People have been asking us… how did you start Monkey Haven? Can I set up a Monkey Haven too? Settle down with a cuppa and read the story of how we came into existence, battling through money worries, personal crises and extreme highs and lows. It’s a rollercoaster of a read, so hang onto your hats!
CHAPTER 1 – THE BEGINNING
This is the heartwarming and slightly crazy story of how a cabinet maker created England’s top small visitor attraction. Monkey Haven was founded by Don Walser, pictured above, who had such a strong vision of what could be achieved that his entire family decided to join him, including his son Anthony who works as a carpenter, and his son-in-law David Wickes who’s a second hand car dealer. They had a dream which took them all to the brink of bankruptcy, and on an extraordinary journey with no turning back…
It all started in a back garden, in rural Northamptonshire. Animal lover Don used to keep Barn Owls and was involved in a breed and release programme during the 1970s. He loved caring for the birds and his aviary quickly became the talk of the local villages. Says Don: “As people found out what I did, they’d bang on my door at all times, with birds that needed caring for.”
Don’s ‘day job’ was working as a joiner, making bespoke furniture. He built a wardrobe for a couple that kept monkeys in their backyard, and was immediately captivated by the primates’ antics. “I thought that they were fascinating”, he says. “But I never envisaged actually keeping them.” All that changed a few weeks later, when his customer had a heart attack. The wife phoned Don: would he care for their monkeys? “I said ‘of course’, not knowing what I was letting myself in for…”
Most people don’t know what’s involved when it comes to caring for monkeys – although some have found out the hard way. Primates used to be available from pet shops, and an estimated 15,000 are still owned as pets in the UK. They’re notoriously difficult to keep – they will urinate all over the house, they’ll use the TV as a toilet until it blows up, and when they hit their teenage years, their hormones kick in and they’ll attack anything, or anyone, that they consider to be a threat. That might be the owner, or perhaps their children, and they tend to go straight for the face or neck. Then there’s the screaming… well… you’ll need very tolerant neighbours.
Don wanted to give the monkeys the best possible home, so got in touch with London Zoo to ask for their advice. He heard about how pet primates are often kept in appalling conditions, such as budgie cages that are much too small, or in dark garages, even though they need sunlight to prevent diseases such as rickets. Others have their teeth removed, so that there’s no danger of them biting, or are taught to smoke cigarettes and become addicted. In some countries, there’s a fashion for dressing them up in uncomfortable outfits that can cause scarring and stress. “I was horrified”, said Don. “And I knew then that I wanted to do all I could to help monkeys in need of a safe, happy home.”
He built two enclosures in the back garden, with heat and electrics, for his customer’s four monkeys. “At the time, I was renovating our house and the monkeys definitely had better conditions than us!” he laughs. Don’s two children, Kelly and Anthony, were intrigued. They’d had cats, dogs, birds, frogs, and even a snake… but never monkeys. Don’s wife, Joan, was “100% behind the idea”, which was very understanding considering that her garden was being taken over by primates!
The animals settled in well, but then one morning, Don went in… and got a huge shock. “One of the marmosets had two lumps over her body”, he says. “On closer inspection they turned out to be babies – we had no idea that she was even pregnant!”
Nature continued to take its course, and before long, Don had quite a collection of nine monkeys and 14 birds of prey to feed and care for. He’d go to work, then pop back to knock up a meal for his monkeys – such as baby food, porridge with honey, scrambled eggs or pasta. The owls had simpler tastes: baby chicks.
There was just one problem. Money. “Keeping the animals was expensive”, admits Don, “and there wasn’t much work around, as everyone was now buying flatpacks rather than commissioning furniture”. They were also running out of room in the garden – there was nowhere to put the washing line!
