Rita Miljo: The Woman Who Loved Baboons

By Michael Blumenthal


I first met Rita Miljo, at the time a 77-year-old woman with the spirit of a l6-year-old and the purposefulness of a tornado, in May of 2007. It was immediately clear to me that she was not terribly fond of us humans, but she loved baboons, and had already devoted a good part of her life to protecting them.
I had fallen in love with Rita the way many youthful crushes begin—namely, on television. On Animal Planet, to be precise, while watching a series entitled “Growing Up Baboon.” There was something about her, from the first time I saw Rita's face and heard her voice on television, that reminded me of the American painter Georgia O’Keefe. Perhaps it was the aging beauty and deep character of her face, perhaps the sense of an iron will coupled with a fierce determination and fearlessness. Perhaps it was also her sabra-like personality—that renowned Israeli desert cactus, after which native-born Israeli women are named. Somewhere beneath that tough and intimidating exterior, I could tell, lay a certain sweetness.
I knew immediately that I had to meet this woman. I tracked down her number online and dialed. To my surprise, it was Rita herself who answered the phone, and, unabashedly wishing to ingratiate myself to her, I started right in speaking in our mutual mother tongue, German. “Might I,” I asked (like the mostly younger students and the like I saw on Animal Planet) “come and volunteer?” “Why not?” Rita answered, “we’ve had plenty of volunteers your age before.” Hardly five months later, the small plane carrying me from Johannesburg to South Africa’s northernmost Limpopo Province touched down at Phalaborwa’s one-runway airport. 
Once I came to know Rita, it became clear to me that the story of this courageous woman had to reach a wider audience. So, after a few days as a C.A.R.E. volunteer, when I began to sense that Rita, a bit grudgingly, had taken a liking to me, I proposed a deal: I would come to Rita’s house—consisting, essentially, of a single overstuffed living room that also serves as the Foundation office, and an upstairs loft, where Rita sleeps— every night after supper, we’d have a glass of wine, and then we would discuss whatever subject I chose for the evening’s agenda. Agreed? 
“Oh, Michael,” Rita began in her usual world-and-Michael-weary way, “all right... if we must.”
So, on several South African winter evenings, we sat together in a small room talking—a 58-year-old German-Jewish poet from New York, raised by parents who narrowly escaped Hitler’s gas chambers, and a 77-year-old former member of the Nazis’ Hitler Jugend, who moved to South Africa as a young woman and became the world’s leading baboon defender. A meeting of two people that could only have been caused by one of Rita’s favorite expressions: “human error.”
To say that the life of Rita Miljo involved a series of turns down “the road less traveled” would require a genuine foray into the art of understatement. She was born Rita Neumann to a middle-class family on the outskirts of Königsberg, in the far northeastern corner of Germany near the Russian border, in 1931. As a young girl, she joined and served in the Hitler Youth (though she now despises Hitler, it is a fact she makes no effort to hide). As an adolescent, she left her family to work in Hamburg’s renowned Hagenbeck Zoo and felt a deep identification with animals. She married a young German engineer by the name of Lothar Simon, with whom she emigrated to South Africa in l953. While in Africa, she learned to fly planes, shoot guns, do bricklaying and building, and she learned everything about baboons and other African animals a mere ‘lay’ person— or even a so-called expert—could possibly hope to know. She bought a piece of wilderness along the Oliphants River in 1963. Nine years later, her husband and 17-year-old died daughter, whom she is deeply reluctant to speak of, died tragically in a plane crash.
“When my husband and daughter died,” Rita told me one night, “I was able to close the door and say, ‘Well, I will look at that tomorrow,’ because I knew I couldn’t cope with it then. And if you can do that, you can overcome these things. Otherwise they just take you down. But that’s discipline, I think… it was a means of survival. And some people are stronger, and some people are not that strong. It’s an individual thing.”
Eight years after the accident, during her brief second marriage to Piet Miljo, an Afrikaner, Rita made what might be regarded as the transforming acquaintance of her life. While traveling in northern Namibia, she encountered a neglected and abused female chacma baboon. The baboon was being kept, poorly, as a mascot at a military encampment. In defiance of the requirement for permits, Rita took the baboon, which she named Bobby, home with her, and a bond between species was forged. (All anonymous baboons in South Africa are dubbed Bobby, after the Afrikaans name for the species, bobbejaan.) As an increasing number of wild baboons, realizing they were welcome, began to arrive on Rita’s property, and she became increasingly aware of the plight of orphaned infant baboons whose mothers had been shot, or poisoned, by farmers in the area, or killed by predators, Rita decided the time had come to act. In 1989, along with Bennett Serane, a native South African and, to the present day, C.A.R.E.’s Chief Animal Keeper, Rita founded the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education (C.A.R.E.), and her fifty acres of bushland became a refuge where injured wild animals—various birds, reptiles, and small mammals, initially—were treated and released. 
