My time at Ambue Ari wasn’t what I had hoped it would be due to some political and hierarchical issues that I will get into later, but it was still an amazing experience. I didn’t write while I was there aside from jotting down some notes, and I don’t really know where to start here.
One of my first days there, before I knew my way around the main area of camp or had done anything much with the animals, we were lounging around and someone made the ‘coo-eee’ warning call. Everyone jumped up and looked around frantically to see where the noise was coming from, and someone shouted out for us to head towards the monkeys. I sprinted along with the others, none of us having any idea what was going on. We got the sense that maybe one of the monkeys had escaped and we were trying to catch him, and the Bolivians motioned something about spacing ourselves ten meters apart and advancing through the jungle quietly. We would stop and listen, looking into the vegetation, but didn’t know what to listen for. We crept on through, pushing through the dense plants, unsure what we were even looking for. People started running again, so I raced along after them. They leapt at full speed over branches on the path, sped around curves, flew through the jungle. I felt like I was trying to keep up with Mowgli from Jungle Book.
After about twenty minutes of sprinting in circles through the jungle and following the lead of Bolivians shouting out commands, someone in the know stopped moving for long enough to tell the clueless among us that we were chasing after a hunter. A volunteer walked by carrying two howler monkeys on his shoulder, so I had the impression that everything was happening at once – a hunter was on the loose and monkeys had escaped, or maybe the hunter had let the monkeys out as a diversion or to shoot them. The park is protected land and hunters and fisherman are prohibited. He had been in the park to shoot agoutis, the fairly large rodents that roam around freely. One of the Bolivians had been out walking, heard a shot, and found the hunter, who pointed the gun at him and told him not to make a sound. The hunter ran away, at which point Hymei shouted out and we all ran into the jungle, staying close together to intimdate him in number if we found him.
After about forty five minutes, we headed back to camp and got more of the story on what we had been searching for; I got the impression that the escaped monkeys and the hunter were completely separate and coincidental incidents. Someone had brought back a dead agouti that had been shot in the mouth but abandoned by the hunter when he was discovered. People rode up and down the road to see if the hunter had left a motorcycle on the road,, but nothing was to be found and eventually the search was exhausted. Several hours later, there was another shout and commotion, but by the time I put on my shoes, the search party had disappeared into the jungle. They came back not too long afterwards leading a shamefaced fisherman and carrying a stake laden with freshly caught fish. Not knowing anything yet about the way things worked at the park yet, I was shocked that there were three such dramatic events in just a few hours – escaped monkeys, a hunter, and a fisherman. As the story was gradually unveiled, it became clear that the monkeys were out already; they were allowed to roam free during the day and they were simply brought back to keep them under reigns and away from the hunter during the uproar. The hunter and fisherman had been out together and separated when we sieged the area. Several of the larger guys kept the fisherman enclosed in the office while they waited for the director to come. A bit later, the man was led, head down, to the road and taken to the police station in Guarayos to be questioned. The ordeal with him apparently went out for several days, but he eventually revealed the identity of the hunter and he was arrested as well – though I have no idea what form of reprimand they received.
Prior to this incident, the park had a system where two people were assigned every morning to dawn patrol, where they would walk along the road within the limits of the park land to hopefully scare off any lurking poachers. But after the eventful evening, everyone put up a big argument about how unreasonable and unsafe this was – what could a few volunteers do when faced in the early morning with a hunter with a gun, and how would our presence even deter them? Dawn patrol was put on hold for about a week, and then they reinstated it just on weekends for now, the time when everyone around knows that there are less volunteers at the park because Saturday afternoons are off. The group sizes were increased from two to six plus, they were given blindingly bright flashlights, and people signed up for the task voluntarily rather than being assigned to it. We were also all encouraged to stay at the park rather than go into town in the evenings and on afternoons off. So changes were made after the afternoon of chases, but it still remains a pretty awful system for which they have yet to find a good solution.
Much less dramatic was my daily routine. I would wake every morning at 6:30 to the shouts and banging on the door of the person assigned to wake up duty, sometimes supplemented by the much more pleasant sound of music. Nice and warm in my sleeping bag under my mosquito net, on the bottom bunk in my dorm room that was dark from the tarps pulled down to keep out the wind, it was hard to get up in the cold morning. I usually stayed in bed until just before seven, at which point I pulled on my dirty clothes and hiking boots and headed to the animal kitchen to prepare breakfast. Most of the others had morning jobs that varied daily and weekly, but being in quarantine, that was where we stayed. I had breakfast com on my first day before starting quarantine, which was pretty awful, having to clean up the mess that people had left from the night before and then clean the dishes that quite a few kindred people had decided not to do themselves. It was really nice to not have to wake up each morning to the surprise of a dreaded task like bathroom duty, but to head straight into the routine of feeding my animals. It went fairly quickly when there were four or five of us, though some mornings several wouldn’t show unless we went and dragged them out of bed, but it definitely turned into a time crunch as our numbers dwindled down. We picked out a selection of fruit, veggies, and seeds from the various storage areas, as well as a cup of milk with calcium for our piglet. Always had to pop a head into the kitchen to make sure that the oatmeal was on for the monkeys, and then wait until the monkey men (the guys who worked in monkey park) had mixed in two capfuls of vitamins before taking a jug. Washed the food, soaked it in an iodine solution, set out our colorful plastic tubs and buckets, one for each enclosure. When a knife could be found amidst the morning bustle and knife shortage in the kitchen, cut the food into appropriately sized pieces and distributed it among the bowls – tomatoes and cabbage for the tortoises and pigs, big chunks of yucca and potatoes for the bigger pigs and smaller pieces for the baby. Everyone loved cucumber and apples. Bananas and papayas or melon for the monkeys, birds, and coati. Searched for our three quarantine water jugs that always seemed to go missing and filled them with water from the house, using getting pretty wet shoes as well. A slosh of the hot sweetened oatmeal was poured into one bowl stacked on top of a second for the two monkeys in the new quarantine, and the rest remained in the jug and was carried with four plates to the coati and night monkeys. Depending on how many of us were awake and present, also taking into account who was too afraid to feed Teangi (our food-aggressive coati), we split off to deliver the goods. My favorite was to do the night monkey and Teangi route, visiting a bit with the animals as I picked up their old food, usually scolded the night monkeys for not eating their oatmeal from the day before, cleaned their platforms and refreshed their water bowls, and placed their food in various places around the enclosure for them to find throughout the morning.