CHAPTER 2 – THE DREAM
Don knew that his situation was untenable but then unexpectedly came up with a solution on a winter break to the Isle of Wight in 1996. His family left Northamptonshire in the snow, and then hours later were strolling along Ventnor beach in short sleeves. That’s when Don had his lightbulb moment. “I had the idea of setting up an animal sanctuary that would fund itself through admission fees”, he says. “It occurred to me that the Island with its tourist economy and warm climate would be the perfect place for it. Monkeys really like the heat, so it would be ideal. Also I used to come to the Island a lot when I was a child and love it here.”
Shortly afterwards, they visited Yafford Mill, a working farm in the West Wight. It had vintage machinery, rare cattle, ducks, geese… and a seal, which gave them a Zoo License. “I made them an offer”, says Don. “I said that for a percentage of the gates, I’ll repair the machines, bring my animals, and get the watermill working again. My son Anthony could help – he was only 14 at the time, but he was already a skilled carpenter, and had been building brick walls since the age of 7.”
The farm said ‘yes please’. And things moved very quickly from then on. Don and his wife Joan sold their house in Northamptonshire, bought a small place in Freshwater, and threw themselves into the new venture. Joan says: “I knew Don was taking a big risk, but I’ve always supported him in everything that he’s wanted to do.” However it came at a cost, as they were now a stretch of water away from their daughter, Kelly, who was planning her wedding to car dealer David. “It was an emotional time for us all”, remembers David. “We were excited about the future, but nervous too.”
For two years, Don and Anthony worked hard restoring the machinery and building new enclosures for their growing collection of animals. Joan helped out in the gift shop. Life was sweet… until October 1999 when the farm was sold for financial reasons – and Don was told to be out by Christmas. “We started desperately looking for somewhere to keep our animals”, he remembers. “It was so stressful. Moving house is hard enough but by now we had 18 birds of prey, seven marmosets, two squirrel monkeys and eight rescued polecats!”
The family went to see all the properties on the market with spacious grounds and a workshop. “At that time, we weren’t sure if we wanted to open a sanctuary, or make kitchens, and needed to cover all options,” says Don.
One place was so remote, that they never even found it – the neighbours hadn’t heard of it either. Then the estate agent told them about Five Acres Farm, a bungalow with land on the outskirts of the Island’s capital town, Newport. It used to be a chicken farm, and even though the birds had gone, the stench still lingered. “It was horrible”, says Don. “But we knew that the site had potential. So we contacted Isle of Wight Council to find out how they’d feel if we built a monkey sanctuary here. We were told that they would look favourably on anything to do with tourism.”
Hugely excited, Don and David put in an offer – and were soon the proud owners of a muddy field and the shell of a bungalow. They bounded back to the Council to discuss their plans, but didn’t quite get the reception that they had hoped for.
Another planning officer had taken over. And he said: “You want to do what?!”
That was a shock. But it was the first of many blows, as they fought to go through planning over the next few years.
CHAPTER 3 – THE FIGHT
Until all the consents were granted, the family were haemorrhaging money and getting nowhere. “To be honest, it made me feel sick”, says Don. “But I just thought of the animals and stuck in there.” David adds: “We’d got this far, we had to go forward. What choice did we have?”
Meanwhile shock jock DJ Alex Dyke stirred up local controversy with his Island radio show, making comments such as: “We don’t want no dirty, smelly monkeys on the Island”. And then it got personal. “There were phone-ins, asking who we thought we were, coming over from the mainland”, says Don. “People said that we were ‘amateurs’. We were running a ‘backyard menagerie’. Every day, there was a new knockback.”
People said that the animals would be too noisy – but David managed to prove, using an audio meter, that a singing monkey was no noisier for the neighbours than a bus going past.
One attraction wrote into the County Press to say that “quite simply, we have more than enough competition on this small Island without anymore.” Another tourist attraction branded them “naïve” and urged Don to “give up this ‘dream’ before it’s too late”, saying that he was “ill-informed and inexperienced.”
