My Chimpanzee Love Affair in Girona, Spain

I swore I would never be the other woman, but everything went bananas after just one day of volunteering at MONA, a chimpanzee sanctuary located just outside of Girona, Spain, 100km NE of Barcelona or 32km south of the charming village Besalú and 74km south of Cadaqués, home to Salvador Dali’s house.

chimpanzee girona spain

Photo courtesy of MONA, used with permission.

His name was Toni.  He was handsome, but short – OK I’ll admit it, he was a midget, or “vertically challenged” in politically correct terms, due to a malformation of his spine.  What he lacked for in height, he more than compensated for in personality, despite his challenges.  For many years he lived in a small cage on the back of a truck where he worked as an entertainer, performing in commercials and circuses until he was rescued and brought to MONA.  It was love at first sight – for me at least, but he also seemed equally enamored, greeting me and stretching out his hand.  I longed for our fingers to touch, but short term volunteers are forbidden to touch the chimps for safety reasons (occasionally chimps will bite, especially ones that have previously been mistreated as is the case with the rescue chimps at the sanctuary).

I went to bed that night dreaming about Toni and the adventures we would share for the next three days while I was volunteering.  Then the very next day everything changed.  I found out that he was really in love with Amelia, one of the chimpanzee sanctuary’s vets.  I wanted to hate her for being the object of his affections, but I couldn’t.  She  was smart, dedicated, beautiful, caring, and nice.   Still, I felt so used.

The next day Amelia was attending to a wound on his son Nico’s hand.  Toni repeatedly banged on the door, wrought with  jealousy.  In that moment I instantly forgave him.  He really was love sick and really haven’t we all been there at some point?

On the third day, when Amelia wasn’t around, he gingerly offered his hand again.  I politely declined, more easily this time.  I wouldn’t knowingly be the other woman – even if he had captured my heart.

More adventures of my volunteer experiences at MONA coming soon.  In the meantime you might want to check out these cute monkey pictures of other primates.

Laurel Robbins is the founder of Monkeys and Mountains, an adventure travel blog and company that helps people plan their active holidays in a sustainable way. Although Canadian, she lives in Germany. You can find her in the mountains on most weekends.


  1. Steve Juba March 19, 2012 at 9:33 pm - Reply

    Love monkeys–going all over the world with our travel club trying to see as many different species as possible. I have only seen Chimps in zoos thus far haha…

  2. Claire March 19, 2012 at 10:22 pm - Reply

    Is that Toni in the picture? What a great experience, looking forward to reading more about it.

  3. Laurel March 19, 2012 at 10:45 pm - Reply

    @Steve – Me too, traveling the world for monkeys sounds like a dream come true!

    @Claire – Yep, that’s Toni. I’ve always wanted to volunteer with chimps, having worked with gorillas at the Calgary Zoo and it was amazing to see how different they are. It was a fantastic experience.

  4. Abby March 19, 2012 at 11:26 pm - Reply

    That is sooo cool that you did that! And in Spain, no less. I bet you bonded so fast with those animals.

  5. Christy March 20, 2012 at 1:20 am - Reply

    So cute! This sounds like an amazing experience.

  6. Zhu March 20, 2012 at 2:03 am - Reply

    Monkeys are such strange animals… so close to humans (or rather, we are so close to them!). It’s almost unsettling in a way!

  7. Jeremy Branham March 20, 2012 at 3:26 am - Reply

    Ha! I love the story and the way you told it. However, when a male’s name like Tony is spelled with an ‘i’ it makes me wonder a little bit. In the end, it probably wouldn’t have worked out better but I am glad you enjoyed your three days with him and the others.

  8. Christy @ Technosyncratic March 20, 2012 at 7:01 am - Reply

    Chimps are such smart animals! I can’t wait to read about your time volunteering at the sanctuary; it sounds like something I’d love to try.

  9. Italian Notes March 20, 2012 at 7:37 am - Reply

    Seems like a new kind of ‘eat, prey, love’ tourism, you’ve found there. Is the sanctuary open to all volunteers?

  10. Laurel March 20, 2012 at 11:38 am - Reply

    Thanks for your comments everyone, agree that chimps are incredibly smart and in many ways we are incredibly similar to them. @Jeremy – Very few men could pull off Toni with an “i” but this Toni is definitely one of them, he’s a real charmer. @Italian Notes – LOL ‘eat, prey, love’ – love it! Volunteers have to apply to volunteer but I believe volunteer’s attitudes is more important than prior knowledge. People from all walks of life and people can volunteer from 1 day to 6 months or longer. I just volunteered for 4 days.

  11. Andrea March 20, 2012 at 11:56 am - Reply

    Adorable story – what a great experience for you to have!

  12. Laura March 20, 2012 at 6:49 pm - Reply

    Wow, what a great story! But I always thought there’s plenty of room for love and loving one person doesn’t mean sacrificing the love for another. Therefore I believe he loves you both, no need to be jealous 🙂

  13. Ha, I love this story! Since you are a newlywed, I’m glad you resisted temptation although I don’t know how you did it 🙂

  14. Cherina March 21, 2012 at 1:52 am - Reply

    Haha, what a great story and such a wonderful thing to do. Toni looks like quite the charmer – how could anyone resist!! 😉

  15. Leigh March 21, 2012 at 2:29 am - Reply

    Laurel, you sure brought that story to life – and there’s obviously a real bond between you and the monkeys. I hope you get another chance like this in the future. Three days seems like too little time.

  16. Laurel March 21, 2012 at 1:46 pm - Reply

    @Laura – I like the way you think 🙂
    @Debbie – It was tough 🙂
    @Leigh – Thanks Leigh. It was always my dream to work with chimps, I’ve worked with gorillas at the Calgary Zoo, but chimps are completely different. I was there 4 days altogether, but you’re right it wasn’t enough.

  17. Bret @ Green Global Travel April 2, 2012 at 12:55 am - Reply

    Cool post, Laurel! If you’re not already a member of the Facebook group Travel Bloggers Give back, you should join and share your posts about the chimp sanctuary there (, as it’s all about sharing charity-related posts. Also, if you’ve never seen it, there’s a great documentary about chimps called Project Nim that I’d highly recommend. It’s easily among the most moving animal-related documentaries I’ve ever seen.

  18. Turtle April 11, 2012 at 4:23 pm - Reply

    So cute! That’s great you got a chance to work so closely with the animals. I can see why he captured your heart.

  19. Faye Ulatowski April 13, 2012 at 7:44 pm - Reply

    It’s the second time when i’ve seen your site. I can understand a lot of hard work has gone in to it. It’s actually great.

  20. cheryl April 20, 2012 at 9:00 am - Reply

    So glad to hear you had a wonderful time volunteering there. He’s a cutie! 🙂

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