By Andrew Marston
For the next four weeks, my wife and I will be volunteering at a wildlife reserve called Inti Wara Yassi in the small town of Villa Tunari in Bolivia. Only in Bolivia (or another developing country, I suppose) could a place like this exist, where unqualified but willing volunteers can, after only a short lesson from other volunteers, work with and handle wild animals. We arrive partway through the workday and kill some time in the outdoor cafeteria where breakfasts, lunches, and after work beers are available. While surveying our new surroundings, we take in the graffiti from past volunteers which covers the nearby walls, including things like “Tigre the Lostalot Ocelot”, “Quaranteam 2013”, “Monkey Love”, “small (but vicious) animals”, and “Badass Balu”, and wonder what we’re about to get ourselves into.
As the workday wraps up and the volunteers straggle into the café, we strike up a conversation hoping to learn more about the volunteer experience. A couple of realities quickly sink in: there will be a lot of dealing with poop, and, at some point, we’re likely to pick up a minor wound (making for an interesting scar story once we’re back at home). One of the volunteers, a skinny redhead from Australia, eagerly describes his latest encounter with a fox while working in the small animal section. While attempting to get a collar around the fox’s neck (after days in a cage, he figured it would enjoy a nice walk), the fox decided it didn’t like what was going on. After a couple quick bites to the shin (through a rubber boot), the fox clamped its jaws on the aussie’s forearm and hung on for dear life. No lasting damage was done, and we’re assured that the on-site vets are very skilled at stitching up both animals and humans.
Finally, 4:30 rolls around and we’re led on a quick tour of the facilities which include: quarantine, containing about eighty capuchin monkeys, some in cages and some tied up on runners (not to mention the dozen or more wild ones that hang out hoping to snag food from the residents); the aviary, where macaws, toucans, and parrots are guarded from hungry wild monkeys by a well-trained dog; and a sizeable area for land and water turtles. We´re also told about other areas in which a number of coatis, two ocelots, one puma, and an Andean bear are kept. We are then sat down and asked by Marta, the volunteer coordinator, to fill out a survey (along with a hefty waiver form) as well as some extra questions to help figure out which section we belong in. Chelsea’s asked if she has a good sense of direction, to which she replies yes, and I’m asked if I can handle running through the jungle with my glasses on, to which I explain that I can wear contact lenses if necessary. We’re then shown to the closet of second-hand clothing so we can pick up something we won’t mind destroying over the next weeks. Finally, we gather in the office and are given our assignments: Chelsea is to work with Tigre the Ocelot (the current volunteer was taking a break, having received a decent scratch on her arm just that afternoon) and I’m to spend my first few days in quarantine, after which I’ll be working with Balu, the fully-grown Andean bear.
To help us learn the ropes before we’re thrown to the dogs (or in this case the ocelot and bear) we’ve handed a binder filled with info on our cuddly friends to be. While reading about the procedure on walking the bear, I quickly learn the reason behind the question about running: Balu can be very playful and energetic (or, god forbid, angry and energetic), and at times while being walked he does his best to chase down and catch his volunteers in order to give them lovingly powerful bear hugs. It will take two, or preferably three, volunteers working as a team to take Balu on his daily walks, which are likely to include copious napping, standing in the rain while Balu takes shelter under a tree, going for swims in the nearby river, and rescuing one another from Balu if he manages to catch us off guard. Chelsea’s days will also be spent walking through the jungle, though she learns that Tigre almost exclusively walks off trail, and has a reputation for getting her handlers utterly lost. In addition to info on Tigre’s daily routine, Chelsea’s binder also includes some stories (perhaps more aptly named “incident reports”) from past volunteers. The first of these stands out – on her very first day with Tigre, after being dragged aimlessly through the jungle for a couple hours, Tigre attempts to scale a steep cliff. As the volunteer does her best to keep from plummeting to her death, Tigre turns around and swipes at her hands, forcing her to let go of the leash. At this point, it’s starting to get dark and the volunteer has no idea where she is – she manages to find the river and follow it to a waterfall where she sets in for the night. She’s found by another volunteer the following morning and Tigre shows back up at the reserve five days later. Only in Bolivia.
