Before I studied animal behavior formally I worked with and for animals in different parts of the world. This trip to a wildlife rehabilitation and rescue center in a jungle in Guatemala was an adventure you want to share:
May 25th-Guatemala City Airport, 1:15 PM
No place I've been is ever what I've expected it to be before I arrived; which is both a strange and wonderful thing. This place looks like the set of a bad South American movie from the 60's. It's immediately apparent that this country is poor and that its people are wonderfully sweet. The incredible warmth of the Latino people and the Indians, such incredible colors, woven into their native dress, the tiredness and hard work etched on the faces of the men. I'm almost there. One more flight and than it's the jungle and ARCAS, a wildlife rehabilitation center and the animals it cares for.
ARCAS, Peten, Guatemala, May 26th, 5AM
Well here I am and there's a big part of me that wants to go right back to NYC and civilization and its creature comforts. Rustic is a kind word to describe the setting or the accommodations. Rats are everywhere, attracted and nourished by the supply of food kept for humans and their animal wards. There is an outhouse with no running water and one shower which uses the nearby lake water (untreated). You are advised to watch your step outside, as poisonous snakes are everywhere. But the rats! Bold and big. You sleep in bunk beds with mosquito netting you bring with you. The rats are a constant presence, when you don't see them you hear them. The dormitory for the volunteer workers where I am is partially waterproofed with what appear to be thick plastic garbage bags, which rustle all night as the rats scamper over them.
Coming from my slightly crazy NYC lifestyle I was sort of looking forward to all the clean living here--no drugs, no alcohol, no bars, no parties, no restaurants, no men. Just the jungle and the animals. Hoping to alleviate the inevitable jet lag I took a valium last night, it didn't work. Instead, I listened to roaches and rats skittle and thump around me and weighed just how bad wasting the day in the airport to return home would be considering the airport was vermin free.
There is no electricity in the worker's dormitory so at night it's very dark. The bugs and the snakes drive you inside. I brought candles to read by, just two. Hailing from the urban jungle and never having been to sleep-away camp I have vastly overrated the illuminating power of the single candle. There will not be much night-time reading on this trip.
When I arrived yesterday the directors of the field program had all left for the day, leaving only the volunteers. There's a young Danish couple who have found ARCAS on the net, somewhat aloof, or is it the barriers of language and culture? This is their first stop on their tour of Guatemala. There is Annie, a year out of college, planning a Masters in Conservation Biology (why didn't I get a degree in what I really wanted to do?). She doesn't particularly care for animals, she explained to me, it's more ecology that interests her. She's been assigned to work with infant and sick animals in the nursery. She's practical about the assignment but her effectiveness with the animals is hampered by that lack of connection with them.
Last night Annie and Clara, a Peruvian veterinary intern, were feeding one-week old baby jaguars, the size of kittens with growly, barky, mewing. Clara cradled the little jaguar against her hand to provide support for its tiny paws and made purring sounds softly next to his head to soothe him and encourage him to nurse the foreign bottle offered to him. This is work, the cat just wants his mother back and a human hand is no substitute for her furry belly. The little cat's head moves around, confused, crying and sometimes allowing himself to be coaxed into accepting the rubber nipple. Clara is patient and keeps on purring, bestowing soft kisses on the jaguar's little head. Annie tackles the task by wrapping her little charge in a blanket and cradling him like a human infant. The jaguar is truly consternated and wearing half of the milk that should be in him. I want so desperately to take over, finally I ask Annie who gratefully surrenders the baby cat to me. I get some milk in him but the cat is so distraught and fights the strangeness of the whole experience.
There are a lot of animals here, mostly parrots. Stands to reason considering their popularity as pets. Monkeys follow in number. A two-month old baby monkey clings tightly to me. Soulful, big brown eyes, wanting its mother, a monkey group to be a part of. Tigerelos are here. A little larger than the average house cat. I want so to play with them. There are signs all over prohibiting interaction with the animals. In order to reintroduce an animal back to the wild, human contact must be virtually nonexistent, the animals must have a natural distrust of man for their own good. But this place appears more zoo than rehabilitation center. Except for the bird cages, most of the remaining enclosures are not large enough to simulate a natural habitat and they are in plain view of the other cages not hidden away in the foliage. The last release here was done two years ago. The Guatemalan government requires rehabilitated animals to be released with radio collars. Radio collars are expensive and ARCAS does not have the budget for them. These animals have spent too much time in human care, if they go anywhere it will be to another zoo.
When I arrived yesterday, Miko-the volunteer coordinator had gone for the day. Annie gave me the five-cent tour and the volunteer's run down of the workings of the center, always worth more than the official version. I haven't showered yet or washed my face. My sensitive skin barely tolerates NYC tap water, the drinking water is bottled, can I wash in lake water? Or just go funky.
To be continued
(Author's note: since this trip ARCAS has opened a new center located in Peten)
cAdalberto H. Vega
"There are a lot of animals here, mostly parrots. Stands to reason considering their popularity as pets. Monkeys follow in number. A two-month old baby monkey clings tightly to me. Soulful, big brown eyes, wanting its mother, a monkey group to be a part of. Tigerelos are here. A little larger than the average house cat. I want so to play with them. There are signs all over prohibiting interaction with the animals. In order to reintroduce an animal back to the wild, human contact must be virtually nonexistent, the animals must have a natural distrust of man for their own good".
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