Themba Hadebe  /  AP
Marlice van Vuuren is seen playing with a semi-tamed lioness at the Harnas Wildlife Foundation Farm in Gobabis, Namibia. The farm is home to 310 orphaned animals and offers visitors a unique chance to get close enough to touch, brush or even walk cheetah, leopards and lions.
updated 12/29/2006 6:10:37 PM ET 2006-12-29T23:10:37

For a few cents and a piece of bread, Marieta van der Merwe persuaded a man on a dusty Namibian road to give her the thin vervet monkey he held by a rope around its neck.

That was 28 years ago and the start of one of the largest animal rehabilitation farms in southern Africa.

The Harnas Wildlife Foundation, 180 miles east of the capital Windhoek, is home to 310 orphaned animals and offers visitors a unique chance to get close enough to touch, brush or even walk cheetah, leopards and lions.

Namibia, a largely desert country with a population of 2 million, has such an abundance of game and wildlife that often cheetahs and baboons are regarded as nuisances by farmers and shot.

Most of the animals at the Harnas farm, which boasts Angelina Jolie as its patron, were rescued when they were young and hand-reared. They all have names and are treated as family by the van der Merwes. Van der Merwe regularly shares her bed with baby baboons swaddled in diapers.

"That monkey, Adri, was the first wild animal I touched. It sat in my lap. We were friends from the beginning," said van der Merwe.

Over the years van der Merwe and her husband Nick gained a reputation for rescuing animals. They would get calls from across the country asking them to fetch orphaned or injured animals. Some have been caught in traps or their mothers were shot by trophy hunters. Many, in the beginning, were animals South African soldiers had taken as pets during a bush war they fought in the north before Namibian independence in 1990, then abandoned as they withdrew. The van der Merwes also took in a pride of lions left homeless after the closure of a South African zoo.

"I was so in love with animals. Before I knew it we had a lot. I can't say no," said van der Merwe.

Soon the couple were spending more time looking after the rescued animals than their cattle farm. They began selling off some of their 100,000 acres of land to fund their growing cause. A trust was started and they also opened up the farm to guests.

Nick van der Merwe died in 2001 of Congo fever, a hemorrhagic fever that can infect people who work closely with animals. His death left the family - and the animals - facing an uncertain future.

"He did everything. I had to learn a lot. We decided to stop the cattle farm and concentrate on the animals. Everyone helped. Guests helped and we survived," van der Merwe said.

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Now van der Merwe heads a thriving family business that has turned the bushveld into a sanctuary for people and animals.

The main lodge sits on a green lawn surrounded by 24,710 acres of thick grassland where herds of eland, kudu and springbok roam.

Warthogs rub against the wall of the open bar, tortoises take refuge in the shade of the Koi pond while a miniature dachshund - one of the van der Merwe's many dogs - barks at the lone mountain zebra, Zibi, seeking out company.

Guests can watch baboons cavorting on swings in their large enclosure while at the opposite end of the garden a cheetah, silhouetted in the sunset, hunkers down over a chunk of meat.

An army of volunteers, mostly young foreign women all sun-bleached blonde and brown as syringa tree berries, keep the place abuzz.

"It can be a bit crazy here. Everyday something happens. Once the crocodile got out and was in the swimming pool," said van der Merwe.

Behind the house is a nursery where spindly legged buck and baby meerkats get bottle-fed and an infirmary where an epileptic baboon, blind monkey and a one-winged falcon named Nelson are kept.

Returning home from a weeklong trip, van der Merwe's daughter Marlice van Vuuren stops to say a special hello to Goeters, the cheetah that was her childhood companion.

Striding among the poppies in the back garden, the 27-year-old male cat has been the star of many films and commercials and has now been "adopted" by Jolie.

Van der Merwe and van Vuuren, a striking mother-daughter team, often take afternoon strolls in the bush, a troop of baboons in tow.

Guests on the morning feeding tour can observe leopards like Missy Jo and lions like Sher-Kahn and the one-eyed Savannah devour chunks of raw meat in their large enclosures, a short drive away from the lodge. Endangered wild dogs fight over scraps.

"We came all the way from Paris to kiss a cheetah," said Pascal Esteve, planting a peck on Goeter's neck.

Rehabilitating and keeping wild animals, even in large enclosures, is frowned on by some conservationists.

"I don't disagree," said van Vuuren, "But 90 to 95 percent of animals come here because people have shot their moms or raised them as pets and then want to dump them when they become a problem.

"They come to us because there has already been human interference. We try to give them as natural a life as possible," she said.

The farm reintroduces what animals it can back into the wild. But 75 percent of those it takes in are too badly injured or have grown too used to human contact to make it on their own. These animals are kept in large semi-wild enclosures where they are fed.

Plans are now under way to transform the farm into a nature reserve in which as many animals as possible would be able to roam free.

"I want the animals to be free. That is my dream," said van der Merwe.

Jolie, whose picture is on a wall of family photographs in van der Merwe's home, has become the international patron of the endeavor.

She first visited the farm while in Namibia filming "Beyond Borders," which featured a vulture rescued by van Vuuren.

Jolie has been back to the farm a number of times, including last year when she was in the country with Brad Pitt to give birth to the couple's baby daughter, Shiloh.

The star was so taken by the work done by the foundation, she agreed to become a patron and donated about $270,000 for a fence and to restock the reserve with game.

Van Vuuren said they hope to release predators into the area with five tagged lions first and then wild dogs.

She acknowledges releasing semi-tamed animals back into the wild is risky, but believes predators can learn to hunt for themselves.

"The instinct is there. I have seen it," she said, cuddling up to a lazy lion.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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