more interested in turning a quick buck than offering useful advice. Monkey World has two large dedicated areas to house the casualties.
“Most people are perfectly well-meaning but just don’t understand,” she says. “They’ll pay up to £1,700-a-time for a monkey which they then keep in a birdcage on top of the TV. The poor creatures get no natural daylight, they suffer from rickets and they suffer psychologically.
“I get people contacting me, terribly upset, saying: ‘I’ve just bought a marmoset and its lying on the floor of its cage making funny noises.’
“That’s because its bones are bending and breaking, because it’s not getting any sunshine and they’re not feeding it the correct diet.”
One tragic case history is that of Betty Boo, a pet marmoset brought to Monkey World for rehab in 2003. A bad diet had stunted the growth of her bones and rotted her teeth. Though crippled and half blind she was nursed back to some kind of health.
In April Alison, accompanied by former Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel and South Dorset MP Richard Drax, presented a 110,000 signature petition to 10 Downing Street demanding that all primates kept in the UK should be given the same standard of care whether in a zoo, pet shop or someone’s home.
Peter Gabriel has close links with Monkey World and last December made headlines when it was suggested that he was liaising with the rescue centre over a project to teach chimpanzees to use the internet and video technology to speak to humans
Alison Cronin simply says: “Let’s just say we are working on something and starting to trial a few things, but not what was portrayed in the media. There’s nothing to talk about yet.” Watch this space!
Support Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre
You can become a charity member of Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre and support the work they do for just £30 a year, which will also give you exclusive access to special events at the park such as their Great Big Sleepover find out more online at jimcroninmemorialfund.org. You can also take part in their Adopt a Primate scheme (starting from £25) which offers single (adult or child), family and group/corporate/school options. The scheme includes free admission for a year and a photo of the primate you are supporting. All the money goes towards the rescue and rehabilitation of primates.
Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre at Longthorns, Wareham, BH20 6HH is open every day except Christmas Day from 10am to 5pm (10am to 6pm in July and August).