IT’S 30 years since a zookeeper from New York showed up in Dorset with a single-minded determination to build a rescue centre for apes.

Today, a decade after Jim Cronin’s untimely death, Monkey World has followers around the world.

His widow Alison, who met Jim in 1993, says locals in the 1980s must have found it hard to imagine what Jim had in mind.

“Mostly local people were rather bemused that there was this strangely accented American in the area who claimed he was going to rescue monkeys and live on the edge of Wareham Forest. That was all considered rather eccentric,” she says.

The attitude of other parks and zoos, she says, was “one of scepticism or even dismissal” when it came to Jim’s plans to rescue chimpanzees from the beach photographers of Spain.

“What the rest of the zoological world thought was, ‘If this facility’s being built for apes we would like you to take our surplus’.

“That word, to this day, feels a bit ugly and uncomfortable.”

Today, with their habitat under threat from human activity, chimpanzees are officially endangered.

“In 1987, chimpanzees were not classified as endangered. What Jim used to say is that the zoos and wildlife parks, their crystal ball wasn’t so good. At the time Jim started, they were considered relatively common and not so precious,” says Dr Cronin.

Jim Cronin had been a zookeeper in New York before moving to England, where he worked at Howletts Zoo in Kent and learned about the young chimpanzees that were being smuggled from the wild and often treated with brutal cruelty by beach photographers in Spain.

Jim got a £90,000 loan under a scheme set up by Margaret Thatcher’s government. “The economy was suffering and the government was trying to offer investment for small business start-ups,” says Dr Cronin.

“Jim got one of those government approved loans and was very pleased and happy about that, but had to use about two-thirds of it to make a turning lane in front of the park. It had to be tank-proof because we’re so close to Bovington.

“He really did start this place on a wing and a prayer. He needed people’s support.”

From its early days, the centre was keen to work with governments where possible – and it can claim much of the credit for ending the use of apes by those Spanish beach photographers.

“In 1987, the Spanish authorities were not happy that there were up to 100 chimpanzees being worked illegally on their beaches, but what were they going to do with them all? The zoos and wildlife parks already had chimpanzees and weren’t going to take them,” she says.

“Jim went over to Spain and organised a meeting with the authorities and said, ‘If we built a centre in England and agree to take every single chimpanzee that you confiscate, will you hit the beaches and confiscate them all?’ They said yes, absolutely.”

Alison met Jim in 1993. With two degrees in anthropology from Cambridge, she was working on a project to rescue dancing bears in Turkey and wanted to see Monkey World’s electric fencing.

“We enjoyed each other’s company and were both interested in the same kind of work,” she recalls.

She and Jim made a formidable team as they led campaigns and ape rescues around the world. They uncovered one of the biggest primate smuggling rings ever in Thailand – expecting to find 44 animals but in fact discovering 117.

Jim, who earned an MBE for his work, died in New York in 2007, surrounded by family and his Monkey World co-founder Jeremy Keeling. He had only recently been diagnosed with liver cancer.

“The loss of my best friend and husband was so unexpected and was really hard and tragic to deal with personally,” Dr Cronin says. “People did ask me if I would continue with the park.

“There was never any doubt in my mind that if anything the park and the animals became my saving grace at that point because it allowed me to focus on something and not get too wrapped up in my sorrow.”

Another anniversary being marked this year is 20 years of Monkey World on television – first in the series Monkey Business and then Monkey Life.

“It does hopefully get the message out. It certainly isn’t easy or necessarily fun thing to always have a camera on you at all times,” Dr Cronin says.

She’s happy that Sky has bought the back catalogue of Monkey Business, so she will occasionally tune in and see Jim rescuing apes in Thailand.

“I love seeing him and I love hearing him. We’ve got constant reminders of him around the park. I’m happy to tell anybody and everybody about him and feel happy,” she says.

She believes attitudes to apes have moved on since the 1980s. We would no longer accept the PG Tips chimpanzees or enjoy watching apes in circuses. But environmental threats to apes have worsened – and the pet trade is a growing problem in Britain.

“You can buy and sell 60 different species of monkey over the counter like a goldfish,” Dr Cronin says.

Last year, with the aid of South Dorset MP Richard Drax, Monkey World took a petition of more than 140,000 signatures to Westminster, calling for the standards of care a monkey receives in the pet trade to be the same as in a zoo or wildlife park.

“I’m very respectful of the fact that the issue with the legal trade in primates might not be top of the agenda for the government of the day,” says Dr Cronin.

“But this is a growing problem. When somebody gets hurt badly or disease spreads, then the government will probably take interest and it will be too bad that somebody has to be hurt or gets ill for things to change.”