once you meet a chimp your life changes; Did you know that Wales has a monkey sanctuary? We do - and the Swansea Valley centre is leading the way in rescuing many types of unwanted animals, especially primates. Abbie Wightwick hangs out with the apes and the remarkable couple who came to their rescue.
They'd never thought of running a sanctuary at their 35-acre hill farm but when they learned that seven chimps from the centre would be shot if homes weren't found, Jan and Graham felt they didn't want to stand by doing nothing.
"We thought, that can't happen; we can't let them be shot just because no one wants them," Jan recalls with a shudder.
"We first read about it in the Western Mail with a photograph of Susie the chimp and we wanted to do something."
At first they intended to give homes just to the seven Penscynor chimps but within weeks they were asked to take in two more from Ireland and from there the scheme grew.
Today the couple, their three full-time staff and team of volunteers care for 200 rescued animals, including 80 apes and monkeys, on the hill farm where Jan grew up.
As well as monkeys the sanctuary is home to rescued wolves, foxes and horses.
The creatures come from all over the world, many rescued by Graham in person from research laboratories, circuses, zoos and war zones.
Driving thousands of miles in his specially adapted animal ambulance, former engineer Graham has been as far as Bulgaria by road and Beirut by air to save animals.
Closer to home, they've taken in monkeys from a research laboratory in Scotland and from the legal and illegal pet trade operating across the UK.
One monkey they care for was sold in Chippenham service station and another over the internet.
"It is heart breaking when you can't do anything but sometimes we can," Graham says.
He's still haunted by a baby chimp he had to leave behind in Lebanon.
"At one zoo in Beirut I saw a chimp baby that never moved.
"I thought it was a toy at first because it didn't even blink.
"Opposite him was a snake in a glass cabinet.
"All chimps are scared of snakes and he didn't know there was glass in front of it and that it couldn't get out.
"As far as I know he's still there. "They had the bloody cheek to call it Animal Kingdom."
Graham's frustration is clear but he and former teacher Jan have had to keep cool heads when trying to save the animals now in their care.
Their work requires delicate negotiation and diplomacy with humans as well as compassion for the creatures and close attention to international and UK laws.
They've had to sign confidentiality clauses with laboratories, negotiated with Eastern European politicians and arranged transport for animals from as far as Kuwait, Romania and Lebanon.
All the animals they've re-homed have suffered - some appallingly so - but all will now spend the rest of their lives safe at the sanctuary which nestled in a lush valley near Neath.
Driving up to the farm, it's unsettling at first to hear the exotic cries of primates reverberating across the picture postcard Welsh hillside dotted with sheep.
As you pull up the first thing you see is a small yard behind which there is a beautiful dog - who I later learned is actually Lightning the wolf.
Rescued from a dog pound in Ulster, she shares her enclosure with a sheepdog and is happy to wander up to say hello.
She was hand reared by a man mistakenly believing wolves make good pets.
Beautiful she may be, but she's a wild creature who should never have been bought and sold as a toy, something her owner must have realised before abandoning her, the couple point out.
Lighting is one of the sanctuary's oldest residents having been picked up with a band of chimps and it's chimps where the story begins.
Back in 1998, former earth sciences teacher Jan and engineer Graham were running their residential education centre alongside a B&B and restaurant at the farm.
Jan had left her job teaching in an inner city London school in the 1980s but Graham was still commuting through the week to his job designing armoured vehicles for ambassadors and the military in Scotland.
Always keen animal lovers, they had a handful of rescued horses and sheep when Penscynor Wildlife Park shut.
Knowing the Penscynor chimps faced death if someone didn't take them, they weren't sure if they could offer the right home.
When they visited the chimps in October 1998 they had no experience of caring for primates and were shocked by what they saw.
"We didn't expect the chimps to be so big," Jan admits.
"We were flabbergasted and terrified. "There were seven of them and they were a mass of black whirling dervishes.
"An adult male chimp can drag 1,000 kilos and we had no idea about enclosures or what keeping them entailed.
"We came home, thought about it long and hard but decided it was beyond our capabilities."
But the fate of the chimps nagged at them and their minds were made up when they read a headline declaring: "Death row chimps."
Jan immediately contacted Twycross Zoo in the Midlands and the International Primate Protection League for advice.
"We decided we just couldn't let them be shot because no one would take them. They were difficult personalities and hadn't had easy early lives," she explains.
After months negotiating funds for an enclosure, taking expert advice and visiting the chimps each night, the couple were ready to take them in.
In February 1999, Jan and Graham welcomed the 'magnificent seven' to their new pounds 100,000 enclosure at the farm, having set up a charity to fund their care.
Describing herself as "a chimp person", Jan felt an instant connection with the monkeys the moment she met them 14 years ago.
"They're very human. There's definitely a connection there," she believes.
"I really believe that once you meet a chimp your life changes."
Despite feeling a special bond she never intended to take in more primates, let alone animals of all kinds.
"Both of us wanted to take the chimps and then everything just happened so fast after that," she recalls with a laugh.
"I've always been an animal fanatic but we didn't plan to open a sanctuary. It just happened.
