There are two important lessons I learned the hard way during our two weeks of volunteering at a wildlife refuge in Bolivia. First of all, always hide your banana. And second of all, wild animals are called “wild” for a reason.
More Waughs in Bolivia!
We started our trip with the intention to volunteer a bit along the way. Within a few days of travel, we met some fellow Americans who told us about a Wildlife Refuge in Bolivia that is always in need of volunteers. I’m crazy about animals so it seemed perfect (I really miss volunteering with Animal Aid Society back home). I knew this experience also had Bryan’s brother Erik written all over it. He loves all animals (especially monkeys) and he’s always up to meet us wherever we may be in the world (Spain, Ireland, Eastern Europe, wherever!). Bryan’s dad also really wanted to meet up with us somewhere during our big trip. He’s never been to a country that doesn’t speak English – only to Jamaica (for our wedding) and Canada (Niagara Falls). Bolivia was definitely not the easiest country to start with but at least he and Erik could travel together. Bob and Erik arrived in La Paz at 3:30 a.m. on Easter Sunday. Bryan allowed them a couple hours of siesta before a full day of activities including a food bet challenge with our friends Justin and Ashley (cow tongue) and a football game. Even without the full day itinerary, the travel fatigue and high altitude would be exhausting enough. Bob was quite the trooper.
The following day we flew to Cochabamba and then took a speedy mini bus to the tiny town of Villa Tunari. By the way, apparently it’s perfectly acceptable for airlines in Bolivia to change a flight by 5 hours without giving any notice to passengers. Luckily, we still made it to the wildlife refuge for the 5 p.m. volunteer orientation with 45 minutes to spare. We signed a waiver that we would not use the wildlife refuge’s name in case you are wondering why I’m being so vague.
At the refuge you are assigned a specific animal area depending on your preference and your length of stay. Volunteers that stay 30 days or more may have the opportunity to work with pumas, ocelots, spider monkeys, the Andean spectacled bear Balu, or other jungle cats (depending on park location). Volunteers of two weeks have a few areas to choose from (depending on the park’s need). Bob was assigned to the birds (per his request) and I was assigned to Small Animals (as I requested). Bryan, Erik, and the other volunteers had to draw names and Erik ended up with his top choice of monkeys (quarantine section) and Bryan ended up in Small Animals with me (he wanted monkeys).
The “Small Animal Paradise” where Bryan and I were assigned consisted of 28 tejons (also called coatis), a tropical weasel named Ivan, a nocturnal Kinkajou (or Cuchi cuchi or “honeybear”) named Sid, a Boa Constrictor that we named Johnny, some sort of mohawked jungle turkey named Piki, and 13 water turtles (the type they have in ponds in the U.S.). For those that don’t know what a tejon or coati is, it’s kind of like a raccoon or a badger. Our days consisted of lots of feeding, some cleaning, walking and interacting with our animals.
Bob was a natural at the aviary and all the birds loved him. One day I walked in calling his name and several of the birds started squawking “BOB! BOB!” Erik had the longest days and the most cleaning in Quarantine but I think he had the most fun. The monkeys are crazy and they loved Erik. We would often find Erik playing with them or having his head, beard, or teeth groomed by a monkey. Whenever a female monkey went into heat she would become obsessed with Erik. Every few days he had a new monkey girlfriend – Hilda, Nacha, Sprinkles, and the list goes on. They would get all worked up every time Erik walked into their area and would even move tarps out of the way so they could get a better view of him.
Monkeys are like mischievous, plotting little kids. So imagine trying to work in a jungle with hundreds of them. Never a dull moment! Within the first 15 minutes, a monkey stole 5 bananas from Bob’s bucket of food for the birds. The monkey started laughing and strutted proudly away on two legs with his feast. I can’t even tell you how many times I was outsmarted by those monkeys. No comments please! They are sneaky! I was carrying two bananas up for Ivan the tropical weasel when a wild monkey jumped out of the trees on to my chest. I didn’t want to be attacked so I just dropped the bananas and ran. After that I learned to tuck the bananas under my shirt. Another time I was feeding the Tejons their Api (some sort of porridge, milk stuff that they go crazy for), when a big capuchin monkey came down from the trees after me. Again I didn’t want an attack (monkey bites hurt!), so I just gave up the bottle of Api. He quickly twisted open the cap and started dumping the Api on the ground so he could drink it. One day we were in the Small Animals building when Bryan saw a monkey run by with something in his hand. It was the lock and key from our Boa Constrictor’s cage door! Bryan ran after the monkey. The monkey climbed way up into the trees, teased Bryan for awhile and then finally took out the key and threw the lock down to him. We couldn’t leave anything lying unlocked or unattended. Our supervisor Victor told us stories of monkeys getting ahold of machetes and throwing them at people.
