My Life in the Amazon: Welcome to the Jungle

Welcome to the Jungle

From  3 June 2009

This summer, I am spending two months living and working in the Amazon rainforest at a wild animal rescue center called AmaZOOnico.  All of the animals I rehabilitate are exotic to me but native to the region.  I’m just playing a small part in wildlife conservation, but I’m experiencing that the teeniest of things can make a world of difference.

Week two of my excursions in the jungle without electricity, hot water or internet continues.  I am in Tena now, a two hour bus ride from the animal rescue center.  We have two days off a week.  Usually the volunteers come to Tena on one of those days because it’s nice to know civilization and catch up with family and friends.  A hot shower is also very much appreciated. (If you thought I smelled bad before, I smell incredibly bad now.  And I look like I got attacked by a Bingo marker.  I have red sand fly bites all over.)

Yesterday, three wild squirrel monkeys ambushed me,  jumping on my shoulders to reach the toucan’s bananas.  It was a battle in which I had to admit defeat. I have some favorite monkeys around here.  They were all rescued and released but continue to mill about here because we have food.

Squirrel monkeys, “barizos” in the native Quechua language, crowd around an outdoor feeding table for free roaming animal residents.

It is incredibly difficult not to pet them, especially when they look up at you with a pair of innocent eyes that are so amazingly human-like. But it’s important to prevent spreading of parasites and to keep them as undomesticated as possible.

Beautiful yet mischievous, neither her physical nor mental disabilities keep Beata, an ex-pet spider monkey, from causing trouble.

Beata is a handicapped spider monkey.  She is unable to swing between trees and also has some mental issues, both likely stemming from malnourishment during her time in captivity.  Most often she is seen walking on the ground with a gait impeccably reminiscent of E.T. She also makes a noise that I can only imagine would be produced by an extra-terrestrial, shaking her head vehemently when she doesn’t want to do something.  Her face is beautiful in all its imperfection, framed by a tuft of mohawk hair.

The other morning myself and two friends from Denmark were eating breakfast when the kitchen door opened. When you see no one walk in, the fall-back guess is a monkey.  We looked under the table and sure enough, there was Beata slumping in all her glory across the floor like E.T. transfused with a penguin.  Someone forgot to lock the door.  Monkeys use their intelligence for mischief opening doors with their tails and hands. Sometimes they will hang on the doorknob and lock you inside.  That is always something to laugh about.  You cannot leave the room because a monkey is keeping you hostage.

Yuma is an adult woolly monkey who thinks she owns the place.  And Amu and Flora, the one-year- old woolly monkeys, are always trying to hang on her.  Amu and Flora are released during the day but are kept inside the cage at night because their young age and recent bout with diarrhea makes them vulnerable to predation and disease.

All of the rescued macaws are ex-pets and as birds, they are therefore non-releasable. Many self mutilate from insanity induced by poor living conditions. Others were physically maimed by their previous caretakers.

Practicing swinging from trees, they will often grab twigs that they mistake for branches, consequently dropping to the ground.  Amu was sick yesterday and it was so painful to see her sleeping all day with these sad, sad eyes.  But, she was up and romping by late afternoon.

The macaws, tamarins and squirrel monkeys along with the Capuchin Huahuasupay (Wah-wah-soo-pai), meaning little devil in Quechua–fitting–are quite the thieves.  They are constantly trying to get food from the compost or steal from the food buckets we are carrying to other animals.

I am in love with this little pocket monkey, a pigmy marmoset, the smallest monkey in the world.  She is mostly hair weighing only 140 grams.  All of her hair is brown except for a little white mustache.  And when she runs, it looks like she is running in itty bitty high heels.

There are three baby peccaries along with one fat alpha peccary name Gino, and then about fifteen other peccaries.  I am fascinated by them but I am not quite sure why.  I am also partial to the capybaras, a baby plus Mom and Dad.  While capybaras are the largest rodents in the world, they more than just look like guinea pigs on steroids; they even squeak like them.

Our work starts with preparing breakfast at seven a.m. for the animals and again after lunch.  For the most part, we work straight from seven to five minus an hour for lunch if we are lucky to have a break that long.  The sun goes down at about six-thirty here and then it is dinner by candlelight.  I am (attempting) teaching myself guitar with a German Beatles music book.  You are correct in thinking I do not speak German, so we will see how well I do.  Nevertheless, producing acoustical dissonance has become my pastime of choice prior to the dinner hour.  Sitting in a (dirty) hammock, strumming away on a (untuned) guitar, using the glowing candle flame to read music seems almost too luxurious, almost out of place for this dilapidated bamboo hut I call home.  Speaking of opulent amenities, we cook on a gas stove, which is a luxury for the local indigenous Quichua people who cook over fire. We are all so tired by the time work is over that the smoke from blow out candles has usually wafted out by eight or nine p.m.

The bodega acts as a storage place for the animals’ food and a space for diet preparations. It is crowded and gets dirty quickly, but is clean and devoid of people equally as fast.

Almost daily we receive loads of fruit for the animals, brought to us in narrow canoes made out of Balsa wood from the Quechua tribe across the river.  On Monday I carried six loads up 113 stairs, taking the time to count each step with each laborious breath.  It is some of the most grueling weightlifting I have ever done.

My intern friend Gisela from Switzerland joined me for a canoe ride to the Quichua island on Sunday after which we swam back.  We watched a pick-up soccer game, then changed into our bathing suits, finding that the trees make great dressing rooms.  On the island, I saw the legendary boy whose hands were blown off by dynamite.  The Quichua fish illegally using dynamite.  It is dangerous not only for the many animals in or nearby the river but also for the fishermen.  A few years back, this boy’s father, who had already lost one hand to dynamite, was teaching his son to fish when the dynamite blew up in the hands of the son.  Unbelievably, the family continues to fish in this manner.

The vet from the rescue center went to the island last week to neuter a dog.  The people did not have any money to pay so they paid with a chicken.  Now we have another chicken running around the rainforest floor.

The days are pretty much rainy or sunny, no in-betweens.  Today is rainy which makes me relieved that I found my raincoat.  On a rainy day last week, I gave a tour of Amazoonico to some students from Ohio University, and one of the visitors knew a friend of mine from OWU.  Sometimes, I can’t process how small the world really is.  I have started giving tours in Spanish which entails quite a different vocabulary from the everyday conversational hullabaloo.  My first Spanish tour was a disgrace to all native speakers alive, although I think one man took pity on my efforts judging by his overly appreciative farewell.  I thoroughly improved for the second tour.

I will continue to update everyone for the remaining six weeks I have at the rescue center.  The world sure is full of opportunities and experiences.

Hasta la próxima semana,



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