"We set up a charity for the chimps and we were still running the study centre, a restaurant and B&B. "We said, 'We have the chimps now and that's it. No more animals are coming'."
Then the telephone rang.
Dorset-based vet Simon Adams, who'd helped with the chimps from Penscynor, was on the line asking if they had room for two Irish chimps.
He said that the future was looking grim for Peter and Freddie, two chimps at the recently closed Causeway Safari Park in Northern Ireland.
When Graham and Jan went to see the pair in January 2000 they were horrified at what they saw.
The two males, too old for other zoos to consider rehoming, had nothing but a tree stump in their enclosure to entertain them. As former circus chimps they'd been made to smoke at some stage and were in poor condition.
The park, which had gone bankrupt, was being run by the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
At the same site was the dog pound containing abandoned wolf Lightning and her companion, Thunder.
Arriving for the chimps, Graham and Jan left agreeing to take the wolves and five capuchin monkeys too, all of which arrived in Wales in summer 2000.
Thunder has since died but Jan is content knowing he had "at least some happy years" and recalls taking him and Lightning for long walks.
Since they first arrived, the sanctuary has grown into an expert centre welcoming 25,000 to 30,000 visitors a year with an international reputation, its own quarantine and hospital block and specially adapted vehicles. Graham and Jan get calls for help from all over the world and visitors travel from across the UK to look around or take part in Keeper Days.
The residential centre and restaurant are now closed but the couple still run a cafe and B&B for their livelihood as they are unpaid trustees of the charity founded to run the sanctuary. Their days can last from 7am to 11.30pm and in any spare time they campaign against animal cruelty and work to raise funds to keep running. Food costs pounds 500 a day and last year's electricity bill was a staggering pounds 19,000 as all animals need heated indoor enclosures. The money is raised through donations and sponsorship as well as paying visitors. Celebrity patrons, including actor James Corden and broadcaster Graham Norton, help keep their profile high. Like other supporters they were keen to help after hearing the animals' heart rending tales .
Jan says worst of all is the story of Pozzi, the crab eating macaque who came to the sanctuary in 2007 after 18 years in a French research laboratory. "We were told he was the director's pet and the lab was closing so the monkey would be put down," Jan explains. "But we still have no real idea why they released him. "When Graham went to fetch him he wasn't allowed inside. Instead, Pozzi was brought out to him. "We were told categorically that nothing had been done to him." Back in Wales they spotted a patch of thicker hair on Pozzi's shoulder which, on closer, inspection revealed a battery implanted beneath his skin. "He'd been injected with poison to give him Parkinson's Disease," Jan reveals.
"He had a neurotransmitter embedded in his brain. "They had lied to us. We went 900 miles to get him and they'd lied," Jan exclaims. "We were later told that the neurotransmitter could have gone off like a bomb. That could have endangered our lives or anyone on the ferry he came over on with Graham. "My personal view is we don't have the right to torture anything for our benefit. "We think we are so superior." Jeremy, one of the Penscynor chimps, also spent eight years in a research lab and the couple recently took a group of macaque monkeys from a lab in Scotland. Scared of repercussions from animal rights activists, the Scottish lab, which had no further need of the animals. agreed to fund the rescue but only if Graham and Jan signed confidentiality papers agreeing not to divulge details.
Jan believes few people know how widespread research and the illegal animal trade is and points out that animals are still allowed in circuses unless local councils refuse to permit them on their land. Next month, Graham is helping transport three European bears from a circus in Belgium to a sanctuary in Scotland and he also helped arrange transport for lions from Romania and a retired elephant, although the sanctuary can't take those animals as it doesn't have space. Strongly opposed to zoos, the couple have a strict no breeding policy saying animals should not be bred for captivity. But they're happy to welcome visitors to see their brood and read their stories in the hope that it might increase awareness. "You can go out tomorrow and buy a couple of small monkeys and no one would check up or be concerned. It is legal in the UK," Jan explains.
"There is an illegal trade too. Our tamarind was bought in Chippenham service station. A guy came here, dumped him with us and went. That was five years ago. "You're always torn because you know the best thing for the monkey is to be here so you don't want people to think you will be nasty about what they've done because otherwise they won't come. "The illegal trade is massive and you can't police it. What we see is the tip of the ice berg. "We've taken 30 marmosets over the years from the illegal pet trade."