In the past, all food had been placed on patuju leaves on the platforms, but when I arrived, the other quarantine volunteers had just begun to process of hiding the food as a form of enrichment, except for with the birds, two of whom had difficulty getting around and the other who was too aggressive to reach very far into his small enclosure without getting a nice toucan peck. My first few days, we fed three meals a day, which we all agreed was excessive and led to wasted food, wasted time, and the inability to monitor appetite or food preferences. We spoke to the head vet about our concerns and were at first strongly refuted, but we pressed on and he eventually allowed us to do a week trial of just breakfast and dinner, which proved successful and will hopefully continue on beyond my departure. We still gave a lunchtime banana to Captain, the blue macaw who had arrived recently and in a very malnourished state, as well as a small lunch to Duncan the piglet, though that is probably being cut out because he is getting quite the belly. The tortoises were hardly eating in the cold weather so for them we put out lunch rather than breakfast, and it was nice to see them crawl over and munch on a chunk of cucumber as I laid it down rather than just stay huddled in their shells and leave the food to spoil.
After washing up the dishes and hanging them up to dry, we waited for the 8am breakfast call (or when there were fewer of us, finished work late and didn’t get to the comedor till everyone else had begun). When someone on breakfast com called out desayauno, everyone scrambled into the line to get dishes, two bread rolls, butter, occasional dinner leftovers, and a cup of hot chocolate, coffee, or tea. Breakfast was the meal that never filled anyone up, so we supplemented it with purchases from town that we kept in a closed bin to keep out the rats and cockroaches. Instant oatmeal with hot water and milk powder, sweetened with a spoonful of jam or dulce de leche. We put spreads on the bread, which we occasionally toasted over the gas stove as water was boiling if Tessa or I finished our morning tasks early. Occasionally bought a boiled egg that the park sold or cheese empanadas from the empanada lady who came to make a very quick and easy sale of her full basket. There was usually a long line by the bench when she showed up and Lorenzo, the macaw who had free reign of camp, liked to sit by her basket and bug her, pecking at her clothes or the napkins.
Following breakfast were anuncios, which were sometimes far too long and ridiculous, first introducing new volunteers and bidding farewell and thank you to those departing, and then going into any special plans or assignments for the day as well as addressing the constant drama of some sort or other. Washed up our dishes and by 9 or 9:30, started the day’s work. In quarantine, we were very self-directed, as the park is so focused on cats that the other animals are a bit neglected. When I arrived, there was almost no information in the quarantine binder, but the others were in the process of a food trial which they documented, as well as writing up a hygiene protocol and a daily and weekly schedule. I made behavior logs for each individual animal for us to note anything of significance including changes in behavior, appetite, environment, health, etc, because there were really no records or ways to notice patterns or pass on important information to future volunteers. Also got all of the records from the vets and used them to make an inventory of the animals that we had, including what little information there was on species, gender, arrival date, and history. It was disappointing with how little there was, with very little if any background information, no exam write ups whatsoever, the only notations after their arrival being the date that an anti-parasitic medication was administered. I also made a construction project list, including the dates that we had finished our projects as well as things that need to be done in the future. We stuffed all of what we had written into our folder, which unfortunately wasn’t an easy-to-use binder like all of the cats had for the charts that volunteers filled in daily). On one of my last days, I organized our paperwork into categories within the folder and can only hope that future volunteers will continue with the behavior logging, brainstorming, and keeping everything up to date.
Anyway, aside from meal preparation and delivery, the bulk of every day was different and we decided each morning what needed to be done. There was of course the cleaning – sweeping under the metal cages in new quarantine that were raised above the ground as to enable to falling of debris, as well as removing the really old plants and ything obviously coated in poop or old food. We did a weekly deep cleaning of each area, using disinfectant and detergent to scrub the surfaces, collecting large ferns to create clean flooring, cutting down patuju stalks and various branches to freshen up their houses. The ferns were quite the challenge because most were covered in thorns, so we had to find ferns that were large enough but at the right maturity level that they wouldn’t prick us or the animals. My machete skills are definitely not top notch and it didn’t help that the blades were dull, so I usually preferred to take out the old plants while someone else chopped down the new. I wasn’t a fan of chopping down the jungle that surrounded us, bit by bit, but our animals didn’t have any live plants in their enclosures and it wasn’t fair at all to leave them with just bare metal cages and branches, or barren dirt grounds for those with slightly larger areas.
Apparently a month or two ago, quarantine was in even further neglect and no one did anything for them aside from basic feeding and cleaning, but very recently, volunteers began the improvement process. The enrichment that we did, both with hiding food and supplying fresh plants, was a huge step that should really be common sense in animal care, but there was no one to devote any time, energy, or passion to engage in this very significant but simple task. It’s all about the cats and while I am disappointed that I couldn’t work with a cat and probably would have gained more of an exciting and unique personal experience from that, I’m glad that I was able to put in work in an area where it was desperately needed. Aside from putting in natural forms of enrichment, I strung up hammocks out of blankets for two of our little monkeys – Lucas the squirrel monkey especially loved to bounce around in it from the moment I put it up.