Born Free with Dr. Liz Tyson

December 14, 2021

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Liz did not begin her career working with animals but found her way to her life’s passion all the same! Early in her career, Liz earned a degree in law, while also working full-time at a financial PR firm in London. Realizing that the corporate world was not for her, she began to look around for opportunities that would allow her to fulfill her true life’s ambition – to work with animals. Liz was offered the role of Education Officer and Primate Keeper at a monkey sanctuary on the south coast of England. She jumped at the chance and never looked back!

Liz joined Born Free USA as Primate Sanctuary Director in Fall 2018 and was promoted to Programs Director in Spring 2020. She oversees the running of one of the country’s largest primate sanctuaries, as well as Born Free USA’s campaigns work.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the impact podcast. I’m John Shegerian and I’m so excited to have with us today, Dr. Liz Tyson. She’s the program’s director of Born Free USA. You can find Liz and her colleagues and her great work at Welcome, Liz.

Dr. Liz Tyson: Hi, John. Thank you so much for having me.

John: Liz, you’re giving us a little head fake today because you and I had a lovely chat offline. You have this beautiful English accent, but we’re actually having this conversation. I’m in Fresno and you’re in South Texas in the United States of America, right?

Liz: That’s right. I like to throw people off that way. Keep them on their toes.

John: You are keeping me on my toes. That’s for sure. Liz, though, you were born in the UK, share a little bit about your fascinating background and upbringing and journey leading up to becoming the program’s director of Born Free USA.

Liz: So yeah, as you said, I’m from the United Kingdom. I’m from Manchester in the North. And grew up there went to school, went to college there, and then kind of just ended up working in London in an office job in financial PR, which is a world away both figuratively and literally right now from what I do now. And I think I got to my early 20s, I realized it was the corporate world wasn’t really for me and I started to look around for other work. And really, the only thing that was good been very consistent in my life was animals, so I somehow manage to land a job working as an education officer and keeper of all things, a monkey sanctuary in the south of England. So I moved from London, down to the coast started looking after monkeys, not very glamorous, but wonderful work and that was kind of the beginning. So that was around 18 years ago.

From there, I’ve just had the opportunity to work with such amazing people. I’ve worked in Colombia. I lived there for 3 years, working in primate conservation field. I’ve got to work in the Middle East. I’ve done some work with organizations in Bolivia, Peru, [inaudible] Island. I’ve just been so incredibly lucky with the opportunities that I’ve had and then around 3 and a half years ago, the position here in South Texas came up of the director of one of the largest primate sanctuaries in the United States and I was lucky enough to be offered it. So I came over here, packed up, brought my dogs, and here we are. And since then, I’ve kind of developed my role into the program’s director.

John: That’s lovely. And one of our listeners want to know, you’re not only doing amazing and important work which were about to get into. You’re trained as a lawyer, you got your PhD in Animal Welfare Law, right, in 2018? So that’s how come you have talked to the doctor there. And now you’re doing this really important work. What exactly is Born Free USA and what goes on there?

Liz: Okay, some of you might have heard the name, you might have the song or the film, Born Free, there is a link. Born Free was founded back in the 1980s by the 2 actors who were in the film, “Born Free”. So Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, and their son, Will who remains the executive president of the organization, founded Born Free. And really, the aim of the organization was to relieve the suffering of wild animals kept in captivity. They were really concerned about the keeping of animals, like lions, like elephants in zoos, and that was kind of where it started. And then from there, we’ve become a global operation. We operate a number of sanctuaries around the world. We’re a family, we have multiple offices. There’s Born Free in the United Kingdom, which was the founder organization and then Born Free USA. We operate as a separate organization but we are very much part of the same family. And so now, our work really encompasses a number of areas. We care for animals like we do here at the sanctuary where I’m speaking to you from. We have over 300 monkeys here under our care. There are other sanctuaries in Africa, in different countries in Africa, caring for other animals. We work in the field in conservation. We have an incredible program in West Africa, which works in a largely community facilitation to curve wildlife trade. And then we also do campaigning and advocacy to change legislation to make the world a better place specifically for wild animals. And that’s where my 2 worlds collide. So my legislative side and my animal care side somehow came together in what is for me, the dream job.