As increasing numbers of injured or abused chacma baboons were brought in, mostly orphaned babies, the center began to specialize. Agricultural lands had encroached on the baboons’ natural habitat, and wherever crops were threatened, farmers had the right to shoot the offending “vermin.” In South Africa, baboons are one of the lowliest species. Ferociously intelligent and resourceful, they easily become a pest to anyone whose house, car, refrigerator or garden they put their minds to getting into. Poaching, poisoning, illegal trade in pets and experimental animals, as well as environmental hazards (natural or otherwise), left baboons in need of C.A.R.E.
“You know, they are the last creatures under the sun that nobody cares about,” Rita says. “When I first started, everybody said to me, ‘With all that energy you’ve got, why don’t you look after rhinos?’—or cheetahs, or whatever else it was they cared about. And I answered, ‘Because these guys need me.’” 
“If you had to say what you have learned most from the baboons,” I chose as the first question to ask Rita during our initial conversation, “what would it be?” 
“I learned how people tick,” she immediately responded. “I learned why people behave the way they do.”
“But some primates, it seems to me,” I said, “for example chimpanzees, behave very much like humans.” 
“Exactly,” Rita replied, “because they are deceitful, whereas baboons haven’t learned that yet. So, you learn from the baboons is the truth about yourself. Chimpanzees have already learned to find the beautiful little excuse for their behavior—they’ve learned to lie, whereas baboons haven’t yet learned that.
“If you take parallels from the goings on in a baboon troop to what goes on in a human troop,” she continued, “it’s the same, except that we humans are such a deceitful bloody species. And you know why? Because it is we who have invented language. Only we can happily say one thing and mean exactly the opposite. Now I’m not saying that baboons haven’t got a language, but they certainly haven’t got a language to deceive you with. You always know where you stand with them. And you can take it or leave it."
It's only fitting that Rita Miljo should have died of what she so frequently, described as "human error"-- a not entirely dissimilar way to that in which her husband and 17-year-old daughter perished some forty years ago. For them, it was a small plane crash; for Rita, it was a fire. 
I was probably one of the last people on this earth to talk to Rita, on Thursday, June 27, 2012 at 4:00 P.M. to be precise. Some twenty-eight hours later, she was dead, burned to death with her beloved baboon Bobby in the small apartment she kept above the clinic of the C.A.R.E. in the bush of South Africa's Limpopo province. She was probably, as I knew her, listening to Beethoven or watching an old movie with a glass of white wine when she died.
I had called Rita as I was unable to get hold of her for months either by email or phone and worried about her. "Oh, Michael," she said just before we hung up, "you needn't worry about an old gal like me. If anything is wrong, you'll surely hear about it more quickly than if things go right, especially here in South Africa."
And so it would be. The following, in fact, when an email, with the subject line "Rita Miljo," arrived from a to-me-unknown Washington Post reporter, informing me that Rita had died in a fire at C.A.R.E. the very night before.
And so it was. Rita had been right again: Human error. And bad news travels fast.
I am a poet, and so don't use words - especially such tritely overused ones as love - lightly. I didn't love Rita Miljo - she was, after all, as I believe my writings and interviews with her already indicated, not an easy person to love. No one with her attitudes about her fellow human creatures could have been.
But I did feel a deep connection, and a profound admiration, for her, as well as abiding sense that here dwelled a unique and genuine human being - a being with a great deal of love in her heart, be it for humans or, as it was, baboons.
Rita and I, I can say with some modesty, hit it off. Most likely, in part, because we were so radically different. Mine is a somewhat sentimental nature, a weakness for my human kind, an inherent fear of snakes, crocodiles and large male baboons with their fangs bared. I have never shot, much less owned, a gun, nor can I ever imagine myself aiming one, in less than the most heinous circumstances, at one of my fellow human beings. I’ve never been in the Hitler Youth.
But what made Rita Miljo unique, what drew me to her originally and kept us friends, albeit over long distances, for some five years, was the fact that I sensed, in her, an utterly genuine and honest human being, one incapable of falsity or flattery or the kind of dissembling that gets many of us so far in the more "civilized" world. Unlike so many of us in this complex world, she stood for something -- she stood for the misunderstood animals she loved. She lived for them, and she died for them as well.