To those who think monkeys don't have feelings, Jan begs to differ. When Vicky, a chimp they took from Dublin Zoo, died they found her body being cuddled by Winnie, one of their original Penscynor chimps. Vicky was sent to the sanctuary after her father tried to kill her in the confines of the zoo and had formed a close bond with Winnie. "When we went in one morning we saw Winnie had died," remembers Jan. "Vicky had her arms around her and was crying real tears. They were pouring down her face." The two had become firm friends in the place that had finally given them a happy home. "When a chimp dies it's like losing one of the family," adds Jan. "Chimps are special. I love what we do here and hopefully it gets a message across." The Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary is open every day except Christmas day. Contact 01639 730276 for details
Meet the primates Bili Bili was born in Africa around 1981 and caught in the wild. Nothing is known about his capture and early years but he spent 15 years in a circus before moving to Stara Zagora Zoo in Bulgaria and living in a tiny enclosure. In December 2010 Graham and Jan were approached by the Bulgarian ministry asking if they could give Bili a home. The sanctuary's supporters raised money for his transport and last year Graham set off on the 4,000 mile road trip in his custom built ambulance with wildlife photographer Mike Williams. When they arrived local politicians weren't keen to let Bili go as he was the only chimp in Bulgaria. After careful negotiations and help from the local mayor who was sympathetic to Bili's plight, Graham got him out and he arrived in Wales in September 2011. Despite living in solitary confinement so long, Bili soon established good relationships with sanctuary chimps Bimbo and Tubman. Part of a gang at last, Bili particularly enjoys feasting on tangerines, grapes, lychees, yoghurts, smoothies and boiled eggs.
Freddie Freddie was born in the wild in Africa around 1970. He was caught and kept at an unknown location until taken in by a private owner until 1980. He spent time at a circus and photographs from that time show him riding a bicycle while wearing clothes and trainers. In 1991 and aged 21, Freddie was transferred to Belfast Zoo and then on to Causeway Safari Park in Northern Ireland. Here he gained the reputation of being a smoking chimp - a habit he no longer has. When the park closed in 2000 Graham and Jan took him in with fellow chimp Peter, who has since died. Slow and hunched over when he first arrived in Wales, Freddie quickly knew he was among friends and became a happy, lively chimp. He now has two new friends - Nakima who joined him from Belgium in July 2006 and Ronnie who came from Germany in June 2007. The three once lonely chimps have now formed a happy alliance.
Nakima Nakima was born and captured in Africa around 1975. Smuggled into Belgium as a baby, no one knows what fate befell her parents although her mother was probably killed trying to protect her. In Belgium, Nakima was found by the authorities and confiscated, although it's not known where she was held illegally or by whom. At some stage Nakima was taken in by someone who gave her a big enclosure. But when she was 19 the law changed and she could no longer be kept on private land so was sent to Natuurhulpcentrum Wildlife Rescue in Belgium. Here she was well cared for but had no companionship with her own species and no outdoor enclosure. Staff contacted Graham and Jan asking if they could give her a home and in 2006 Nakima joined them.
Denzil Denzil the marmoset was advertised for sale as a baby on the internet in the UK last year and bought by a disabled, housebound woman. The woman used all her savings to buy him and as the sale was legal under UK law believed she was doing nothing wrong. But when a relative fetched two week old Denzil from a rendezvous at a service station she realised her mistake. He was the size of a mouse and was sold with just five spoons of baby milk and eight drops of vitamins to sustain him. She immediately felt worried and realised that Denzil needed specialist, expert care and his own species to be happy. "It scared me," the owner, who wants to remain anonymous, recalls. "I started to feel uneasy about it all. I felt it was all so wrong. Denzil didn't need humans to learn from, he needed his own kind. "I didn't realise I would feel it was wrong until it was too late and then I'd bought Denzil. "I was a fool to do what I did." The owner found out about the Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary on the internet and contacted Jan and Graham who took Denzil in. "The Government need to rethink the law on this," the former owner adds. "I would never have considered buying a monkey if it was illegal. Monkeys might look cute in nappies and clothes but that's not for their pleasure, it's for the people that buy them. It's wrong and cruel."
Emma The Hamadryas baboon was sold as a baby in the markets of Kuwait last year. She had been beaten and cruelly treated when a volunteer in a vet's clinic bought her and contacted Graham and Jan asking if they could help. A Kuwaiti businesswoman paid for Emma to be flown over aged three months and she is now doing well at the sanctuary. She's now nearly a year old and thriving. "Baboons don't make good pets. People think they look nice in dresses when they're small but they get teeth as big as a leopard's and get big and vicious," says Jan. Three more rescued baboons are coming from Kuwait soon so Emma will have company close to her own age and size. "The pet trade is rampant in these countries - not that we can afford to point any fingers as it goes on here only not so blatantly in street markets," adds Jan.
The 'magnificent seven' from Beirut In 2006 members of Lebanon animal charity BETA managed to get inside Beirut's war zone and risked their lives to visit a small zoo where scores of animals had been traumatised by nearby bombing and rocket attacks. The zoo owner could no longer care for the creatures and wanted help re-housing them. BETA contacted the sanctuary and Graham flew out to collect a baby male baboon, a female macaque and a family of three vervets - a mother and two babies. When Graham arrived he found the animals in tiny cages they'd been put in as babies and had to return empty handed because of the chaos in the war-torn country. But he was back the following month to build transportation cages and arrange flights. Care for the Wild International, the international primate protection league in the USA, the Pettifer Trust, PETA and the AAP Sanctuary in Holland helped fund the move. All seven monkeys were eventually air lifted out of Beirut on November 26, 2006.
Jan and Graham Garen with Emma the baboon at the Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary in Caerbryn, Abercraf PICTURE: James Davies [umlaut]