Volunteering with monkeys

Volunteering with monkeys is usually a ‘hands off’ experience. However, there is a monkey rehabilitation centre in South Africa where volunteers are actually encouraged to cuddle and care for orphaned baby monkeys in order to fill the void left by missing mothers. This sort of voluntary experience is rare and one of the only wildlife conservation placements where you are actively required to handle animals including bathing, feeding and general care.
For more information on volunteering with adult and baby monkeys and becoming a part of the primate re-wilding process, read on…

Monkey or ape?

Monkeys are primates, not apes. Apes don't have tails. Chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, gibbons, humans: all apes, not monkeys. Monkeys mainly live in trees, apart from baboons, and so tails are essential for balancing on high branches. There are over 250 different species of monkey and if you want to volunteer at a rehab centre or sanctuary in Africa, Asia or South America then here’s how.

Where can I volunteer with monkeys?

Choosing a centre that helps monkeys get back into the wild is pivotal for embarking on a responsible and sustainable volunteering project. Monkey rehabilitation centres are not zoos. Zoos are for people. Monkey rehab centres are for wildlife, and as the name suggests they exist to help animals get back into their natural habitat, wherever possible. This 'wherever possible' caveat is added because sometimes the monkeys have been so mistreated or badly injured, or are simply too habituated to human beings that it's safer to keep them in captivity rather than releasing them into the wild.

Broken limbs, gunshot wounds, orphaned babies, car accidents and being kept as 'pets' or 'exhibits' in atrocious conditions, all contribute to reasons why a monkey will be taken into care. Primate rehabilitation centres are often set up by park rangers or wildlife conservationists who are just looking to help an injured or abused animal get better and return to the wild.

One such example is located in the South African bush, just outside the perimeters of Kruger National Park. This centre was originally founded in 1994 when a local wildlife conservationist found an injured monkey by the side of the road. Now the centre has 400 monkeys housed in semi-wild conditions and has been responsible for releasing 200 monkeys into the wild.

Our top Volunteering with animals Holiday

Orangutan sanctuary volunteering in Borneo

Orangutan sanctuary volunteering in Borneo

Care for stunning endangered orangutans in beautiful Borneo

From £1195 to £1895 13 days ex flights
Small group travel:
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Volunteering with animals or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

What steps are taken to rehabilitate monkeys?

Monkeys are not solitary creatures, and often depend on the hierarchy of a troop to survive. Troops comprise about 20 to 25 monkeys and always feature one dominate alpha male at the top of the tree. Although troops are not a family as such, it's usually only possible to allow the release of monkeys as part of a troop. The alpha males are often kept separately from other monkeys before becoming an established leader of a troop that's ready to be released.

Mothers and babies will be kept together and then moved directly into a semi-wild or wild outdoor enclosure to help them integrate into a troop with as little contact with humans as possible. Orphaned infants will be placed with surrogate mothers, wherever possible. Volunteers will usually be interacting with young orphaned monkeys who haven't yet become part of a troop. These infants don't need much space and are often contained in a small room or baby enclosure for their own safety and to monitor progress.
The young monkeys are usually ready to move on to the next stage of their rehabilitation at about 18 months which is considered to be a sort of teenage time for monkeys. Their new, semi-wild enclosures will be larger than at infant stage and allow them enough space to forage for food and begin to adapt to life away from human contact. During the final stage of a monkey's rehabilitation they will become part of a troop based within a completely wild enclosure. The size of the enclosure varies but as long as there’s enough variety and food to support the primates in that area then there’s every chance they’ll become totally self-sufficient, and ready to make the next step and return to the wild.

Once a troop is considered ready for release they will be taken at least a few hours' drive from the centre to a site that isn't already occupied by another monkey troop or well known for human activity. The monkeys will then be left in massive, open cages where they're free to come and go as they please. Usually monkeys will be slow to leave their cages and only come out during the day before returning to sleep at night. Long term volunteers or specialists may be asked to monitor the monkey troop's progress and often after a couple of weeks the troop will become more confident of their surroundings and finally leave their cages for good as they return to the wild.

What do I need to know before I volunteer with monkeys?

Infant monkeys, like human babies, require close contact, warmth, attention and affection. They move, fall off stuff, sit up, take in their surroundings, chase each other and climb in all the places that will put your heart in your mouth. In order not to create dependency on one human, baby monkeys are transferred from one carer to the next every 24hrs. Volunteering with monkeys is hard work. It's mucky, tiring and living conditions are basic. However, it's also very rewarding and there are plenty of chances to get close to very cute babies as you bottle feed and carry infants in a papoose in between cleaning out cages and wiping off wee.
The recommended length of time for volunteering with monkeys is over two weeks. Two weeks just about lets you get to know the ropes so you can work on your own. It gives you enough time to bring fresh enthusiasm and positivity to a project and help the permanent staff get on with the important task of getting a troop ready to return to the wild.

Coming with preconceptions is no good for anyone. Be flexible and understand that results aren't instantaneous, they happen over time. Animal conservation can be controversial so be aware that you're going to be volunteering in a different country where rules, customs and living conditions aren't the same as back home. Negativity can be contagious so come with an open mind and accept that your new reality is helping to make the most of the resources and staff available.

Of course, you will be given information before you head off so read up on what's expected of you and try to learn about animal welfare, monkey habits and cultural expectations as well as getting excited at the prospect of cuddling monkey babies and mucking out the poop.

What happens if no one volunteers with monkeys?

If no one volunteered then monkey rehabilitation centres would cease to exist. Permanent staff wouldn't be able to take in more monkeys or find the time to release troops back into the wild. The money raised through volunteer work is vital for keeping centres up and running, and the volunteers themselves are essential for offering helping hands at a time in a monkey's life when they need them the most. Fundraising is also an essential part of helping monkey sanctuaries: everything from making and selling monkey sock puppets to running marathons and educating local school children - all part and parcel of being proactive and extending volunteer experiences.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Vincent van Zalinge] [Topbox: Zemlinki!] [Monkeys or apes: Zemlinki!] [Little ones: Zemlinki!] [What do I need to know: Adam & Tess]