Travel Wildlife

My Ecuador animal rescue centre diaries Vol 4

Animal Madness Vol 4

I returned to the rescue centre feeling much better than when I left. I was excited about the challenge and I did a week’s handover with Helen where she showed me all the morning checks and filled me in on everything I would need to to do.

It was all going swimmingly until Helen broke her wrist when she fell on one of the badly made paths. She had to put in a makeshift sling and so was out of action which meant that there was even more work to do. All she could do was stand outside the cages and shout orders which was very annoying.

When she returned to the UK the lack of medical treatment meant that it had to be reset and would never return to full functionality as it had healed wrong. LESSON: Get all potential breaks looked at immediately, especially when healthcare is so cheap and/or you have insurance.

Before we left for the weekend there was a very special delivery. He was called Diego.

Diego was a monkey baby whose mother was shot by a hunter and he was a complete stunner. While he was an absolute joy in many ways he was a hazard who would try to eat everything in sight, jump from high places, cry for you if you weren’t in sight and would urinate and/or defecate on you at every opportunity. In other words, like a human baby.

The best thing about Diego was that he would eat food and then get mush all around his mouth and it was just about the cutest thing I’d ever seen. He chirruped like a little bird who was constantly after your attention. When he first emerged from his travel cage he sat on my shoulder and reached for a broom handle and missed, landing in a heap on the floor, he had a lot to learn about being a monkey. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a monkey to teach him, only us as none of our monkeys acted particularly like their wild counterparts.

He wasn’t the only animal to be dropped off to us, we also acquired another capuchin monkey called Elvis and a honey-coloured female kinkajou. A porcupine and a snake came to but they were due for release. The snake was sent off immediately. The porcupine was left in a cardboard box in the food pantry as it had to be released further from the centre.

When I went back in it had escaped out of the box and was quivering on a ledge near the top of the pantry. I had no idea that porcupines could climb and Carlos was literally shaking whilst holding a cloth to grab it. Luckily he got it without getting skewered and we wandered into the forest to send it on its merry way.

Porcupine means ‘quill pig’ in Latin as they can have 30,000 or more quills in total. It is only the porcupines that live in the Americas that can climb and the species that inhabit Europe, Asia and Africa do not climb. There are 29 species of porcupine listed at present. They are classified as rodents and the third biggest after the capybara and the beaver. Again, why somebody would want something this spiny as a pet I have no idea.

After all this excitement it was time for Helen to go to England and for me to take over and look after the centre and its volunteers for two weeks. If I had known the catalogue of disasters that were to happen then I might have begged her to stay. Luckily Rob was returning to help me out for a week which was a relief. He was quite fit but I knew I looked a right state and he’d had a thing with another volunteer as well as several Peruvian girls.

When Rob returned from his travels on Sunday night he walked in and asked what I had on my head. It was Diego who was permanently attached to my neck and/or hair and would dig his claws in if ever I had the audacity to try and move him so my neck was a mass of angry red scratches.

Nobody from Quito bothered to bring us any supplies for the animals that week so we had to get them ourselves. In the supermarket, the woman was only half filling massive bags and Rob shouted at her ‘mas, mas, that’s not a bag its a suitcase’. He had a point as we had to drag all this shit up a massive hill by ourselves and we had nowhere to recycle or dispose of any rubbish.

We returned in a taxi after having a debate with the driver over the cost and the Ecuadorian environment agency was waiting for us. They had brought us a letter and I took it. Rob complained that it was in Spanish despite the fact that we were in a Spanish and Kichwa speaking area. One of the kids helped us bring all of our stuff up the hill so we asked him if he wanted to have some food with us. I totally forgot about the letter which I hadn’t even gotten around to reading.

We made tuna sandwiches and gave one to Carlito who said he had a question, what was this called? It had never occurred to us that he’d never had a sandwich before but he absolutely loved it. He said he’d come back and help us later but he never did the little bugger. He also must have told his mum and sister about the letter as they came storming up asking to see it, I was reticent as it was addressed to the owner who lived in Quito but I eventually agreed for a quiet life.

They were not happy and stomped off with it, probably because they were not included as the managers of the sanctuary (despite the fact that they didn’t do anything). This was a sign of things to come as the rescue centre changed hands again a short while after Helen returned.

In the meantime, Rob and I had some work to do looking after Diego or Zappy as we’d nicknamed him as he loved zapato fruit. We’d decided it was time for him to learn about climbing trees so we took him up to a tree and it was very cute. He was scared but he managed it. Unfortunately, Rob had to leave not long after that.

For the first couple of days after Rob left I had no volunteers despite the fact that I’d heard that some were arriving. I only had Helen’s phone and no internet so I had no idea. One of them dropped out and out of nowhere a French woman called Laurence appeared and it was me and her for a week.

