It was a most unlikely encounter beside a crocodile-filled river in South Africa in 2007.
The meeting had been set in motion months before when Michael Blumenthal, a visiting professor of law at West Virginia University, saw an episode on Animal Planet about Rita Miljo, a woman dubbed “The Mother Teresa of Baboons.”
Blumenthal, a critically acclaimed poet, author and former director of Harvard University’s creative writing program, was stirred to interest.
The program depicted a tough, unsentimental woman in her 70s who had devoted much of her later adult life to adopting, caring for and releasing orphaned infant baboons back into the wild as members of functioning baboon troops.
What Blumenthal learned of Miljo and her organization — C.A.R.E. (the Center for Animal Rehabilitation and Education) — so intrigued him that he tracked her down. He asked if he could come volunteer for a month at her preserve in the South African outback, south of the copper mining town of Phalaborwa.
In short order, he was soon strolling with Miljo one day in May 2007 beside the Olifants River near Kruger National Park. (But not too close to the river because one local resident had gotten drunk, leapt into the river and was eaten by a crocodile.)
Crocodiles, as well as elephants, lions, hippos, leopards, warthogs, pythons, jackals and chacma baboons — many, many chacma baboons — were just part of Miljo’s everyday landscape.
“Baboons were kind of hated because they would break into everything and eat crops and a lot of them were shot,” Blumenthal said. “So there were a lot of orphan baboons. She decided that she was going to start this center for orphan baboons and raise them and then reintroduce them into the wild when they were old enough.”
Hundreds of baboons resided in and about the preserve, and more than a dozen troops have been released by C.A.R.E. back into the wild in the last quarter century.
While a few videos and documentaries had been done about Miljo, no one had put the woman’s life story into a book. It was a larger-than-life tale that began, at age 9, with a stint as one of the youngest leaders of a Hitler Youth group in northeast Germany. As an adult, she became a stunt pilot in South Africa, then later lost her husband and their 17-year-old daughter when they died in a plane crash.
After adopting a neglected, abused baboon named Bobby — and battling in the courts to defiantly rescue other injured baboons in knowing violation of permitting laws — she became a world-renowned, iron-willed protector of a beast long considered an unredeemable pest and “pariah primate” in Africa.
Miljo started C.A.R.E. in 1989 on 50 acres of bush, with a native South African man, Bennett Serane. Their initial aim was to treat and release various injured wild animals.
But the center soon came to specialize in the rescue, rehabilitation and release of injured or abused chacma baboons, as South African farmers had the right to shoot them as “vermin.” Poaching and trade in experimental animals also left behind other orphaned baboons.
Without any background as a scientific researcher, Miljo came to pioneer methods of reintroducing hundreds of baboons back into the wild, aided by a nursery and clinic for raising and healing injured and infant baboons. The center also serves as a lifelong sanctuary for elderly baboons or those too damaged to survive in the wild.
“After I left, we stayed friends and talked. She had said to me, ‘All my life, people have asked me to write my story and I’ve always said ‘No.’ But if you asked me, I would do it,’” Blumenthal recalled of the friendship that bloomed between them.
“She had read some of my books. Then, she started to send me her journal entries.”
The result is a composite book, first released in 2012 in German, Miljo’s native tongue. It’s a language Blumenthal grew up speaking as the second-generation son of Jewish Holocaust survivors who fled that same Germany of Miljo’s Hitler Youth.
The book, “Because They Needed Me: Rita Miljo and the Orphaned Baboons of South Africa” (Aequitas Books), was just released this month in English, credited to both Blumenthal and Miljo. (For more on Blumenthal’s encounters with Miljo and baboons, see the “Mountain State of Mind” podcast, episode 2.)
The first 25 pages are Blumenthal’s account of the month he spent up close and personal with baboons. The middle 65 pages feature Blumenthal’s edit of Miljo’s journal entries about her colorful story and her life’s work with the baboons she cared for, every one of which she could pick out, name by name.
The last section is a wide-ranging Q&A between Miljo and Blumenthal, cobbled together over many evenings of talks at her compound deep in the African wild.
A heaven of baboons
The book’s title comes from a comment Miljo made one night when Blumenthal asked her a pertinent question as they sat in the midst of a place Blumenthal dubbed “A heaven of baboons,” inspired by a James Dickey poem, “The Heaven of Animals.”
Baby baboons are, of course, as cute as any animal baby, Blumenthal noted. But once they grow to adulthood, baboons develop a long, dog-like snout with a much-deserved reputation as clever, indefatigable nuisances who can get into anything and everything. (The compound had to craft special baboon-proof locks for its doors.)
No one had ever championed baboons as conservation icons in the manner of Dian Fossey and gorillas, Jane Goodall and chimpanzees, and Birute Galdikas with orangutans, animals that are cherished and anthropomorphized into a status almost like that of furry human cousins.
Meanwhile, as Blumenthal writes in the book, “You stupid baboon!” is an insult in more than one culture.
Besides all of that, baboons are not an endangered species, to which Miljo’s signature response was: “Must we wait until a species is on the brink of extinction before we wake up?”
So that was the question Blumenthal posed to Miljo one night: “Why baboons?”
“You know,” she told him, “They are the last creatures under the sun that nobody cares about. That’s why.
“When I first started, everybody said to me, ‘With all that energy you’ve got, why don’t you look after rhinos or cheetahs,’ or whatever else it was they cared about. And I always answered, ‘Because these guys need me.’”
What Miljo did not have much need for was the nuisance of dealing with most members of her own species.
“She did not like people,” Blumenthal said. “I think she said something to me, like, ‘The biggest curse in my life is having to work with people.’ She was not fond of people.”