John: So your law degree really comes in to integrate use with what your doing and your PhD, both [inaudible]

Liz: Yeah, is [inaudible] luck than anything. Yes.

John: I don’t know about that, really. So at the sanctuary, are outsiders invited in or is it mostly just to care for the animals so there’s a place for them to go where they’re going to be cared and loved for?

Liz: Absolutely. So we’re not open to visitors and the reason for that is, I mean, first and foremost, we’re not a zoo. Our primary purpose is to care for animals and to give them a home for like that is the focus of our staff. That’s the focus of our donors. And we have like I say, kind of over 300 monkeys here who we care for on a daily basis. And many of them come from traumatic backgrounds. So they may have come from the pet trade, many of them have been kept in isolation for the beginning of their lives, which has both physical and psychological impacts on them. Some have come from the bar trees. So really, all we want to do is provide this really safe, secure, place for them where they don’t need to be stressed, they don’t need to be worried about anything. We care for them for the rest of their lives and our entire focus will be the monkeys.

John: And the capital to support your great organization comes from just regular donors, like myself, or big corporations?

Liz: We don’t have any corporate funding as such. Most of our funding comes from the generosity of individuals and grant-giving organizations. So grant-giving organizations and trusts. But yeah, it’s pure generosity that keeps our work going, for sure.

John: For our listeners and viewers who just tuned in, we’ve got a very special guest today. With us today, Dr. Liz Tyson. She’s the program’s director of Born Free USA. You can find Born Free USA at You can donate, participate, and learn much more about her amazing organization. Liz, you’ve talked a little bit about the primates that you house at your sanctuary. Two questions, one are they all types of different primates in terms of orangutans versus chimpanzees. Are they all? And then also talk a little bit about, I’m a Layman, and I assume most of our listeners and viewers around the world are the same when it comes to this specialty, talk a little bit about trade and primates as pets, and how really it looks adorable while you’re looking in but there’s a huge dark side and downside to that whole trade.

Liz: Yeah, absolutely. So, our sanctuary focuses predominantly on the cat species. So they wouldn’t actually live in Africa and Asia, and also baboons. So most people recognize. The big guys, we care for baboons. We don’t have apes, so we don’t have chimpanzees or orangutans. And like I say, over 300 of them are predominately Japanese macaque. So some people, they might not know the name, but if you seen the photographs, these are very fluffy, white monkeys with very red faces in the hot springs. Those are Japanese macaque. So that might bring up some imagery for some people. So those are the animals we care for and yet, some of them come from the pet trade, which is currently legal in the United States. And there is a patchwork of legislation across the various states where there are more restrictions in some areas than others but generally speaking, it is legal to have a pet monkey in the US and like you say they are adorable. And I know, goodness me. That’s why I work with them right there. They’re most incredible individuals and I think people think that because they’re so like us, they’d make great pets.

You know, they’re kind of something better than a dog or a cat. And honestly, because they’re so like us, that’s exactly why they make terrible pets. They are like us and that they’re very social, they need to be with their mothers and their fathers, and their siblings. And to be part of the pet trade, they are by default, taken from their family at a very young age. Initially, they’re like us, again primates, they have long childhood so they’re really vulnerable. When they’re first bought, they might be few months old, they’ll cling to you. It’s like having a very furry cute baby. The problem is that they get older. They know that they’re missing the things that they need. They’re missing the social upbringing, they’re missing this kind of complex hierarchy that they live in and they are ultimately wild animals.

So, what we see happen time and time and time again, they will reach a couple of years old, 3 years old, 4 years old, their canines will grow in, and they will start to attack their owners. What then happens is sometimes the monkey is killed and they might be confiscated, there’s nowhere for them to go. Or what we see happening so regularly is that they will just be put in a cage and that’s where they’ll stay. And in fact, we just rescued over this summer, a monkey called Gambit. He came from Las Vegas, a little rhesus macaque. And that was his story. He’d been kept as a baby. He was this really sweet little thing who everyone loved, he loved to play and then as he got older, I think he bit the mother of his owner.

