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Primate centre still open after blaze

One of the Helderberg’s popular attractions has been dealt a devastating blow on the eve of the busy holiday season.

A fire raged through the Somerset West primate centre Monkey Town last Thursday night (13 December), which gutted the restaurant and deck, and destroyed an enclosure housing two rescued Chacma baboons.

The baboons were luckily unharmed in the fire.

Monkey Town manager Melissa Grobler recalled how she and her husband were awoken by screams from the owner, her mother-in-law, who was afraid they would burn to death in the fire.

The restaurant owner, Darius Grobler, said he responded to the alarm around 22:30. His initial thought was that the premises had been targeted by burglars. Instead, the restaurant, which had been operating since February 2013, was on fire.

“We were geared and stocked up for the busiest season ever,” he said.

Darius explained that the fire, which appeared to have started at the restaurant, had leapt to the baboon enclosure, located between the eatery and the house. The enclosure is also in close proximity to a reptile garden, which has more than 100 snakes.

“I was very distressed; it is a nightmare situation for an animal sanctuary. And, primates are difficult animals to try and rescue because they climb trees,” Melissa related.

“My biggest fear was loss of life. Material possessions and buildings can be replaced, a life cannot. The experience was terrifying, especially since the primates are like my children.”

She said the baboons, aged seven and five, climbed a tree to safety and waited out the raging fire beneath them.

“Even with their entire enclosure open, they were too terrified to leave their area and stayed put until this morning [Friday],” she said.

The baboons were eventually lured down and are temporarily kept in a smaller enclosure.

Melissa recalled the fire spreading to the furthest enclosure, which borders neighbouring property and is mere metres away from the main camp. She said if the fire had spread any further, the lives of the other animals would have been at risk.

Monkey Town is home to 26 species of primates, numbering 250 in all, and 400 other animals ranging from alpacas to donkeys.

Melissa said the City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Services were alerted, and they battled to douse the flames and hotspots flaring up in the dark while braving billows of smoke. The main restaurant building was engulfed in flames by the time they arrived.

According to Fire and Rescue spokesperson Edward Bosch, the service responded to the incident shortly before 23:00. He said 21 firefighters, three fire engines, two water tankers and a rescue vehicle went to the scene.

“The restaurant and outside decking was completely destroyed by fire. Fortunately, none of the resort animals were injured,” said Bosch.

At the time of going to print, Bosch said the cause of the fire was still under investigation.

Monkey Town was closed for business the following day (Friday), which Melissa said was a first for the primate centre since its establishment 18 years ago. She added that the centre, which is open 365 days of the year, would have been operating if the electricity supply had not been affected.

Grobler said the restaurant owners have, meanwhile, been operating an on-site kiosk to provide would-be visitors, who are usually prohibited from bringing along their own refreshments, with drinks and eats.

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