That isn’t to say she did not have friends or did not value the volunteers who came from across the world to nurture baby baboons back to health or into young adulthood, ready to join a troop. These would often be young women (baby baboons don’t take well to adult human males, said Blumenthal), who slings the babies in pouches across their chests and keep them warm, fed and secure around the clock.
Even as their friendship deepened and his admiration grew, there were aspects of Miljo’s world view that made Blumenthal uncomfortable.
“I wasn’t quite as tough on people as she was,” he said. “I wasn’t too comfortable with her attitudes on black South Africans. That was one of the things that made me most uncomfortable.
“I wouldn’t call her racist in some sense, because she really did judge people individually. If you did a good job, she admired you. She was on your side, no matter what color you were and I admired that about her. But on the other hand, she had some sort of generalizations about black Africans that I wasn’t very comfortable with.”
Despite such views, she deeply esteemed Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s post-apartheid leader, who came one day to see the work of a woman christened by one documentary as “Lady Baboon.”
“She thought he was a truly unique human being,” he said.
Then, there was the complexity of Miljo’s and Blumenthal’s Germanic pasts. “I think probably one of the reasons we hit it off is it interested her that I was from a German Jewish family and she had been in the Nazi movement as a child. I think she was humored by the fact that we became friends.”
Blumenthal also became friends with a few of the younger baboons with whom he worked. They would groom him, picking through the hair on his head and chest. (For more on his encounters with baboons, listen to the related podcast online -- see the SoundCloud player with this story).
When he entered the cage of the smaller baboons — or the so-called “mediums,” aged 3- to 6-months — he would become the “alpha male” in the cage. “So they come to you for protection. There’s a lot of fighting and negotiating for status. When they’re being chased or attacked by a bigger baboon, they’ll come sort of running into your arms.
“They start grooming you, which is very pleasant actually. They groom your hair and they groom your chest. They go into your pockets. They untie your watch. Anything you’ve got, they’ll take. They’ll even open up your belt.”
His favorites were two young baboons named Dennis and Maggie, “who are now probably big ferocious baboons living in the wild somewhere,” he said.
The preserve was home not only to baboons under the care of C.A.R.E., but also to a wild troop that knew it was a baboon-friendly locale.
“The larger baboons, the wild troop, they’re all over the place. They’re mating and eating and stealing and all kinds of stuff,” recalled Blumenthal. “They’re a little frightening. I always walked around with a stone in my hand because they don’t like that. They’re scared of that.”
The only bad encounter he had was in his last days at the center. He had rented a car to look around the nearby town and returned to say goodbye.
“I don’t know what was going through my mind, but I forgot what baboons were like. So I parked my car outside and the car had my backpack in it. When I came out they had broken off the mirror. They had seen the backpack. They had done quite a bit of damage to the car.”
He departed in his baboon-damaged vehicle. But the feisty woman who ran the place stayed with him in mind and spirit.
She never did get to see the book he put together. She died at age 81 in a terrible fire in 2012 at the preserve that also killed Bobby, the 35-year-old baboon who had started her remarkable journey into the society of baboons, as well as two other favorites. The staff barely succeeded in saving 40 other baboons in the clinic and nursery.
Miljo was buried in the same coffin with Bobby.
“I think I tend to be a sort of soft, bleeding heart type of person,” Blumenthal said, recalling her. “And she gave me a lot of respect for the kind of person she is, which was just very tough-minded, very unsentimental, very focused toward a goal. And nothing was going to get in her way — nobody and nothing.”
The center continues its work with baboons to this day. Half the proceeds from the book sales are earmarked for the foundation that supports C.A.R.E. and its ongoing work on behalf of a “nuisance” animal championed by a woman who wasn’t about to let human society stand in the way of her vision.
“Just to be around her was a kind of education,” he added. “At the end, when I left, she gave me a hug and said something like, ‘Well, I know this wasn’t easy for you, but I admire you for sticking it out.’ From her that was high praise.
“Considering I only spent a month with her, she had a big impact on me. I wish I was more like her, to tell you the truth. She was just a remarkable character. I think she was a unique and brave and heroic person.”
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at
304-348-3017 or follow
@douglaseye on Twitter.
Excerpt from “Because They Needed Me”
Miljo: Just look at all the energy I’ve had to expend to fight. Look at all the the fights I’ve had. Unbelievable fights. For what? To save a couple hundred baboons? It is, from the collective point of view, a waste of time. But okay. Now take any other kind of person, for example, who goes to the stock exchange and makes so many thousands of dollars a month.
Blumenthal: A day! Even a minute!
Miljo: Yes, say a minute. So what has he achieved? It’s all relative.
Blumenthal: Of course. And this I’m sure of: The only thing we can really do in this life is to make a dent. If the dent is 600 baboons, fine. If the dent is one child who feels good about himself and is loved, fine. It doesn’t matter. I believe the goal of human life is simply to be better than what made us, to somehow give better than we got.
Miljo: Well, better or worse, that’s relative. But I think that if you’re prepared to give — to honestly give — even if it’s wrong, you can never go wrong. And most people don’t even dare to do that.
Blumenthal: I think it’s partly because instead of being respected in this world, they are mostly mocked for it, mostly belittled.
Miljo: So, for that you need a strong mind. When I think how they mocked me, how they couldn’t look past my madness of trying to look after baboons. And you know what I said? I said, ‘Go and get stuffed!’ And thirty years later they don’t mock anymore. Well, I’m glad I lived that long. But who cares? Who really cares? When you think about whose opinions you depend on — and that’s a good thing about getting older — you really couldn’t care less about the others. You know that you’re sure of yourself, and you really couldn’t care what anybody else thinks. When you’re young, you try and please the world and you realize that the world is really a bunch of idiots. And that is the liberation you have when you are old. That’s why I thoroughly enjoy being old. [She laughs.]