And they got scared of him and rightly so, they are dangerous animals, he was put in a parrot cage which measured 2 feet by 2 feet by 3 feet, and he stayed there for 3 years. So by the time by the time the family contacted us and they absolutely did the right thing. They said, “This isn’t the life he should be living, can you take him?” We went to pick him up. It took 2 vets plus 2 other members of staff to safely sedate him because he was ricocheting around that cage like a whirlwind. He was so so stressed. We drove across country. It was quite the epic journey as you can imagine driving a monkey through X number of states. We came back here and then he’s been living with us for the past few months. He’s settling in okay, but you know, we can only rescue very few of them. So, there’s thousands out there, thousands.

John: Really? So the magnitude of the problem is much larger than the solution provides for this point?

Liz: Absolutely. So, really what we’re working on is a band. We’re looking for the introduction of a piece of legislation for the captive primates safety act that would ban private ownership. It would grandfather in those who currently own monkeys. So it wouldn’t actually affect anyone who was currently in possession of a monkey legally, but we really need to stop this at stores because if we don’t, we were mopping up the mess and we can provide at best a home to a handful of monkeys because they can live for 30 years. So we are constantly operating its capacity. So until we stop the trade, there’s nothing we can do really.

John: I love it. What are the odds of that getting through?

Liz: We’re hoping that it’s going to pass in the next few years. We really need people support. If you kind of connect with what I was just talking about and you’re interested in helping, then there’s information on our website where you can contact your representative. We’re looking for co-sponsors for the bill, been introduced in both houses at the moment. It’s early days, but the more support we get for it, obviously, the more chance it has a passing. I mean, it just seems like common sense, doesn’t it, really?

John: Oh, it makes total sense. Who’s lobbying the other side? I’m interested, like, whoever’s making money on this, is in that much money that these are organized attempt to keep it from being legislated out?

Liz: Oh, I’m not sure that there is necessarily a huge amount of opposition. I wonder more whether it’s- everything that’s going on in the world, anyone’s time, animal relation, we struggle to get a platform. And I understand that, that makes sense. So, yeah, I wouldn’t say that there’s any sort of particular group, which is really actively fighting against it. It’s more, we just need to get it on people’s radar. We need to get into understand it. Yeah.

John: Liz, you said these beautiful primates can live up to 30 years.

Liz: Yeah.

John: When things go right for them, if the doctor give the other side though, if that family from Las Vegas had not thankfully hold you, what’s the lifespan then of a primate who is in captivity like that and overly stressed out obviously?

Liz: I’ll give you this answer in a story which breaks my heart, but I think it’s a really important one to tell. There was a monkey called “Charlie”. He was a Japanese macaque. He was so beautiful. He was one of the most physically beautiful. I think he’s worth specimen. It seems so kind of impersonal, but he was just gorgeous. You know, if you saw a picture of a Japanese macaque, he was the example you would use.

John: Right.

Liz: And he was 7 years old [inaudible] to us. He’d been bred by a breeder. He’d been sold into the pet trade. He did exactly what I said happened. Usually, he got older. He bit, as I understand it, the grandson of his owner and the grandson was hospitalized. Thankfully, he was okay. But then of course, they wanted to get rid of the monkey. So the monkey was going to be destroyed but then a local rescue group stepped in. He was at this kind of boarding kennel setup for awhile while they found something for him. He moved to another sanctuary. He couldn’t get on with any of the monkeys there. If you think these animals are, they need to be brought up in a social situation.

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So if you imagine bringing up a human child in complete isolation and then expect and to understand social cues, so he really struggled. He came to us and we tried everything to get this boy a friend who he could live with. He was either terrified or he was incredibly aggressive, and that was it. Those were his 2- he was polar opposite. So at this point, he’s about 7 years old when he came to us. And in the end, we tried him in different combinations. We couldn’t make it work. We were worried about him injuring one of the other monkeys. We taken a step back. He was staying in an enclosure on his own while we kind of regrouped and worked out what was best for him. One morning, I remember it so clearly, I was walking through the sanctuary. One of my colleagues called me over and said, “Liz, I think he died.” And he was lying there, this beautiful boy, and he passed away.

