In the last episode we spoke with David van Gennep, the Executive Director of AAP – a rescue and rehabilitation centre, mainly known for helping chimpanzees, with a centre in the Netherlands and another one in Spain.
Today, we’re staying on a similar subject. In this episode we’re speaking with Olga Feliu who is the Director of the MONA Foundation – that’s a sanctuary for chimpanzees located near to the town of Girona in Catalunya, Spain. Yes, we have the same name, so for clarity whenever I speak about “Olga” from now on, it’s not about me, it’s about our guest!
The chimpanzees that live at the "MONA sanctuary" are mostly former TV advert and circus stars. Celebrities, really. Whichever country we live in, we've probably seen an advert for fast food or a brand of tea. How much fun they always seemed to be having in those situations, we all thought, including me when I was a child. It wasn't until I visited the MONA sanctuary that I found out that the fall from TV stardom for a chimpanzee is a sad and grave event which tends to see them sent to live in a (usually tiny and filthy) cage for the rest of their lives.
This is an episode where we explore the lives of some of the chimpanzees that Olga's amazing team has looked after over the years. We talk about the other situations where chimpanzees are kept as pets and, of course, what their journey looks like when they reach a place like the MONA sanctuary where they can experience at least a fraction of a "normal" life as a chimpanzee.
About our guest
OLGA FELIU, Co-founder, Board member and Director of MONA.
Brave, pragmatic and always optimistic. Olga always sees the bright side of things and that has made the MONA project a reality out of nothing.
Olga is a veterinary graduate who has worked with animals for the entirety of her career. She also has a Master´s Degree in Primatology and Doctorate in Primate Ethology at the University of Barcelona.
Olga founded and runs the Fundació MONA Sanctuary and Recuperation centre in the province of Girona, Catalunya, Spain.
Now, in the last episode with David from AAP we already learned that there’s a surprisingly large trade in wild animals across Europe. In fact, because Spain is a gateway from Africa into Europe, it’s often the entry point for animals like chimpanzees and macaques who are caught in the wild and then… through a chain… sold on to people who keep them as pets or as workers.
Olga is going to talk to us about the kind of things that she has seen over her career. In fact, she was a vet specialising in the health of baby cows. One day, the company she worked for got a call from someone who needed help with chimpanzees! Olga was the one sent to meet a British chap called Simon Templar (not many of her colleagues spoke English) who was privately rescuing chimpanzees from some terrible situations and giving them a safe home.
That was some 20 years ago, but that was the meeting which was to change the course of Olga’s life, as she’ll explain, and saw her becoming a go to person for the Customs department of the Spanish Government. So, whenever they had found an illegally kept chimpanzee and wanted to confiscate it, they’d call Olga to try find a home for it. Hence, she found out just how many of these poor chimpanzees were finding themselves far from home, working in circuses, as TV stars or living as pets in apartments. And so, as good people do, she decided to do something about it.
I have visited the MONA sanctuary several times, met many of the staff there and also got to know the stories of the chimpanzees and barbary macaques they have there. It’s not a huge place, and the setup is two separate enclosures for the chimpanzees where they live in their little groups, and then their connected bedrooms where they go at night. There’s also a sort of separate quarantine / introduction area which is where new chimps first live when they arrive.
The chimpanzees enjoying life in one of the enclosures at MONA. (Photo credit: Joan Brull).
The chimpanzee I always remember from MONA is Toni because he’s so different from the other chimps – he seems tiny and that’s because he’s pretty much hunched over all the time. There’s basically a pretty severe deformity of his back and that’s thought to have happened because he lived in such a small cage where he couldn’t move around. So, imagine if you’re at the sanctuary and you’re looking into the big outside enclosure, Toni’s the easiest one to identify just because he’s “different” and kind of reminds you of a very sweet old man because of the grey hairs on his head.
But, actually all the chimps have very individual characters, likes, dislikes and backgrounds. Olga’s going to talk more about that in our interview.
Chimpanzees Marco and Africa enjoying a cuddle. (Photo credit: Joan Brull).
Also, I remember another time when I visited and one of the barbary macaque had fallen ill, so he was separated from the others for a while for treatment. As we were watching, one of the staff went to check on this ill macaque and we saw the rest of his buddies running closer, so desperate to get some news about his wellbeing. The look on their faces were exactly like that of a human family wanting to know about how their sister or brother is doing. It really was so touching and a reminder of our own closeness to these species. That macaque recovered just fine and they were all reunited a few days later.
Visitors starting their tour of the MONA sanctuary. (Photo credit: Joan Brull).
All of the chimpanzees and macaques who live at MONA have a unique story. You can find them here.
Stories of the chimpanzees mentioned here and in the episode:
Nico, the chimpanzee diagnosed with Chiari Malformation.
Toni, the chimpanzee who can't stand up straight.
The team at MONA also sent two videos our way which will bring to life everything we discuss in this episode:
Finally, if you would like to find out more about the future that lies ahead for the chimpanzees when they move home to new premises in the year 2020, you can visit the MONA website for more details. As you can imagine, they're going to be very busy, not just planning and doing everything required for the move, but also making sure everything at their current home stays as normal. You can help them out with the enormous task ahead by spreading the word or supporting their work with as little as €1 per month. Needless to say: Nico, Toni and the rest of their friends would be so appreciative of your help.
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