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How one woman came to live with all the monkeys in Chile.
The beautiful backyard was transformed into a mini monkey zoo, with big cages adapted to the needs of each monkey species, with tunnel systems, hammocks and swings. At this point, Elba had ceased to work as a midwife in order to dedicate her time and energy to the monkeys.
Eventually, they bought another plot of land nearby and got authorization from SAG to create the rescue and rehabilitation center to care for the monkeys the agency was confiscating. The original plan was to rehabilitate them — many arrived with serious chronic illnesses, injuries or mutilations — and return them to their natural habitat. But soon they realized that was impossible. She was able to place only two chimpanzees in their natural habitat: Eusebio and Toto were sent to a protected sanctuary in Zambia. The rest, says Elba, will live with her family the rest of their lives.
Most trafficked monkeys in Chile come from Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. According to local laws and international conventions, they should be sent back to their country of origin, and if this is not possible, to a specialized center in the country where they were confiscated.
The SAG, however, has no center of its own, and sends most of the monkeys it confiscates to Elba’s home. Of the 240 monkeys she has taken in over the past 15 years, about 180 were sent by SAG, but the government agency provides no financial help.
“They say they don’t have a budget for this and that I am doing this because I want to,” Elba shrugs. “But with every monkey I receive, I solve their problem and show them in their face how inefficient they are.” (The SAG was unavailable for comment.)
Before, Elba and her husband traveled all over the world on vacation, and she would buy expensive perfumes. Now most of their income goes to maintaining the center, which demands more than $80,000 a year, not counting most of the fruit, which is donated by a local supermarket. They also have about 265 sponsors that donate at least $5 a month, sporadic groups of foreign volunteers, veterinarians who provide free treatment and four salaried workers.
Today, Elba has 40 monkeys in her backyard, and 114 at the center. She talks to them, kisses them, caresses them and knows the name of each and every one of them.
“No one knows more about monkeys in Chile than I do, not even primate experts. I have raised all of these monkeys, 24 hours a day. I can communicate with them. I know them so well that I can foresee what they are going to do. It implies a lot of expenses, problems and energy, but when I feel their love and see them recover, I realize that I have given them a new opportunity to live,” she says.
But for Cristobal — the monkey who started it all — the end was tragic nonetheless. After 10 years at Elba's, he was attacked by other monkeys and died. It was sad, says Elba, “but it showed that you just can’t go against nature."