We did a necropsy, of course [inaudible] there’s no reason for him to pass away. He was incredibly healthy from what we knew and the necropsies showed that he literally passed away from cumulative stress and the physical impact stress of his life that had on his body. Seven years old and this boy lived until he was around 30 years old. He just didn’t really have a chance. And that plays out over and over again.

John: We’re going to change topics from the trade of primates as pets to another very difficult subject matter, the issue of trapping. Now, I’m not a hunter. I don’t own any guns. I don’t understand the hunting world. I don’t understand the trapping world. Can you talk a little bit about trapping and why is it so poorly regulated now? And what are some of the legal statutory fixes that are possible to help improve this horrible situation?

Liz: So yeah, trapping continues to be a kind of popular and the word for it is “pastime”. I think that’s one of the things that really kind of is stunning, that this is something that’s done as a recreational pastime. So in all Berth [?], California, Hawaii, and now, New Mexico [?], recreational trapping for fun is allowed. Now, when we [inaudible] about traps, the design of traps really have not changed in centuries. Those leg gripping traps, they don’t have the sharp teeth anymore, but they still break bones, they still cause injury. There are body gripping traps, which literally suffocate the life out of animals, or hold them underwater while they drown. Now, to use those at all is cruel.

We know enough about animals. We know enough about animal welfare now. We’re not 200 years ago. We don’t think animals are kind of unfeeling, sort of lesser than us creatures. We know that they suffer and yet we continue to allow these contraptions. There’s over 100 countries around the world that have either severely restricted or banned body-gripping traps for that reason, and the US isn’t one of them. So right now, there’s a patchwork of legislation across the state where some traps are banned, some traps are allowed, certain methodology of trapping is allowed, some of it is banned. What we really need is just this really comprehensive approach where we need to end it. The other thing that’s really shocking is that this trapping is allowed in the wildlife refuge system. So on these places where wildlife is supposed to be protected, by their very nature, that is what you would expect.

And you can be going out, you can be walking with your dog, you can be walking with your family, and believe it or not, those leg-hold traps can be lying there waiting for wildlife to be caught. So, we’re working in a stage system. Initially, we want that banned. We want it banned in the wildlife refuges. There’s no excuse for that. We then want to see recreational trapping banned. Again, this could be a fun pastime for someone to do. Honestly, find a new hobby. And then we want to work with authorities who continue to use trapping as a kind of quote-unquote wild life control methodology. We want to work with them to find out how can we bring that to an end. So, it’s kind of a staged approach, really getting rid of this absolutely frivolous use of it and then coming down to how do we get rid of it all together. How do we work with the authorities that still use it? To find better ways to manage wildlife, if needed.

John: Like you said, what kind of purse time hurts innocent animals like that? It makes zero sense.

Liz: Yeah, it’s something that causes so much suffering. I’m like you, I’m not a hunter. I don’t agree with hunting but there are certain arguments that hunters make about, you know, a clean shot is very important to not to not allow animals to suffer. Now, I don’t think they should be hunted at all. That’s a different discussion. But that absolutely cannot be said of trapping. Trapping inevitably causes suffering every single time. So it’s on a different scale. There’s just no excuse for it.

John: Okay. Just joined us, we’ve got Dr. Liz Tyson with us. She’s the program’s director of Born Free USA. You can find Liz, and her colleagues and all the important work they do at They’re also, of course on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. You can find them in all the different social media platforms. Let’s switch to another topic. Liz, again, one that I grew up thinking was a sanctuary, a form of conservation. I grew up in New York City, the Bronx Zoo is a very, very popular place. I’ve lived in San Diego, the San Diego Zoo is a very popular place. But zoos, maybe are not as wholesome as they appear on the outside. Can you give a more balanced approach to really [inaudible] the cost and the benefits to zoo life for animals?

Liz: Sure. I think this is something that, I suppose, I kind of keep coming back to the same theme, and one of those is that we over the past, couple of centuries have learnt so much about animals, about their needs, about their complex societies that exist outside of our world. We’ve learned more about conserving species. We know that breeding a lion in our backyard is not going to save the species who are threatened in the countries where they live because species become threatened because of so many really complex geopolitical, environmental, all these different things which are not saved by breeding individual animals. And zoos were initially established to be these kind of places of scientific curiosity. So, like Regions Parks here in London, which was the first sort of zoo as we know it now was actually set up for the upper classes and to learn about these animals, and loads and loads of animals were captured. Yeah, it was curiosity.

