Many volunteers share their time at the OCCQ with the OFI community through personal reflection. But knowing Judith Roycroft, I suspected that this humble woman would never do justice to the magnitude of her effort and impact on the orangutans of the Care Center so, instead, I am writing about her as an exemplary volunteer and a deeply compassionate person.
Judith unobtrusively joined the OFI team in Borneo on New Year’s Eve of 2011, as an Environmental Enrichment recruit. She succeeded Kylise Hare (who left big shoes to fill). Judith’s devotion to animals and her tireless energy soon became evident; Judith was frequently in the Care Center early morning preparing enrichment materials, cleaning and sterilizing work surfaces, and checking on the orangutans while most staff and other volunteers were only just arriving. But it was Judith’s attitude that made her remarkable; there was no task that was too menial or too hard for her. While chatting about some gruelling job, she stated, as though it were matter of course, “There is nothing I wouldn’t do for these orangutans”. She wasn’t lying. Once, on a particularly hot day when shopping for enrichment items at the market in Pangkalan Bun, Judith became faint from exhaustion and heat to the point of vomiting by the side of the road. Concerned staff rushed her back home, where she took a shower and changed…and then came back to work in the afternoon. Orangutans and other animals, including the OCCQ’s sun bears and macaques, as well as the numerous rescued cats in the Care Center, seem aware of Judith’s unconditional devotion. The animals reciprocate her care and attention with affection.
Judith’s commitment to animal welfare was proved when she returned to the OCCQ in November of 2011, just four months after leaving in July. But the road to Judith’s immersion in the world of animals was long and winding, and quite unconventional. Yet today, sitting on the tiled steps of the Orangutan Care Center in a well-worn t-shirt and rubber boots, between collecting natural browse, and handing out fruit ice treats to the orangutans, Judith tells me she is thankful for the path her life has taken.
Her first job, in the administrative and legal department of the Ministry of Defence in Ireland, taught her discipline and work ethic. But after several years Judith found the job no longer satisfied her, so she started taking evening courses at the Lisburn Music School (LMS) in drama, musical theatre and piano. Once she received her diploma, Judith began teaching at the school on afternoons and weekends, leading music classes and doing stage make-up, eventually switching to full time work at the LMS. Working with children in the classes taught her patience, and applying make-up took a gentle hand, and skill in making people feel calm and at ease, a skill very important when working with animals as sensitive and powerful as orangutans. Always dynamic, Judith finally followed her love of animals and enrolled in the Animal Management program in the Belfast Metropolitan College. In her first year, Judith travelled to South Africa where she spent time volunteering at the Vervet Monkey Foundation and with baboons at the CARE center in Limpopo (the value of these monkey placements is evident in Judith’s magic touch with the macaques in the OCCQ). After graduating from the BMC, Judith volunteered for two months at the Sepilok Center in Sabah, Malaysia, where she fell in love with orangutans. When I marvelled at the twists and turns in her life, she confirmed by saying “everything I’ve ever done in my life has made me the person I am today” and this is what had led her here.
Thinking of how lucky we were to have Judith back with us, I asked her how her second tenure at the OCCQ differed from the first time. After some thought, Judith remarked that last time, there were fewer non-staff recruits at the Care Center. She also said, with (I think) a hint of regret, that orangutans with whom she had been friendly last time acted differently towards her. On the other hand, this time she got to know some of them better and as such, communicated with them on a more personal level. These deeper relationships made for a more organic enrichment experience for all concerned.
Curious about future plans for her life, I asked Judith what she intends to do next. Her unconventional response was that she is tired of the materialistic the world that we know and experience in our everyday lives. She finds that the longer time she spends with animals, the more she recognizes the irrelevance of all our mundane daily concerns. She just wants to, “as long as [she] has strength, to give back some of what we took from nature”. Amen, I say.