Don and David wrote to various zoos and sanctuaries around the country, asking for their support. All of them – apart from one – wrote back, offering encouragement and practical help. But the final attraction, Monkey World, went straight to the Isle of Wight Council, giving them 20 reasons why planning consent should not be given. And, unfortunately, they got their way. Permission was refused. The County Press reported that this was ‘greeted by a round of applause from the many residents who had turned up to object.’ Don, Anthony and David were crushed. “It was so disheartening”, recalls Don. “A real low.”
They immediately launched an appeal, which was overseen by an inspector from central government. She put on her wellies, walked around the field – and then overturned every single reason that had been given for not granting permission. She ruled that it would not be detrimental to the character and appearance of the area, it wouldn’t be too noisy for local residents, and that it could benefit the tourist economy with year-round interest and employment. It had taken four ‘horrendous’ years to get to this point. “So when we finally got the go ahead, in 2004, we couldn’t believe it!” says Don.
Construction began, at a breakneck speed, to get the sanctuary open as soon as possible, so that they could start generating an income. “We were all in financial trouble,” says David. “Kelly and I now had three small children, and we were running on empty. I’d been paying the mortgage at Monkey Haven for four years, without getting anything back, so things were getting really bad.”
The family had to scrabble the money together to finance the enclosures, café and education lodge. That was tough, admits David. “We borrowed from friends, emptied the kids’ savings accounts, financed all our cars, got money out on credit cards, and remortgaged our own house for the second time”, he says. “It was so stressful. But we still massively believed in what we were doing and that kept us all going.”
Anthony and Don did all the building, working 14 hour days, 7 days a week, in all weathers. “It was a race against the clock”, explains David. “We just had to get it open before we all went bankrupt.”
It was a harsh winter and Anthony got frostbite on his ears. “We all made sacrifices”, says Anthony. “But we just got on with it.”
CHAPTER 4: THE ANIMALS
These were dark days, but finally Monkey Haven (then the Owl and Monkey Haven) was granted a licence under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act. They could start accommodating animals – but they still needed a Zoo License before they could open to the public.
The rescued animals began arriving, starting with two adorable White-Fronted Capuchins. They were rescued from a small zoo in Leicester that was closing down. The monkeys didn’t have names, so the staff called them Owen and Martin, after the lads who helped to build their enclosure.
Next was Xhabu, a Siamang Gibbon with multiple disabilities and stunted growth – Xhabu’s Tea Room is now named after him. He had been failing to thrive at another animal park, where he would just sit in a corner, banging his head, ignoring the other animals. At first, he refused to eat, but Don developed a ‘special bond’ with the cross-eyed monkey through hand feeding him, day and night, for three weeks. “He’s a totally different monkey now”, says Don proudly. “He’s sociable, confident and always moving around.”
Two weeks later, Bog came along, another cheeky Siamang Gibbon who is thought to be Xhabu’s nephew, but has an untraceable blood line so nobody can be entirely sure. Previous attempts to integrate the two animals had failed, but at Monkey Haven, they clicked.
Then a pair of female Mueller’s Gibbons were given a home next door, and to everyone’s astonishment, the monkeys started grooming each other through the enclosure wire. “They would never meet in the wild, as Mueller’s are from Borneo and Siamangs are from Sumatra, but they got on so well”, says Don. “After discussing this with monkey experts, who’d never heard of anything like this, I opened the door between their houses… and they’ve been happy together ever since.”
They were soon joined by a collection of rescued birds: ten Barn Owls, two Buzzards, two Snowy Owls and two Bengal Owls. All the animals had nowhere else to go – if Monkey Haven hadn’t taken them, then they would almost certainly have been put down.
CHAPTER 5 – RED TAPE
As the animals started arriving, word spread about the sanctuary, and many animal lovers started to get involved. Retired civil servant Colin Pay started turning up every day with a mop, bucket and peanuts. He’s now their longest serving volunteer.
In 2008, still tied up with red tape, the money ran out again. David took out a third remortgage – “what else could we do?” – to finish the public buildings.
A year later, the Zoo Licence was finally granted. “We were all excited”, says David, “But we still needed to build a carpark for 40 cars. So on the same day, Kelly, Don, Joan and I took out credit cards and loans. We really were in trouble. We were flat broke and faced bankruptcy.”
