Volunteering in South Africa | My Family Travels

Following the summer after high school, I traveled to South Africa, where I will be living and volunteering for nine months. I have wanted to live in Africa and study primates since I first learned about Jane Goodall. When I realized I had no way to afford college in 2011 I started searching the internet for something I could spend my time on that would help me gain experience for my future plans to apply to vet school. I was delighted to find that a sanctuary in South Africa had an opening for a primate carer with food and accommodation provided. After telling my family my decision, I booked a flight.

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At IPR (International Primate Rescue) we care for over ninety monkeys with six species in total including Marmosets, Tamarinds, Squirrel Monkeys, Capuchins, Macaques, and Mona monkeys. Before this experience I had never had a job besides occasionally helping out my dad. My parents had wanted me to focus on school and though I had always had chores while growing up, I wasn’t prepared for the 8:30am to 6:00pm workday. I quickly learned that caring for primates wasn’t all about playing with monkeys. A lot more time is spent wrist deep in rotten fruit and fecal matter than is spent grooming the adults or cuddling the babies. Most of the monkeys that are in sanctuary have been previous pets or have had a traumatic life and so are mentally unstable and therefore unsafe to have contact with other than through wire. While there are many adult monkeys here at IPR that I have formed a bond with, groom on a regular basis, and would love to sit in their enclosure and cuddle them, I know that it would be foolish to underestimate the danger they pose.

I also was unaware that working at a sanctuary would require me to have to spend so much time directing short-term volunteers. I get to spend only about fifty percent of my time with the monkeys and the other fifty percent is spent explaining and showing other people how to care for the monkeys. When I do get one on one time with the monkeys all of my hard work is completely and utterly worth it. I am the primary carer of the Mona Monkeys and Macaques at IPR so that means I am in charge of regulating the diet of and giving insulin to our diabetic Mona named Papi. At first I was very scared to inject him because I don’t like needles myself and administering his insulin requires me to groom him twice a day and get him relaxed enough that I can place a needle in his neck and inject his required dosage. I have gone through this procedure so many times now though that it is second nature to me. I relish every evening when I get to go down to the Mona enclosure and enjoy the peace and quiet of an African sunset while I groom a sweet old monkey. The injection is just a minor part of the procedure and Papi is so used to it now that he doesn’t even seem to mind.

This isn’t to say that Papi and I haven’t had our problems. Not too long ago, in fact, I was performing a blood glucose curve on him, which entails drawing a drop of blood from his ear, big enough for a machine to read the amount of glucose in it. Occasionally getting the right amount of blood can take several sticks and Papi is usually very patient. This time however a volunteer came up to the enclosure talking quite loudly right as I had stuck him which startled him and I wasn’t quick enough to pull my hand out of the enclosure before he bit down on my finger. I managed to wrench my hand out of his grasp with only a deep puncture on the inside of my middle finger and part of my nail gone. While I was in great pain and my hand was dripping with blood I couldn’t be mad at him. It was just unfortunate that I happened to be within his reach when a loud noise brought his past traumas to life.

Working with the monkeys here at IPR has reassured me that this is what I want to do with my life. Experiencing the culture and living conditions in South Africa has given me, not only an appreciation for being from a country where most people have way more than they need, but has also humbled me because I have been raised to think it is perfectly normal to have as many material items as I do. Managing the volunteers has given me patience and great organizational skills. I can’t wait to come back to Africa.


This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.