And then gradually, it became something which the lower classes, if you like, were invited into as a pastime. So zoos were never really established as conservation centers and they’ve reinvented themselves over the years and argued that that is what they do. Now, only really up until the 1960s did zoos stop taking animals wholesale from the wild to stop their cages. So zoo breeding came in after the safety legislation. So the convention on the international trade in endangered species, which is a convention which is many many countries have signed up to, and that puts controls on how you could move animals around the world, basically. So they could no longer take animals from the wild, began breeding them, and then said this breeding was this idea of this kind of reserve population to release back into the wild, should it ever be needed? But it’s almost as if too much time has gone by for that still to fly. Because we know that these animals haven’t been released. We know that they’re not going to be released because we need to address the conservation issues on the ground. So really what zoos are, if we’re honest is a great day out.

And I don’t deny that I work with beautiful animals. I get how exciting it is to- I got to work in the sanctuary with lions. I understand how incredible these animals are, and how people want to see them, how children want to see them. But like you said, it’s the cost-benefit. It’s the balance. Now, these animals then have to spend their entire lives in these places that are too small for them, it’s same thing as the pet trade, too small for them. They don’t have their social needs met. They don’t have their environment met. They’re in the wrong climate. They have to spend much of the year indoors because they don’t have the right sort of weather. And still, we’re at the moment, there’s a plan to take elephants from the wild to send them to zoos. It happened just about 6 years ago. A number of elephants were taken. Some of them ended up in Dallas Zoo, here in Texas.

So animals are still taken from the wild while this industry is talking about kind of existing as a means to protect them, which obviously just makes no sense. So, I think really, what we would ask people to do is just really think before they go to the zoo. These animals can live for decades and they will live for decades in that place that you go to on a Saturday afternoon to pass a couple of hours. And can we really justify that, knowing everything we know and honestly, I really don’t think we can.

John: Interesting. So, besides just wholesale shutting them down, Liz, is there any middle ground here? Is there any way to repurpose these zoos and make them a lovely day out, but not harm our beautiful animals by needlessly caging them or putting them out of their real habitat, or is it really not the case?

Liz: I mean, I think the reality of it is we would like to see zoos phase out altogether. But if you imagine, say an elephant, who can live 70 something years, elephants have been born [inaudible] now. So there are decades left of, even if there was a decision taken right now that all the zoos were going to close, which isn’t going to happen, there would be a long run phase that period. So for my lifetime, for your lifetime, zoos is still going to be around. So first of all, there is a huge amount of time to work something out. We would really love to see happen is zoos to work together to consolidate, so that rather than having a solitary elephant here in this zoo and another solitary elephant over there, allow that work together to try and create something that is more akin to a sanctuary that puts the needs of the animals first and then gradually work towards, you know, if this really is something about education and we want young people to learn about animals, what are the options? What can we do that might be interesting or different? I don’t know if you’ve seen any of those. There’s a number of zoos that have had these sort of animatronic dinosaur exhibits, and it kind of travels around. So, why can’t we do more of that? And what an amazing thing or you do virtual reality, thinking at kind of outside of the box about what we can do and you know, in virtual reality, you could show a lion hunting.

John: Right.

Liz: Which obviously can’t happen in a zoo. You could show animals under the sea, so rather than having a dolphin in a swimming pool, you could show them in their natural habitat, and I think we’re so open to these kind of ideas in different areas, but it’s like, we’re just fixated on we need the living animal right in front of us to be able to enjoy them. And I just think we need to take the time to really think about what alternatives might be whilst going through this process of phase out and consolidation.

John: You know Liz, why I love to have great people like you on this show and honor you and your mission and your great organization is not only to tee up the problems and of course, expose the problems, and to also share solutions. And you’ve shared a lot of solutions today. Can you share some more ideas? We’re coming into the holiday period here. I know you have an adoption program at Born Free USA. Instead of buying more conspicuous consumption going on and buying more things that people don’t really need, is there a way that we could get involved with your great organization and adopt a sanctuary monkey or something? And do you use that as a gift for someone we care for, a lover, or something of that. What’s out there for our listeners and our viewers?

