'Mother of baboons'
German born, Rita Miljo, known as "Mama Imfene" which translate to "Mother of Baboons" was a pioneer in rehabilitating baboons and releasing them. With releasing her first troop of rehabilitated baboons in 1994 we believe she is the first person in the world to form a troop of orphaned social primates, raise them and release them.
Rita's passion was baboons and she was tough, determined and outspoken for her cause. Locally, some regarded Rita as an irritant; working for a species that so many despise, but globally her work is revered, and she is appreciated immensely for her contribution to conservation and animal advocacy.
Continuing the legacy of Rita Miljo
C.A.R.E.'s founder, Rita Miljo (1931-2012) was a true hero for the baboons of South Africa, dubbed, the Diane Fossey of the baboon world. Her reputation was that of a fiery, passionate, determined and strong woman, and for sure she was all that and more. Rita died suddenly in a tragic fire which stole the lives of her and 3 baboons.
On the night of 27 July 2012 a fire broke out in Rita’s apartment, above the vet clinic and baby nursery. Alerted by the flames, the staff and volunteers ran to assist, but were turned back by the intense heat, unable to help Rita or Bobby (the first baboon that Rita ever rescued). The brave action of the staff ensured the evacuation of all 34 of the patients in the downstairs clinic and the young baboons sleeping in the down stairs nursery.
Rita and Bobby were laid to rest together in the same grave at C.A.R.E.
Rita’s childhood in Germany was enriched by her love of animals, and at the end of the war she hoped to study to be a vet. Circumstances did not permit this, and despite her family’s misgivings, she took a job at the Hagenback Zoo in Hamburg.
The lure of Africa and a chance to experience a great adventure prompted her to move to South Africa in 1953. So began a love of the bush and its wildlife, culminating in her buying a small farm adjacent to the Kruger National Park.
Her life took a tragic turn in 1972 when her husband and teenage daughter were killed in a light aircraft accident. It was to become Rita’s yardstick for difficulties in her life – whenever obstacles appeared she would say it was easy to deal with them as she had already had ‘the worst day of her life’.
The introduction of Bobby, a young female baboon, into Rita’s life was to play a significant role in her future. Whilst visiting South West Africa, Rita found the abandoned baby in an abused, malnourished condition. The little orphan touched her heart and was brought back to South Africa cuddled up on her knee. In the late 1980’s when Rita decided to relocate to her small farm next to the Olifants River, Bobby went too.
Word of Rita’s baboon and miscellaneous menagerie of animals soon reached the local community, and people started bringing injured, orphaned, and abused animals to her, asking for assistance. Despite being in the heart of the wildlife and game park area of the country, there was no other rehabilitation facility - the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education (C.A.R.E.) was born, becoming an all consuming passion in Rita’s life.
The “Baboon Lady” soon had a collection of little primates, and started to question what to do with them as they grew older. Observing the wild baboons in the area, Rita became familiar with troop dynamics. It was
apparent that individuals could not be integrated easily, and the idea of releasing a self sustaining, fully functional troop back into the wild began to take shape.
Rita’s attempts to find a suitable place to release her animals was met with fierce opposition from government Nature Conservation authorities. However, she persevered, finally securing a suitable site, and successfully reintroduced her orphaned troop back to the wild. This was the first of numerous releases over the years.
As word of Rita’s centre grew, so, many more orphaned baboons were brought to her for rehabilitation and nurturing, turning C.A.R.E. into the largest baboon centre worldwide.
For the past twenty years Rita’s life was dedicated to fighting for the baboons. Her quest has not been an easy one, she fought prejudice and ignorance, never shy to question authority and follow her beliefs.
“Ghandi once said that the measure of a civilised society was how they treated their animals. Is an animal only valuable once it becomes endangered?”
Her incredible journey dedicating herself to the chacma baboon’s cause was started by an act of kindness to one individual - Bobby – over 30 years ago. In an ironic twist of fate, a journey that started together also ended together.
In the last few years Rita had moved Bobby to her own ‘retirement flat’ – an enclosure on the deck of Rita’s first floor apartment.
On the night of 27 July 2012 the devastating flames claimed Rita's life. She is gone, but her fiery passion lives on in all those who were inspired by her. Rita entrusted her life's work to Scottish-born, Stephen Munro who carries her legacy on into the future. She left the property upon which C.A.R.E. is built to Stephen, who she trusted dearly.