Editor’s note: According to Volunteer Canada, International Volunteer Day takes place every year on Dec. 5 to shine a light on the impact of volunteer efforts everywhere. The Chronicle is proud to tell the story of community volunteers.
“It’s all my daughter’s fault,” said Daina Liepa, of how she ultimately became co-owner and monkey poop cleaner at Story Book Farm primate sanctuary in Sunderland.
Liepa, 70, joined the sanctuary in 2012 as a volunteer after her daughter, Lauren Saville, 36, a primatologist, stumbled upon the farm while googling where she could work with monkeys in or around Toronto.
“She found the sanctuary, and since we’re very close I thought, ‘well, I’ll start volunteering, too’,” said Liepa, adding Saville, who works at the Jane Goodall Institute, is pregnant at the moment, so is not currently helping at the sanctuary.
After initially volunteering, Liepa soon became a member on the board of directors at Story Book Farm, but in 2015 the sanctuary and property were put up for sale.
Money was raised in order to save it, and it was at that time Liepa became co-owner.
Located in Sunderland, Ont., about a 30-minute drive north of Whitby on Highway 12, Story Book Farm is Canada’s only monkey sanctuary.
Liepa said the monkeys come to the sanctuary from three main sources: people who have these animals as pets before realizing they don’t make good pets, monkeys who have been used in labs for research, and monkeys seized from zoos where they have been abused or neglected.
According to the Canadian Council on Animal Care, thousands of primates are used in research in Canada every year.
Liepa said it was precedent-setting when three monkeys, Cody, Pugsley, and Cedric, were released to them two years ago from a research facility.
“Normally the process for any research monkeys is, they will become sick or die as a result of the research. If they are still healthy, then they could be sold to another lab for a different research or they are euthanized,” she said.
To see the monkeys who weren’t healthy become healthy, to see monkeys that were self-mutilating from stress, who wanted nothing to do with humans when they arrived, now welcome volunteers and attention, is the reason why Liepa said she does what she does.
“It’s incredibly rewarding and incredibly challenging at the same time. It’s rewarding to see the difference that we make in these monkeys’ lives,” she said.
Liepa said after working with the monkeys they become more confidant and agile, and will often gain weight from proper feeding.
Meal prep, cage cleaning and what Liepa called “enrichment” are all part of a volunteer’s job at Story Book Farm.
Enrichment involves anything that keeps the monkeys busy.
“I was just at Value Village before the call to get a whole bunch of small infants’ toys. Anything that has buttons or levers, or things to press, or push, or pull—the monkeys are very dextrous and very intelligent, so they enjoy playing with them,” said Liepa.
“Because monkeys are so much like people, different volunteers will bond differently with different monkeys,” she added, “I have my favourite monkeys, I mean I can’t actually tell anybody who they are, but I do have my favourite monkeys.”
While Liepa wouldn’t share who her favourite monkeys are, there is one monkey who is certainly a fan favourite.
His name is Pockets Warhol. He is a male capuchin who loves to paint.
His paintings have made him relatively famous with more than 2,000 followers on Instagram, and sales of his paintings have helped fund the sanctuary.
Comedian Ricky Gervais even gave Pockets a shout-out on his social media and said he owns a few of Pocket’s original paintings. The comedian auctioned off one of his guitars back in 2016 with all proceeds going to Story Book Farm.
Liepa pointed out that Pockets is never forced to paint and that any production is done on the monkey’s terms.
Liepa said the 38 volunteers at Story Book Farm are absolutely critical.
Volunteers are there every day, and the sanctuary is entirely dependent on their help in order to achieve what they do.
“I go up to the sanctuary twice a week and I clean monkey poop just like everyone else does,” she said.
Endorsed by famous primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall, Story Book Farm is always looking for volunteers to help feed, clean, and enrich the lives of the 25 monkeys, including lemurs, currently housed at the farm.