Helen and I had acquired two very young kittens which was a bad idea as they would be a tasty snack to a great number of jungle animals. They lived in the kitchen with the baby monkey and the three of them used to run riot on the dining table which was an impressively unhygienic way for us to live.

One morning I found one of the kittens dead from falling off the fridge and the other kitten died from a virus contracted from chicken shit before we had bought him. The kittens had been brought to the market in a cage with chickens sat on top on them, the ginger cat Trevor had shit in his eye which we initially thought was an infection. He had such big eyes that Helen had named him Trevor after the kid played by Haley Joel Osment in the film Pay it Forward.

It served to prove that buying them was a complete mistake as we had enough animals to look after already. Another incident that occurred when the Ecuadorian kids who used to feed the animals on Sundays tried to give a broken snail to one of the two Tayras which effectively sliced off its tongue which it then choked on. They didn’t admit to it but the evidence was found after we searched the pen and did a post-mortem.

As all the animals are registered you need to prove that they are dead and haven’t been sold. This effectively means that the dead bodies go in the freezer until they are collected by the environmental agency. If your freezer is full then you are doing something wrong. Luckily that was the end of the deaths in that period but there were plenty of ongoing medical issues amongst the animals as well as escapees and those that were particularly violent.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the rescue centre and it is still operating and has changed its name now with yet another volunteer manager and biologist. The new centre looks much better and two of the kids have just been to Europe, presumably using the profits that they made off volunteers. Helen left a few months after I left and she returned to the UK to study primatology and is happily married with two children.

Carlos now resides in Spain which makes sense as his language skills were never that great and his younger brother Flavio was running the centre. Marcia the mother and Andrea the younger daughter are still working there also. Recently the titi monkey died after 23 years which is pretty good innings, I like to think that he’s playing with hair and biting people in the afterlife.

I researched whether the recue centre’s sister branch in Tambillo near Quito is still going. The answer is no and the other reason seems to be that there were ‘issues’ which just about sums it all up. I have worked at rescue centres in the UK and disagreements do tend to arise.

I think that a lot of it is to do with the fact animal rescue centres are usually staffed by people very passionate about animals but perhaps not always that happy themselves. They are also underfunded and understaffed. I feel that the difference in opinions surrounding animal care is akin to, those on parenting forums like Mumsnet. Everyone thinks their own way is best.

I felt like I’d chosen the right time to continue my travels without becoming too institutionalised and/or annoyed at the rescue centre.

I am dubious about the value of rescue centres where so very little understanding of the animals is shown. As rescue centres operate on such low budgets they cannot always provide the care and space that the animals need unless the people are experienced, knowledgeable and passionate.

I think that if zoos are looking for animals then they should source them from local rescue centres instead. Especially if its the case that they are animals which cannot be released into the wild. Admittedly the animals may be messed up but surely this makes for more interesting viewing for the general public? People do after all go to zoos to see animals doing weird shit like humping each other and licking each other balls, while people may look horrified they secretly love it and would be disappointed otherwise.

This would also help with the issue of breeding in zoos, as many of the animals that move between zoos are either related, interbred or of a similar gene pool which would make their offspring genetically weakened as there would not be enough variation within their DNA. This problem could be solved by using rescue centre animals or even exotic pets if they were illegally acquired from the wild and not bred in captivity.

I think that under no circumstances should an animal be removed from the wild to participate in a zoo programme when there are such vast numbers of animals species represented in captivity and on the black market. I also believe that an animal that is captured could possess the strength and intelligence which could improve the future of the species and that this is only really of great benefit in the wild where animals can adapt to their natural habitat and learn vital survival techniques.

One absolutely marvellous example of animals using their intelligence to improve the future of their species is the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. After one of their young was killed by a poacher trap, this genius creatures actively sought out and successfully destroyed the remaining traps as a reaction to the death in order to protect the rest of their group. The traps were intended for bushmeat and not for gorillas but can cause them serious injury all the same. There is, however, a market for baby gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the rewards are great. Despite the enforcement of poaching laws, they can be sold for $40,000 on the black market so it is seen as a risk worth taking.

After being ill with a weird tummy bug that made my belly so hard and swollen for a few days probably from ingesting some form of faeces, it was time to go to pack my bags. It wasn’t just me that was ill, Diego was being looked after by new Swiss volunteers, one of them aptly a neonatal nurse and he was not eating much and he was all floppy with no energy. He still came to me for a cuddle as we had spent a lot of time together and we’d bonded.

I handed everything back over to Helen and I was glad to rid myself of the responsibility. I emailed Rob to tell him what had happened after he had gone and he was understandably angry.

I was daunted as I was really on my own now, and I had to decide which direction to go. Instead of heading to Colombia I decided to see more of Peru and head down to Amazon so that I could see Venezuela and make Colombia my last South America stop. 

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