There wasn’t an opening ceremony. Instead, visitors just started turning up around Easter 2010 as the construction and painting continued around them. “The stress of that!” remembers David.
It didn’t take long before news spread about their new sanctuary. “We started getting calls and emails from all over the world, asking if we could rehome primates”, says Don. “We just couldn’t build fast enough to accommodate them all.”
CHAPTER 6 – THE CRISIS
The tension was really starting to show for all of them. Anthony, who was now a father of two, had been working hard for years and never received a wage, been able to afford a holiday, or get a mortgage of his own. Kelly and David were struggling to make ends meet, having put everything they had into the sanctuary. Even Don and Joan, who had been positive throughout, were starting to get frightened about what the future could hold.
Monkey Haven was now open but all the money they had borrowed was rapidly disappearing, and everything started to unravel at the start of 2011. The year began with a call from a bank, asking why they were so overdrawn – they had an £80,000 overdraft facility. “We were having to put mortgage payments on our credit cards”, says David. “Then my brother needed £60,000 back that we’d borrowed, and another friend needed his £30,000 back. And then the finance company for my car business withdrew their funding agreement.”
It was crunch time. “I had to try and explain to Kelly that we could lose the house and business”, recalls David. “I felt that we had exhausted every avenue and complete failure was imminent.”
The bank called an emergency meeting. “Somehow, under immense pressure, I persuaded them to lend a further £175,000”, says David, “But in a day, it was gone. It was so stressful but this was definitely the turning point.”
CHAPTER 7 – THE BREAKTHROUGH
Salvation came when Monkey Haven was granted charity status in August 2013. This has been a significant breakthrough, as the money that they used to pay in VAT can now support the animals over the winter while the premises are being renovated and the attraction isn’t open. Monkey Haven can also claim Gift Aid, which gives a boost of up to 25% on donations from qualifying members of the public.
Now, the focus is firmly on caring for creatures in crisis. Animals find their way to Monkey Haven through all kinds of routes. One young Rhesus Macaque was discovered up a tree in Dorset – that’s Hobo!. The Lar Gibbons moved in after a hotel disposed of their animal collection. The Meerkats ended up on the Island after they were confiscated from an illegal dealer who kept them in rabbit hutches – there were originally nine, all suffering from malnutrition, but sadly three died before they could be rehoused.
Sometimes a monkey arrives, and everyone gets more than they bargained for. That happened when Tammy, the Rhesus Macaque, was given a home. “I went in one morning and saw what I thought was a tennis ball in her enclosure”, laughs Don. “Then I realised that it was a baby monkey’s head! We just thought she was fat, and so this was a big surprise.”
Several of the animals come from AAP in the Netherlands, a well respected organisation that rescues animals, rehabilitates them into family units, and then finds them a permanent home. The mischievous Barbary Macaques are from AAP. Little Anou was found living in a shipping container, and the dark conditions were causing her to self-harm. When she was rescued, she was terrified of the dark, until a dimmer switch helped her to adjust. Nanushka was dumped on a pet shop’s doorstep, by someone who’d bought her on impulse from a market. Baby Geertje was discovered in hand luggage at Brussels airport. Another Macaque was rescued from a bar, where he had been chained up and fed cigarettes. Together now, at Monkey Haven, they have everything they need – including their very own waterfall – and they live very peacefully together.
Many of the animals you’ll see at Monkey Haven are ex pets. The fluffy little Cottontop Tamarins were confiscated from a house where a lady kept nearly 200 monkeys in a shocking state of deprivation – they had never even seen daylight.
Then there’s the rare beauty Djebra, a Red-tailed Guenon, who’s thought to be the only one of his kind in the country. Like many illegal pets, he was snatched from the wild when he was a baby, and had no contact with other monkeys for many years. He now displays human characteristics, such as washing his fruit before eating it, and feeding himself with a spoon. “He ended up in a zoo”, says Don, “But because he’d never seen another monkey before, he’d try to attack and kill any female that they tried to breed him with. He ended up on sedatives, and then in isolation, because he was uncontrollable.”
