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Elizabeth Burningham always wanted to work with animals. Motivated to give back after surviving childhood cancer, she sought opportunities to help, but was held back by her physical limitations due to osteoporosis. That is, until she was welcomed by the staff at The Centre of Animal Rehabilitation and Education (C.A.R.E.).

Founded in 1989 and located in Limpopo, South Africa, C.A.R.E. is a sanctuary dedicated to the care and rehabilitation of injured and orphaned animals, particularly chacma baboons – also known as the Cape baboon, and among the largest of the monkeys. Many are rescued as babies after their mothers have been killed, whether by hunters or natural means, though the organization works with baboons of all ages, often saving them from captivity or abusive ownership. Volunteers from all over the world visit for several weeks at a time to help maintain the sanctuary’s facilities by working in the nursery and tending to the nature reserve where the adult baboons live after rehabilitation until they are able to be released.

Traveling from her native UK to Limpopo was a leap of faith for Elizabeth, who says she is proud of “taking myself out of my comfort zone and throwing myself into the deep end in a completely new country with new people—and baboons.” Immediately faced with a variety of unfamiliar animals—like deadly camel spiders nestled into the mosquito nets above her bed, monkeys climbing into volunteer living quarters, and lions and elephants casually roaming the reserve—her comfort zone was decidedly far away. But Elizabeth connected to her surroundings and found a niche in the nursery, where the baby baboons quickly took to her.

There, she interacted with the orphaned animals, teaching them to play and how to keep safe, introducing them to water and grooming them. She even made sounds their natural mothers would make in efforts to facilitate their future integration into a troop under the care of a new surrogate mother. In her weeks at C.A.R.E. she got to know the babies, all of whom had distinct personalities—particularly one that had recovered from trauma and brain surgery, and under the care of volunteers, came into her own as a feisty baboon—and seemed to know how funny she was.

Elizabeth has become dedicated to C.A.R.E.’s work. She says that volunteering with the organization “is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my entire life” and urges potential volunteers to keep an open mind.

”You will be terrified when you get there, but it’s all worthwhile in the end,” she said. She has returned several times and plans to volunteer again this year, and is looking forward to seeing the baboons she helped raise, though she’s not permitted to interact with them once they have been re-integrated.

Volunteering at C.A.R.E. has also inspired Elizabeth to continue volunteering closer to home, which has included working with Second Chance Animal Rescue, working in a local veterinarian’s office, and fostering feral kittens to prepare them for permanent homes. All of this effort can be time-consuming and emotionally challenging, but Elizabeth will be the first to say that it is also deeply rewarding.

This project is supported by AIG’s volunteer programme.

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