In a twist to the oft-told tale of humans encroaching on the wild habitats of Africa, dozens of exotic animals have made a middle-class Gauteng suburb their permanent address. "Don't mind the mess," says Debbie Mills as she unlocks the front gates to reveal a cage-lined driveway where monkeys play with snacks of sugary cereal and fruit cocktail.
In a twist to the oft-told tale of humans encroaching on the wild habitats of Africa, dozens of exotic animals have made a middle-class Gauteng suburb their permanent address.
“Don’t mind the mess,” says Debbie Mills (36) as she unlocks the front gates to reveal a cage-lined driveway where monkeys play with snacks of sugary cereal and fruit cocktail.
For the past 15 years, Mills has housed scores of sick, abused or abandoned animals behind the fortified brick walls of this inconspicuous family property in a suburb of Benoni, east of Johannesburg. From the road, a chorus of screeches hints at what is hidden inside.
South African authorities plan to clamp down on private ownership of some of the exotic species in Mills’s International Primate and Exotic Animal Association, but she says it is a safe haven for animals that would otherwise fall through the cracks.
“People ask why I don’t set them free. It’s because they’re still being caught in the wild and sold [on the black market]. This is their final home,” she says.
South and Central American monkeys—marmosets and tamarins—rule her mini-animal kingdom, a playful but vicious lot sporting untamed “rock star” hairdos and razor-sharp claws.
About 150 of the small primates, roughly the size of squirrels, swing from branches and cling to the steel cage bars that enclose a crude version of a tropical rainforest.
The thermostat of the monkeys’ sleeping quarters is set to 27 degrees Celsius to mimic the balmy temperatures they need to survive. Fuzzy baby blankets and giant teddy bears are available to snuggle.
Four tortoises, nine dogs, one cat, a bush baby and four vervet monkeys—all native to Southern Africa—round out the household.
Indigenous species are controlled in South Africa and people need a permit to keep them as pets. However, the trade of exotic species such as marmosets and tamarins is unregulated, although draft national legislation could soon change that, says Rick Allan, an inspector with South Africa’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Under the proposed law, registered animal sanctuaries could remain open but might face some restrictions on things like breeding programmes. “Exotic animals would be better off in their country of origin—there are weather variations, different foods and other environmental conditions you can’t simulate,” he says. “I think it’s a biological time bomb.”
Mills defends the sanctuary as the best resort for animals already in South Africa and in need of help.
People abandon exotic pets for all sorts of reasons—owners might lose interest after a few months, or the cost of health care and food might become a burden.
The owners of six-year-old Pepsi gave up the white-eared marmoset over concerns he would attack their newborn. “They do attack, and quite viciously,” says Mills, who had minor reconstructive surgery after a bloody incident where a “baby boy” marmoset locked his pointy teeth on to her lip.
“Vets euthanise them. I was willing to work with his aggression,” she says.
The reserve was the brainchild of Mills’s mother, who suffered an asthma attack and died suddenly last year. Mills plans to bury her mother’s ashes in the pet cemetery in the front lawn among the remains of 500 former pets, including Lulu, a marmoset, who had two prosthetic legs.
Many of the animals in Mills’s sanctuary are ill, suffering most commonly from diarrhoea, but also from mouth injuries, paralysis and weak bone diseases that are costly to treat.
Mills spends about R120 000 on her animals each year, including the cost of food, medical bills and the wages of two full-time employees.
The money comes from her father, a steel-factory manager, and from her own pocket. A beautician and sports therapist, she offers beauty treatments like manicures from her shop on site.
Mills, who has never been married and says she has only a few close friends, finds animals are more reliable and entertaining than humans. “It is going to take a special man [to] accept me and the monkeys,” she says. “Although it’d be nice to have children to pass on the legacy.”—Reuters