Our second or third day on the job, the monkeys struck again. They undid the safety latches on Piki’s cage (the jungle turkey) and she escaped. This happened before (twice in one day) but Piki stayed close and returned to her cage. This time Piki wasn’t sticking around. She flew high into the trees and disappeared. For days there were sightings of a “loco mohawked jungle turkey.” Several volunteers were chased through the jungle by an angry Piki. The volunteers who walked the pumas and the bear also had several encounters with Piki. They tried to catch her but the pumas were a little too interested in the potential prey. One day the vet came up with a net and said Piki was spotted at the spider monkey park and was flying this way so be ready to catch her. Seriously?!? Apparently if Piki ever returns she is going to be transported to another park location where she will have another mohawked jungle turkey to live with. I hope she is enjoying her new found freedom.
At first I thought that Tejons were kind of boring. I figured it would be a long two weeks with them. After a few days though, I realized how different all of their personalities are. Some want to snuggle and love on you, some want to tear your face off. They are like the South American version of “Honey Badgers” (if you don’t understand this joke, look up Honey Badger on YouTube). I tend to be a little too trusting of animals so I now hold the unofficial record for the most Tejon bites. One big, crazy tejon named Suicide took quite a chunk out of my leg. It was my own fault though – never get too close to a tejon during feeding time. At least that scar will have a good story. I got really attached to some of the sweet, cuddly tejons. James was a young, talkative little guy that greeted everyone with chirps when they passed. I loved to hold the nice tejons in my lap – they lightly nibble on you as a way of showing affection and happiness.I have to admit, I really do miss them (not so much Suicide though).
You might wonder why the park has so many rehabilitated Tejons. From what I can gather, it’s because people keep them as pets. People think they are so adorable when they are tiny so they buy for pets. Then the tejons get bigger and start acting like the wild animals that they are and the stupid people don’t want them anymore. At that point, the Tejons are used to depending on people for their food. If they are released, they’d become a nuisance to people and may not be able to fend for themselves in the wild. The refuge rescues the Tejons and allows them to live a more dignified life (releasing the younger ones if possible).
Along with the tejons, I also became quite fond of our fellow volunteers. Our new friend Gijs (AKA Johnny the Tejon Cowboy) from the Netherlands constantly kept us laughing. It was awesome to meet people from all over the world who were dedicated to helping animals. I have a tremendous amount of respect for all of the park’s volunteers, especially those who have been there for years. It’s truly a labor of love. The refuge definitely does good things and makes a difference for jungle animals – rescuing and rehabilitating animals that have been sold on the black market, kept as pets, or in zoos and circuses. I found the story of Gato the puma particularly touching. Gato’s mom was killed for her fur when he was only a few months old. He was captured and taken into a circus where he was terribly abused to the point where he couldn’t walk. Somehow, a Canadian volunteer discovered him at the circus and demanded his release. The refuge rescued him and the volunteer stayed for 9 months until Gato could walk again. Gato is now 19 years old (which is old for a puma) and he lives happily at the refuge. A pair of volunteers spends the day walking him through the jungle.
Farewell my Furry Friends!
Our final day at the refuge was bittersweet. I was sad to say goodbye to some of the animals and volunteers. But we had been in Villa Tunari for over two weeks (by far the longest we have been anywhere during our trip!). It was time to start moving again. Before leaving, most volunteers walk the park’s tourist trail (which is open to visitors every day but Monday). We were fortunate to encounter Balu the bear and Gato during the walk. The Mirador is a beautiful scenic overlook of the area with dozens of spider monkeys. I think spider monkeys are one of the most fascinating animals. They are shockingly human-like. They walk on two legs and have hands like ours. They came over and sat on our lap and played with us. The young monkeys like to be swung around. Many of adults had tiny babies clutched to their side. Of course the monkeys were particularly drawn to Erik. They immediately stole his 2-liter bottle of fruit juice and started chugging it. They shouldn’t be drinking that stuff but we knew better than to take something away from a monkey. They also managed to grab Bob’s Oreos out of his bag and run off with them. Don’t bring food around monkeys – even if it’s hidden away!
If there’s one thing people learn from the refuge, I hope it’s that wild animals belong in the wild – not as pets! Having an exotic jungle animal as a pet doesn’t make you look cool or fancy, it makes you look ignorant and selfish. Yes, I’m talking to you Paris Hilton and all those other celebrities and high rollers who think they need a monkey, cheetah, or whatever as a pet. Go to the local animal shelter and adopt a dog or cat that really needs a home and leave wild animals in their native habitats.
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to volunteer at the wildlife refuge. Not many people get the chance to work hands-on with exotic animals. Tejons may not be particularly glamorous, but I loved them nonetheless. And how awesome is it to be working in a real jungle and be surrounded by monkeys and other creatures? It was also pretty surreal to see helicopters circling above in search of hidden cocaine factories. After traveling for solely our own interests, it felt good to give back a little and be part of something bigger than ourselves.