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Getting into Monkey Business at Cisco


Ally eating lunch with two of the baby baboons, Tina and Adam
Ally eating lunch with two of the baby baboons, Tina and Adam

When I first learned about Time2Give and the opportunity to take time off so I could volunteer, I was stunned. This was finally my chance to take the trip I had been dreaming of for years. It was time to study monkeys in the wild.

A little background, while the other children in my class dreamed of being Mulan, Batman, or a dinosaur, I dreamed of being Jane Goodall the famous primatologist. Her book "In the Shadow of Man", was dog eared and worn down by the time I came to grips with the notion that I would have to travel a long way to work with the monkeys I dreamed of.

The second I was accepted into a volunteer program in the fall, where I would assist in the care and release of rescued animals, I spoke with my manager, booked the ticket, and began packing my bags for South Africa.

After a 22-hour flight, 3-hour car ride, and 1 killer Spotify playlist of Fleetwood Mac's greatest hits, I arrived at the Riverside Wildlife Sanctuary in Tzaneen, South Africa.

This would be my very first interaction with live and wild monkeys. And aside from it being the most exciting moment of my life, it was absolutely terrifying. "What if they were afraid of me? What if I wasn't meant to work with animals?" These thoughts raced through my mind in the brief moments I had between setting my bags down on the stoop of the shaded clubhouse and walking through the site.

The project leader took me on a brief tour of the large site; indicating, "these are the fields where we harvest food for the animals, this is the clinic where we care for their injuries, and here is your responsibility."

I stepped in front of a giant rumbling cage covered by netting to block the sun. I slowly peeled the veil back to see what was inside, when a tiny, furry fist yanked the hairband from my wrist and disappeared back into the darkness. I threw back the netting to find six adorable baby baboons wrestling on the ground with their new prize and hooting at their success.

The 23 volunteers gather for a picture before sending Ally home
The 23 volunteers gather for a picture before sending Ally home

Over the next two weeks I physically worked harder and learned more about animal conservation than I ever could have imagined. I was up at 5 a.m., preparing food for the hundreds of monkeys in our care, socializing with the larger baboons and Vervet monkeys, and monitoring our semi wild and endangered Samango monkeys who were to be released in the coming weeks.

When I wasn't working on the site, I was harvesting cabbages the size of boulders and slicing papaya with machetes in the fields alongside my fellow volunteers. The taste of the Cola we shared at the end of the long day while sitting on our spoils of fresh produce was unimaginable.

The project leaders, Bob, Lynn, and Mias, would sit with us at dinner and tell stories of their travels and hard-fought battle to keep the site going. Many of the animals they rescued came from the illegal pet trade or were found injured and unable to survive on their own. Most of these stories had a happy ending such as their first baboons troop release many years ago.

There were 23 volunteers from all walks of life at the site, brought together from all over the world by the simple idea that even small dreams can bring about big change. But the person who changed my life above all else was Tina.

Matanda using a pair of hiking shoes as a table to eat his breakfast
Matanda using a pair of hiking shoes as a table to eat his breakfast

My favorite moment in the day was when I had the opportunity to play and learn from Tina–this incredible baby baboon. She was intelligent, caring, and an absolute diva so of course we bonded immediately.

I watched her succeed, nurture, be bullied, build bonds, and grow so fast in those two weeks. I never thought I could connect with someone as quickly, and strongly as I did with her, but it was in those moments she seemed so human and delicate.

Toward the end of my time there I would come to the cage and she would recognize me immediately, racing to the opening and sticking her arm out to be groomed. She would let the other babies know she was in fact my favorite by sticking her arm out and letting me stroke and play with her hands. When she realized I was coming in, she would race to top of the cage along the branches and poise to jump on me the moment I stepped through.

After the initial assault, she would wrap her arms around my waist and make these little grunting noises to let me know she was excited to see me.

Ally getting cuddles with Tina, a 2-month-old, 13 pound, 1.7 feet tall monkey.
Ally getting cuddles with Tina, a 2-month-old, 13 pound, 1.7 feet tall monkey

I would cozy up in a corner and let the others play with my shoe laces, jump on my shoulders, and try to climb in the pockets of my hood just big enough to fit their heads. I would comb her face with my fingers, pulling bits of branch, or papaya from her fur and stroke the creases of her arms.

When she was done being pampered, she would climb on my shoulders, with her tiny butt resting on my collar bone and her stomach at my ear, and pick through the mess that was my ungroomed hair. And she was ruthless. Leaving no hair unturned or ear unchecked and it was clear she would make a vigilant and caring mother. There were a few times I had to stop her from picking through my nose.

Tina, Matanda, Julius, Ceasar, Adam, and Spencer all varied in ages, looks, and personality. Watching them play and bond and fight was like looking back on my own childhood in a lot of ways. How blessed was I to grow up with my friends and family in the safety of our neighborhood, never worrying about being ripped from the comfort of my home and thrown into a foreign and dangerous place that was not my own.

I was so happy and blessed to meet them, but the underlying cause of our introduction never left my mind. These babies had been stripped from their parents, seen them killed, taken from their worlds and placed into mine. When Tina held on to me, she was holding on to her mother. She was searching for her in me and I felt it every time I had to leave her side.

Tina playing her favorite game, monkey swing, while we sit by the pool
Tina playing her favorite game, monkey swing, while we sit by the pool

I hope that this account of my time at the Riverside Wildlife Sanctuary encourages others to think about the causes they are passionate about. Whether working with a local community or preserving endangered species in the bush, there is no wrong way to affect change for the better.

Cisco has an exceptionally supportive culture which I love. Being able to take advantage of that and find an opportunity like this is something I am extremely grateful for. I love being able to connect with people and tell the stories of how the world can prosper when we truly work together toward a single goal.

I hope my story inspires others to explore the endless possibilities to give back and get involved. And hey, maybe you'll realize you're meant to play with monkeys.

Questions about my experience or just want to talk about monkeys? Find me on twitter @_allytaylor_.

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