Rita Miljo: A true animal lover
Recently, we remembered Rita Miljo, founder of the Centre for animal Rehabilitation and Education or C.A.R.E. (a baboon sanctuary in South Africa) on her 1st death anniversary. Rita Miljo isn’t a very popular name except to those who are familiar with global environmental movement. So, let me tell you the life story of this great conservationist lady.
Born Rita Neumann in an upper-middle-class family in 1931 in northeastern Germany, she joined the League of German Girls at the age of 8. It was the girlo wing of Hitler’s Nazi Youth. She later regretted saying, “Only today, in hindsight, do I understand the total madness we were subjected to.”
Coming to South Africa and Marriage:
Ms Miljo arrived in South Africa with Lothar Simon in 1953 and became his wife. She became a pilot and she enjoyed flying until she lost her husband and a 17 year-old daughter in a light aircraft crash in 1972. She married a South African, named Peter Miljo and started to be known as Rita Miljo. This marriage was short-lived and ended up in a divorce.
How she became the “Mother Teresa of Baboons”:
Back then, native South Africans considered chacma baboons as nuisance, as the baboons would often raid crops, planted by the natives who had intruded their habitat. People could kill chacma baboons because of the South African laws identified them as ‘vermin’, despite their high intelligence and social skills. Many baboons were killed for the sake of research and many died in road accidents.
Rita first became attracted to these poor creatures when she took in Bobby, a young female chacma baboon in 1980. But saving one baboon couldn’t satisfy this determined lady, as she knew it wasn’t enough for the entire species. In 1989, she established a rescue center in the bush of Limpopo Province about 250 miles northeast of Johannesburg, known to us as C.A.R.E.
At first the centre rescued a variety of small animals, such as bushbabies, civets, warthogs, duikers, porcupines, assorted reptiles and birds. Then they started rescuing injured and orphaned baboons and gave them shelter and required treatment. She raised and trained them to be healthy and self-dependent. Then she trained them into troops and tried to release them back in the wild where they were safe from human interference. C.A.R.E has released more than 250 baboons in the wild under Rita’s guidance.
Funding from International Fund for Animal Welfare and supports from organizations like International Primate Protection League helped Rita and her C.A.R.E. become known all over the world. Nelson Mandela was also a supporter of her cause.
Shirley McGreal, founder of the International Primate Protection League, said “Just as Mother Teresa cared for the most persecuted human beings in India, Rita cared for the pariah primates of Africa.”
Death and legacy:
On 27th July 2012, a horrific blaze destroyed the centre killing Rita Miljo. Also killed in the fire were three baboons including Bobby, the first chacma baboon she rescued and nursed back to health in 1980. Though she wasn’t as active as she used to be at the time of her death, but she was an inspiration for many. Her death will leave a void that will never be filled. Many found it consoling that Rita and Bobby went together as they couldn’t have survived well without each other. In fact, Rita and Bobby shared a coffin and a gravesite. Many organizations have come forward to re-establish C.A.R.E. which was completely destroyed in the fire. You must understand that Ms. Miljo did not begin her work as a scientific researcher. Her only motivation was her kindness and that’s where she stands apart. I wish the C.A.R.E. staffs and volunteer my best wishes for carrying forward a legacy so great.