Djebra has now settled into Monkey Haven, and lives happily alongside the handsome Colobus monkeys, giving them their orders, but he’s still unpredictable, so the keepers don’t go into his enclosure. Don keeps his distance too. “Djebra hated me from day one”, he explains. “Given half a chance, he’d attack me!”. Don says that it’s common for male monkeys to dislike men, and for female monkeys to dislike women, as they see the same sex as a threat. And disguises don’t work – monkeys will know which sex you are by your scent!
As well as their work with primates, Monkey Haven looks after around 20 birds of prey a year, brought in by the public or police. They might have fallen out of their nest, been found trapped in a shed, or been hit by a car. The birds are checked out by a vet, and nurtured back to health. “Whenever possible, we’ll release them back in the wild, right where they were found, as part of our ‘rescue and release programme’”, says Don. “We have a great track record with this. We recently released Fera, a baby owl who we found in a barn, and we think was abandoned by her parents. She was in shock and so dehydrated that we didn’t think she’d last the night, but after a few weeks, she was fit enough to fly away.”
Sometimes the birds are permanently disabled, which means that they will never be able to fend for themselves in the wild. Nelson, a Buzzard, lost an eye after he flew into a branch, which put an end to his hunting. He’s now cared for at Monkey Haven, as he wouldn’t survive on his own. “Nelson wasn’t too happy when he first came here”, says Don. “But when we put a female in his enclosure – an ex falconry bird – he calmed down immediately. They’re very relaxed together now.”
The Snowy Owls were brought in by the Police. They’d been kept in someone’s garden, then abandoned when the owner did a midnight flit. “They hadn’t been fed for four days, but we fed them up, and nine years later, they’re still going strong,” says Don proudly.
They also have a large number of pretty little Finches and Canaries that used to be kept by prisoners (the ‘jailbirds’!). When the Governor decided that they were no longer therapeutic, they were shown the door… and made very welcome at Monkey Haven. Don only regrets that he couldn’t take their Love Birds, too.
CHAPTER 8 – THE LEARNING CURVE
Setting up the sanctuary has been a steep learning curve for everyone involved, but now the finances are stable, and visitor numbers are increasing each year. Monkey Haven is the Island’s number one attraction on TripAdvisor and has won awards including the Best Small Visitor Attraction in England in 2017’s VisitEngland’s awards.
The family can finally breathe again. “It took at least three years for us all to get our lives back in order”, says David. “But now we can look to the future.”
So what’s in store for Monkey Haven? Well, over the next few years, they hope to build a bigger, better education lodge for schoolchildren. They also want to continue helping with research that will give us a greater insight into our fascinating ancient relatives. Experts at Portsmouth University have been making regular visits to study how the Macaques use facial expressions to communicate as part of the Monkey University project. These monkeys are so smart that they can identify their own species when they’re shown images of a range of primates, and they can play ‘Snap’ faster than most humans.
There are also plans to build five more enclosures, so that they can accommodate an extra 20-25 monkeys in need of a final chance of happiness. “We always knew the need was great, and the past few years have proved it”, says Don. “We get phone calls and emails every day, asking us to take rescued monkeys and birds, but we just don’t have the space. I wish we did!”
So would they do it all again, despite everything that they’ve been through? Don smiles. “People have said to me: don’t you wish you’d never started on this? But honestly, I’ve always looked at the animals and known that this was the right thing to do. It’s been a long, hard struggle to get where we are, without any funding – and so difficult finding sponsors. But when people see what we do here, they’re very generous, and we can keep the costs down by doing all the building work ourselves.”
Joan adds: “It’s certainly been a massive challenge for us all, but it’s so worthwhile now to see all the animals in a happy and safe environment.”
David agrees: “Would I do it all again? Hell yes!”