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Playing mom to baby baboons in South Africa

By Sharon Royce for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sharon Royce received a volunteer holiday as a 60th birthday present from her son
  • She worked for CARE, a wildlife rehabilitation facility looking after Chacma baboons
  • The Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education (CARE) is located in Phalaborwa, South Africa
  • Work was seven days a week and involved cleaning cages, feeding adults and nursing infants

Retired insurance agent Sharon Royce, 60, from Washington spent a month last September caring for injured and orphaned baboons in South Africa after her son surprised her with the trip as a gift for her 60th birthday. Here she shares her experiences.

(CNN) -- I am a huge animal lover and have a real soft spot for primates.

I told my son, Randy, about a fascinating documentary I had seen about the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education (CARE) in Phalaborwa, South Africa.

He asked if it was something I would like to do. Of course I said yes, but didn't actually think it would ever happen.

Soon after, Randy surprised me by organizing and paying for a month-long trip to CARE for my 60th birthday. I was thrilled, scared and ecstatic. I have traveled a lot but on this trip I went all by myself, which was a huge thing for me.

CARE is a wildlife rehabilitation facility dedicated to the rehabilitation and protection of injured and orphaned indigenous wild animals.

The Centrex specializes in looking after Chacma baboons, actively pursuing their rescue, rehabilitation and release. It accepts volunteers to help out.

The plane ticket was about $1,800 and it was almost $500 a week with a minimum stay of four weeks. Lodging and food was provided. I stayed with the other volunteers in a mountain lodge, which slept 25 in total.

It was a full house while I was there. It was rustic and a little scary because bugs, snakes and rats came and went at their discretion. I always had half an eye open on the lookout for venomous snakes, spiders and scorpions.

I didn't wear makeup, curl my hair, paint my nails and I've never been so dirty in my whole life.
--Sharon Royce, volunteer at CARE, Phalaborwa, South Africa
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Most of the other volunteers were aged in their 20s so I was significantly older than everyone else there, but I still made wonderful friends.

It was hard work, with no days off at all during the stay. Daily duties involved preparing crates of food for the older baboons, washing and cleaning bottles and cages for the babies.

A highlight was the five or so hours we spent every day inside the enclosures with the babies, holding them while they drank their bottles. Often they would fall asleep in my lap. It was such fun.

The camp would also have wild baboons visiting and they would climb on the roof every morning and wake us up with their pounding and yelling. A group of about 60 wild baboons walked among us and one day a big male grabbed my pant leg. That was a little scary.

Phalaborwa isn't just home to baboons, it's also home to elephants, vervet monkeys, spring buck, and many others and they would wander in and out of the camp.

I am still amazed at how smart the baboons are. Some would favor one volunteer or another and it was an amazing feeling walking into their enclosures only to have a baby baboon squeal in delight when I sat with them.

I kissed so many little faces, cuddled them when they were picked on by other baboons and comforted them when they got hurt. It was easy to forget they were not human.

My favorite was a little guy called Gus and when I think of him and his little friends it brings tears to my eyes.

The baboons jump all over you, pull your hair, poo and pee on you. I didn't mind but I've never enjoyed a warm shower as much as I did at the end of each day while there.

Volunteers also took turns to cook our own food and clean out our lodge. There was a lot of heavy lifting and learning to live among the rats was not easy for a clean freak like myself. I didn't wear makeup, curl my hair, paint my nails and I've never been so dirty in my whole life.

If I was younger I would go again, and I would recommend it to others, but you need to be a real baboon lover to justify the rough conditions.

But what the experience has done is make me realize that there are places closer to home that need volunteers, and how valuable volunteer work is.

I'm also so much more aware of the importance of good living conditions for animals and how we have failed to take care of them like we should.

As told to Julie Clothier