Portsmouth veterinary nurse devotes life to rescuing monkeys in South Africa

The vervet monkey is a mischievous little thing.If it spots a bunch of bananas through an open window of a house in its native South Africa, it’ll leap through and gobble them up – much to the homeowner’s annoyance.

Tuesday, 26th May 2020, 9:47 am
Updated Wednesday, 27th May 2020, 9:04 am
Josie du Toit with a samango monkey in South Africa

In rural areas, farmers view them as pests for eating their crops and they are slaughtered.

Elsewhere they are killed to make muti – traditional African medicine.

The vervet monkey is also considered a valuable research animal, making live trapping prevalent as well.

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In short, the vervet monkey has been dealt a rough hand in life and is under assault on all fronts – in cities and the bush.

But Josie du Toit, 40, has made it her life’s work to protect them.

Originally from Farlington, she quit her office job at a pet nutrition company, upped sticks and moved 8,000 miles to volunteer at the Vervet Monkey Foundation in Limpopo Province, South Africa. That was 15 years ago and she has never looked back.

She is now appearing on the new Channel 4 show Work on the Wild Side.

The former City of Portsmouth Girls School pupil says: ‘From as far back as I can remember I have always loved animals. My mum and dad raised me as a vegetarian and when I saw an animal, even as a very small child, they brought me such joy.

‘Whenever people asked me what I wanted to do it was always to work with animals.’

From the age of 11 Josie volunteered at an animal shelter in Leigh Park, a stables where she would muck out and train young riders, and the Stubbington Ark RSPCA centre.

‘Looking back now, I can’t believe I had those opportunities,’ says Josie.

‘I worked flat out volunteering from Friday evenings all weekend. On Sunday nights I’d go home and collapse in front of the fire, exhausted. My mum would have to say, “Don’t you think you ought to change out of those dirty clothes?”.’

The Leigh Park sanctuary was Josie’s first experience of nursing an animal back to health – something she now does daily by rehabilitating injured and orphaned vervets.

She says: ‘There were foxes, birds of prey, hedgehogs, squirrels, pigeons and ducklings. It was incredible to have had that experience and that is key for anyone wanting to work with animals. Volunteer as much as you can, get experience.’

After graduating with an HND in animal management and applied biology from Sparsholt College, Josie’s veterinary nursing career began in London. She then went on to became a technical adviser for a pet nutrition company before spotting an advert for a volunteer post at Vervet Monkey Foundation in 2005.

Josie says: ‘At the time I had been signed off work with chronic pain but I was struggling with just sitting at home because I’m a very active person.

‘As soon as I learned about the project I realised I had to go and do it.

‘It meant sleeping in a tent in the bush but that really appealed to me. It was also a vegetarian project so fitted with my values.’ She flew out for a four-week stay that November.

Speaking via video call from South Africa, Josie says: ‘The moment I arrived here my face absolutely lit up. Although it could not have been more different to my home city of Portsmouth, this place felt like coming home.

‘It was so exciting to see all the monkeys around and to go back to basics. I could not quite believe that I was here.

‘It was a totally incredible experience and I met some amazing people. The chronic pain started to go away almost immediately, it was perfect.’

When the month was up, Josie cried all the way back home because she knew her heart belonged to South Africa and the monkeys. She soon sold her house and flew back to work at the charity full-time and is now a director.

Of the vervets she says: ‘We have around 550 here at the sanctuary. They are so playful, have so much energy and are cheeky and mischievous, just like little children.

‘They have a complex social hierarchy and family groups. The problem is they are very misunderstood.

‘They are simply amazing and I wish more people could get to know them as we do.’

Looking back to her time in Portsmouth, where her family still live, she says: ‘I don’t think I was cut out for an office job in the city. I have found my purpose in life.’

Watch Work on the Wild Side began on Monday on Channel 4 and will be on air every week day at 4pm for 20 episodes.

The vervet monkey needs your help

Josie du Toit’s charity, Vervet Monkey Foundation, has been hit hard by the lockdown in South Africa.

The country, particularly in rural areas, is enduring food shortages.

Farmers who would normally sell food to the charity at cost price are prioritising people over the monkeys so Josie is having to go elsewhere, where prices are eight times higher than normal.

Funding is down and they can no longer take volunteers because international travel has been halted and visas have been cancelled.

Josie says: ‘It has had a huge effect on us. Ninety per cent of our funding has been taken so we are having to do things very differently.

‘On the ground we have far less people to look after the animals.

‘Some of the farmers we buy food from are saving it for the community.

‘When we first knew about the lockdown we had no idea it would have this great an impact on us.’

A crowdfunding page has been set up to help raise the funds necessary to pay local staff so they can continue to support their families, and to purchase enough food for the monkeys so they don’t go hungry during the lockdown.

To donate, go to vervet.za.org or justgiving.com/crowdfunding/foodformonkeys

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