It was the night of May 31, 2007. I was headed for my first Ape Action Africa stay (then called CWAF – Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund). Flying low over the dense Cameroon rainforest, a full moon and bolts of lightning eerily lit up the tree canopy and clouds. I KNEW I was going to have a Big Adventure. What I did not know was that it would change the trajectory of my life.

I was 53 years old and taking a 3-month leave from my job of 28 years as an interior designer/project manager in a global design firm. I wanted to be near gorillas. Two years earlier, I’d crafted a gorilla mask for a wildlife fundraiser, for which I studied their faces intently. They must have had a profound effect on me, because a year later a group of colleagues commented, “You really love gorillas, don’t you!” Between that and seeing “Instinct,” a heart-wrenching movie featuring the gentle apes, volunteering became something I HAD to do, and do NOW. There was no time to waste.

During the Ape Action Africa application/interview process, they made it clear there’d be lots of hard work, potentially uncomfortable conditions, no fraternizing with the staff and - most important - I should have no expectations about handling primates. I understand! It’s not about seeking a photo op or an epiphany about some personal crisis by communing with wild animals. We are only there to help and to serve however the sanctuary needs us. Just being in the same vicinity as the primates, I knew it was still the closest I’d ever get to gorillas! So I was totally on board. 

For months I eagerly prepared, taking intensive French, getting all my shots and meds, subletting my Manhattan condo and, as I worked in a huge interactive firm, raising $12,000 in donations.

So….I was finally here. At the airport, I was relieved to find someone awaiting me at baggage claim. Arriving at the sanctuary, I met a couple of staff and the seven volunteers already there. Rachel Hogan was the manager. She worked very closely with the dedicated directors Avi and Talila Sivan. Talila loved all living things, and Avi was devoted to her. He’s one of the finest heroes I’ve ever known; tragically he died a few years later in a helicopter crash.

The accommodations were less rustic than I’d prepared for, even though they were in a former chimp nursery and abutting a current chimp room. The insects were more aggressive than I anticipated and were my greatest challenge.  I tried every anti-itch remedy available; none worked. Years later, I did find one UK cream that offered relief, and thankfully, the “moot moots” ceased affecting me. Some soldier ant nighttime attacks still seem like they’re from a horror film, but I’ve also learned to patrol and redirect their lines earlier in the day with salt.

The food prepared for us was simple and vegetarian, which along with the heat and labor resulted in effortless shedding of 15 pounds. Flash forward to a subsequent volunteer trip. Rachel asked me how long I was staying. I told her, “I want to stay for 20 pounds.”

It took me almost a month to settle in, so I felt grateful I’d signed up for three months. By then, it seemed living in rhythm with nature was like restoring a long-lost memory – that I am simply a part of nature, a living breathing organism sharing the planet, no less than but also no more than any other. And the contrast with my Manhattan lifestyle couldn’t have been greater. It’s been a profound learning experience to this day, now spanning nine volunteer stays totaling 3 ½ years at the sanctuary. I’ve realized contrast equals gratitude.

Robin by an ayous tree at Ape Action Africa in 2007

It impressed me that the entire staff, except for Rachel and the Sivans, were African nationals. The few I interacted with at that time were kind and enthusiastic and the caregivers among them - Big Joe, Daniel, Zang, Bruno, Thierry, and Appolinaire - had close relationships with their ape charges, which was utterly fascinating to see. Appolinaire particularly intrigued me. He was a calm, compassionate, serene-looking soul caring for the young gorilla group and hand-raising infant Pikin along with Rachel. Caregivers of young gorillas are special; they must be a calming, reassuring, steady presence for these highly sensitive infants, with a level of tolerance for isolation that I find extraordinary. Appolinaire asked me to paint a portrait of him with his favorite gorilla, Shufai. It’s the only human portrait I’ve ever done, and it still hangs in Appolinaire’s abode.

Since the regular volunteer tasks were already claimed and I had a lengthy stay, my first assignment was caregiving an urgent new arrival – an infant moustached guenon monkey who Rachel dubbed Maasai. I’d never given monkeys much thought. I’d come because of gorillas. Yet here was this weeks-old dehydrated, scared, flea-ridden, blue-faced monkey baby staring up at me. I hadn’t thought I had maternal or caregiving instincts, but I was wrong.

Watching over Maasai was only the beginning of a primate and conservation learning experience – an entire universe! All provided by Ape Action Africa. I got to perform such a range of activities - providing hands-on care, helping staff, preparing food, milk and enrichment, cleaning cages and enclosures, cutting leaves, fetching water, painting structures and signs, managing tourists, gardening, construction, cleaning the volunteer kitchen, collaborating with the local villagers. Everything the sanctuary does is ultimately in service to its extraordinary non-human residents, including protecting the forests they live in. And after three decades in a corporate environment, this new experience made me feel profoundly energized, enriched, humbled, challenged, and sometimes daunted. 

It had another unexpected effect which has shaped my life ever since. Here I was, from a creative profession, but I’ve never felt so creative as I did at Ape Action Africa. For me, the “secret sauce”  seems to be: 1) if I perceive a strong need, 2) scarcity of resources, and 3) a cause I admire. I’ve become an artist of primates and their advocate. It began that first trip. An incident resulted in all the sanctuary signage being damaged. Another volunteer, Jessie, and I offered to paint new ones. Jessie painted apes, I did the lettering, backgrounds and straight lines. Rachel asked if I could paint a monkey on the welcome sign. I painted Maasai. She asked if I could paint a mandrill. Then it was Nkan Daniel and Shai, the first gorillas she raised. 

I’ve been painting primates ever since. I even characterize my life as “BP / AP,” Before Primates and After Primates. I quit my career and sold my home and car so I could spend time at sanctuaries lending my art and design skills, and helping care for my muses – the primates. When not there, I write about them, present (in five countries so far), tell their stories, play their voices….and paint their portraits. Because of them, I’m now a member of The Explorers Club, the Society of Animal Artists, and a three-year Fellow of the Safina Center.

Robin as she sees things today, through mandrill Maggie's eyes

Sometimes it takes going to a place like Ape Action Africa to realize how fortunate we are. Being there made me recall the adage, “If everything we had were taken away and then given back to us, we would think ourselves the luckiest persons on earth.” My life has been so enriched by my experience that Ape Action Africa has given me, I’m so grateful and intend to support them in every way I can, for as long as I can.

Robin Huffman

A huge thank you from all of us in the forest to Robin and all of our wonderful volunteers whose lives have been changed, a little or a lot, by their experience at Ape Action Africa. Your hard work, passion and support are greatly appreciated, and we're incredibly happy to have you in our forest family.