Liz: Absolutely. I need to tell you about Willis. When I think about the holiday season and the happiness and the joy and the kind of, I also think of the sort of the naughty little elves, and all of these, Willis is the perfect holiday monkey. Willis came to us about 3 weeks ago. He was confiscated by Chicago Animal Care. They contacted us and they were like, “We deal with dogs and cats, can you help? We have this little monkey.” He’s a three-year-old, vervet monkey and honestly, in my 18 years of working with monkeys, I have never known a more joyful little guy than this one. He is hilarious, and he spreads goodwill to all men and women and everything else. And he plays constantly like he’s someone who came to the sanctuary and he was just like, he couldn’t believe he had this huge space. He couldn’t believe he had all these new friends. He shows up, if anybody comes up and he sees him he’s like throwing things around and jumping around in his hammock and rolling himself in his blanket and trying to leap as far as he possibly can. He’s an absolute joy, and I can’t imagine a better monkey to adopt for the holidays than Willis. So we have this adoption scheme, it’s a virtual adoption scheme. Obviously, you can’t take him home. That would totally defeat the object.

John: Right.

Liz: But you get updates about him, you’ll get photographs of him and importantly, that money goes towards supporting him and his recovery, and all of the other monkeys here at the sanctuary.

John: Okay, so just an order of magnitude, how much does it cost to adopt Willis?

Liz: Willis is a very reasonable $52 a year and you get your little adoption pack, you get your photos of him, you get updates, which I send out in fact, so yeah, you get the regular updates from him and you get to know that you’ve contributed to [crosstalk]

John: Is Willis still looking for a home? Is he still-

Liz: Willis is going to live with us forever.

John: No, but is he still looking for someone to be one of his adopted families?

Liz: Oh, absolutely. Yes. As many people as you like can adopt him because he is the kind of monkey who would like a big family, for sure.

John: Okay, so here’s how it goes. This year, my daughter who’s above me here, she has a daughter named Coco. I’m going to adopt Willis for Coco, and I’m going to send you the check and that’s going to be my gift for Coco this year, Willis. She likes animals. My granddaughter loves animals so this is going to be a continuum of her loving animals.

Liz: That’s amazing. Thank you so much.

John: You already have your first taker on Willis, so yeah, I’d be out alone, Liz. That’s all I got. So I think that’s wonderful. And I really urge all listeners and viewers $52 a year. It’s a dollar a week. I mean, we should all get involved instead of buying extra gifts for people we love that they don’t need or they’re just going to push it into a closet. Let’s do something really positive and help Liz and all of our colleagues to make the world a better place and adopt a primate, a sanctuary monkey that everyone in the family will enjoy and love and also continue to do good word, and spread the good word of sanctuaries and all these important work. I mean, my gosh Liz, you’re doing great stuff. I’ll give you the last word before we have to say goodbye today, but it’s not goodbye forever. We’re going to have you back on and give [inaudible] the great message that you have, but I want you to sign off with anything you need to say before we have to say goodbye for today.

Liz: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, just to say thank you so much. I really appreciate the opportunity to speak to you and to be kind of given this platform because really, all of our work is possible and by the support of people, like your listeners are not just donations, but also getting involved in things. Like I said, the captive primates safety act, we’ve got the big cat public safety act that we need people to get on board with, head to our website. There’s a bunch of stuff you can do, donations are always welcome, but it’s not always that. It’s about spreading the word. It’s sharing something on Facebook, on Instagram, on those kind of things, it’s talking to your family about these issues. It’s about spreading the word and being part of this kind of family where we’re trying to educate and help animals.

John: Hey listen, Liz. Thank God for you. You are just the perfect person why we created this show. You’re making a huge impact. You’re making the world a better place every day, and I’m just so grateful to you for the important work you’re doing. Dr. Liz Tyson, she’s the program’s director of Born Free USA. You can find Born Free USA at and you can adopt a sanctuary monkey for the holidays and give it to somebody you love and continue to help Liz make the world a better place. Thank you, Liz. I can’t wait to have you back on it another time and thanks for all the great work that you always do.

Liz: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

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