In memory of Sybil – one baboon who was saved from a research lab.

Sybil’s story by Michele Pickover:


27 May 2009

ARA MOURNS DEATH OF SYBIL

Animal Rights Africa is very sad to announce that Sybil, one of the baboons we rescued from the National Centre for Occupational Heath in Johannesburg in 1996 died peacefully in her sleep last night at the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education (CARE), where she has been lovingly cared for by the remarkable Rita Miljo and her team all these years. Sybil, was almost 30 years old. She will be buried next to Winston, Nathan and Rhona. Below is an extract about Sybil and her companions from Michele Pickover’s chapter on vivisection and the legacy of Apartheid from her book Animal Rights in South Africa.

“In November 1996 I was part of the South Africans for the Abolition of Vivisection (SAAV) team that negotiated the termination of long-running asbestos fibre dusting experiments on baboons at the National Centre for Occupational Health (NCOH) in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Seven baboons were released into the care of the anti-vivisectionists for rehabilitation and sanctuary – this is their story.

After seven months of planning and anxiety, frustration and heartache, we set off from the National Centre for Occupational

Health (NCOH) in Johannesburg on a nine-hour journey to a better life. I wish I could use the words ‘to freedom’ but the unhappy reality is that the impact of laboratory existence is so pervasive, so intense, that total and unscarred recovery would be a miracle. I was shocked and deeply moved from the day I first met the baboons – the ‘Control Group’ as the laboratory detachedly called them. They were so patently sad and yet people in the lab did not see their individual suffering. It was all so unnatural, so immoral, to restrict these normally dextrous, agile wild primates to one metre by one metre cages. I asked myself,

How can society allow this to go on? Six hundred and twenty-four had been killed in the asbestos inhalation

experiments here. Huge numbers had been tattooed across their chests. I immediately gave them names – not just because I wanted to acknowledge their individuality, but also because we wanted the people in the laboratory to feel uncomfortable with that fact. Guinny, Sybil and Rhona were in one room. Rhona’s cage was at the door and she perpetually looked down the passage awaiting her inevitable doom.

Stress had caused all of Sybil’s hair to fall out – she was totally naked except for a strange mohican at the top of her head – and she went around and around in her cage in continuous circular motions. In the next room were Gerald and Nathan, two huge and frustrated males. Gerald shook his cage violently and barked. Nathan was the observer and came to Gerald’s defence whenever he could. Next door were Winston, Toby and Dibs. Winston was sad. So sad that he often cowered in a corner and never moved from there. But, occasionally there was a spark and he would communicate with the others by letting out a loud ‘waaooh’. Toby was very shy and in pain. He could barely eat because his teeth had been badly affected by the unnatural food he was fed. Dibs was afraid and distracted and spent hours clinging to the top of his cage where he could barely peer out of the

window of the room.

They had been deprived of their basic and essential social need to touch one another. They were all stressed and afraid: afraid of humans, who prodded them with metal sticks, squeezed them in crush cages and hurt and injured them. For almost a decade this had been their life. It must have been far worse when these rooms were filled to capacity with baboons – screaming and terrified.

I was allowed in each day to give them fresh fruit and vegetables. It became the highlight of their day. Slowly they began to trust me. I would put my hand down the funnel in their cages and they would gently take the offering from me. Rhona and Guinny would occasionally allow me to groom them and this was a great honour. One day, as I came in to feed them, I heard a commotion from the room where the girls, Guinny, Sybil and Rhona, were housed. The next moment I heard glass breaking and then the two handlers came running out of the room with nets and disappeared out the door and down the stairs. I raced into the room and to my horror I discovered that Sybil’s cage was open and that she had leapt right through the glass window. The lab is on the second floor and in the middle of a densely populated area. I looked down into the street expecting to see Sybil’s body but she was nowhere to be seen. There was blood all over the broken glass. Apparently she had managed to undo the wire on her cage (something they did often, I was told later) and had hidden in the dilapidated ceiling of the room. The handlers chased her with a hosepipe and nets and she was so terrified that she went through the glass. Eventually, seven hours later, she was

found, petrified and hurt, in an empty ward at the Hillbrow Hospital. She was darted and stitched and brought back to the lab. I had always been worried about Sybil because it was obvious that life in the laboratory had severely affected her. But she had managed to weather this terrible ordeal and I realised that she had an enormous

will to survive.

We were in a quandary about what to do about Toby’s teeth. We were concerned about the effects of anaesthetic but we also knew that his teeth had to be attended to before the move, so we got permission from the laboratory for an anaesthetist and a dentist to take a look. The day Toby was to be operated on I arrived at the lab to discover that they had ‘prepared’ Nathan instead of Toby. When I said ‘But this is Nathan!’ I was told, ‘We go according to numbers here.’ I replied, ‘Well, we go according to name and character, and this is Nathan!’ Toby’s mouth was in a pitiful state. He had many abscesses and the dentist had to remove eight teeth. He would never be able to chew properly and would need major reconstructive surgery. But, sadly, Toby did not recover from the four-hour operation and he died the next day of what the vets described as ‘multiple

organ failure’.

We planned to move the seven remaining baboons at night by truck when it would be cooler and less stressful for them. Since they had been trapped they had been kept apart and in individual cages, which meant that the only way we could move them was in their cages. During our various discussions with the NCOH it had been made clear to us that for as long as the baboons were in the NCOH building, they owned them and we could take custody of them only once they had left the building. Practically, this meant that while the baboons were in the laboratory we had no say about the way the staff

did things or about the uncaring way they treated the baboons.

The day of the long-awaited move arrived. The NCOH insisted on taking them out of their animal unit as soon as possible and into their basement, where their responsibility would be almost ended and where the baboons could easily be carried to the truck. The basement was where medical waste was stored and where the lungs of thousands of miners hung in strong-smelling bags of formaldehyde. When I reached the laboratory in the early morning they had already began to prepare the baboons for their move into the basement. What I was faced with was an intimate view of what goes on in a vivisection laboratory. It was horrifying. Stress tangibly filled the air. The handlers were talking at the tops of their voices and noisily moving the designated travelling cages into the various rooms where the baboons were housed. Wire grids were deafeningly hammered into their cages and one by one the baboons were callously prodded with metal rods and forced into the section of the cage where they

were helplessly crushed and mildly sedated. The baboons knew what was coming. It was obvious from their behaviour that this had happened many times before. Very often it had meant death to their fellow inmates. They screamed in fear and terror, each desperately trying to avoid the unavoidable.

By midday they had all been moved to the bad-smelling basement. The handlers were gone, never to return. Our truck was not

due to arrive till the evening, so we immediately moved their cages as close together as we could. For the first time they could all see one another. At once there was much smacking of lips (baboons do this as a form of affection and communication), general interest and curiosity about each other. As more volunteers arrived to help with the move the atmosphere became charged with a mixture of excitement and relief. I know the baboons sensed it too. Perhaps they could now begin to allow themselves

to believe that they were in the process of being rescued. They were very calm when, one by one, we gently hoisted them aboard the awaiting truck. That night, when we pulled away from the NCOH none of us looked back. We did not want to.

The inhumane vivisection industry may desperately want to fool themselves, and others, that the thousands of baboons they force into lab cages are merely unfeeling tools of their unnecessary science, but these seven are living proof that this is not so. They are unique individuals who have been made to suffer terribly and who, despite this, are still wild animals whose desire to live out their normal lives remains powerful and intact.”

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