My few days working in quarantine prove exhausting but action-packed. Much of the day is spent either gathering and preparing the fruit, veggies, and jungle plants that make up the monkeys’ diets or sweeping up the digested or rejected matter that ends up all over the ground after meals. Quarantine is split into two sections, both of which I work in throughout the day. “Earth” contains about fourty caged capuchin monkeys and three spider monkeys who wreak havoc along their long runners which let them swing through the nearby trees, and “heaven” contains about fourty more capuchins, most of which are transferred during the day to short runners that give them room to monkey around (bad pun intended). As one could guess, the monkeys who aren’t allowed out of their cages are the ones that, given the opportunity, may choose to bite or scratch their way to your heart. During my half-hour of “training” in Earth, I’m warned that the monkeys are always paying attention, especially when it looks like they’re not. They’re very smart, and some will act busy while waiting for you to get juuuuust close enough to their cages so they can spring forward and grab you by the clothes, hair, arm, or face and set their vicious teeth to work on your juicy flesh.
After just a day in Earth, I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) the general temperament of each monkey. I know which cages I can lean in close to while reaching under with a broom, as well as those for which doing so will lead to a hectic tug-of-war over my shirt sleeve or finger. Luckily I’m wearing my hat which sticks a few inches in front of my face, meaning that when “Marcos” lunges out he does so a little too early to catch any skin. I also spend some quality time bonding with “Nelson” who, especially after lunch, will lovingly hold your hand while you pet him through his cage. After just a few visits to Heaven, the friendliest monkeys are already jumping up on me to search my pockets, steal my hat, and nibble on my ears. During my third day, while hand-feeding lima beans to the compact female “Corolla”, I’m startled when she jumps up onto my shoulder and quickly shoves a bean into my mouth with one hand while plugging my nose with the other. After chewing it up (what else was I supposed to do?), she then pries my mouth open to inspect, making sure there are no bits left. After failing the initial inspection and again having my mouth covered and nose plugged, I tuck the bits into my cheek and manage to fool her. How quickly I’ve become one of the family.
Volunteering in quarantine is by far the most work out of all the jobs at the reserve. They start the earliest, finish the latest, and spend the better part of their time sweeping, washing, and scrubbing the endless shitty monkey mess. They do, however, get to hang out with an assortment of hilarious capuchin characters. Despite his evil intentions, Marcos remains one of my favourites, since after each meal he puts your ninja skills to the test in the retrieval of his metal dish from its rebar enclosure. While one hand works to distract him with another dish, the other waits stealthily at your side for the moment he leaps for the bait. As soon as he strikes, you have only a split second to slide out the target, all the while remembering, of course, not to let any other part of your body drift too close. Another of the more spiteful beasts puts your stick-handling skills to the test while sweeping under his cage – if you aren’t fast enough, you’ll spend more time wresting the broom free than you will actually sweeping.
The morning of my fourth and final day in quarantine, I’m brought along with Balu’s current handlers to shadow Tim and learn the ropes of the morning routine. After prepping his food for the day (consisting mainly of bread, peanuts, fruits, and veggies), we make our way to Balu’s house and greet him through the heavy steel mesh door. Here, I carefully offer him the back of my hand to sniff and lick (and am instructed to, under no circumstances, stick my fingers through) and he seems to like me well enough. While a couple of us keep him occupied at the door, Tim reaches through a small opening in the side of the house with a long pole custom-made for hooking Balu’s leash to the clips on the back of his heavy harness (where does one buy a bear harness, anyways?). Once ready, his door is opened and he emerges in all his cuddly but hazardous glory. After securing Balu to a nearby tree, Tim and I work to keep him distracted while Ali and Richard give his house a quick but thorough cleaning.
Tim explains that, before Balu can have any food, he needs to be sitting down (“Balu, sientate!”) and as you hand over food, it’s best to hold it slightly off to the side, allowing you to make sure his eyes are indeed focused on the food and not instead on a part of your body. After tentatively feeding Balu a couple chunks of bread, I’m feeling relatively comfortable with the whole matter; after all, I’m in good hands – Tim is an expert, having been a volunteer for almost four whole weeks (!). Just as I begin to relax a bit, Tim moves in to hand over another chunk of bread but gets a little too close. In the blink of an eye, Balu whips his paw out and sinks his claws into Tim’s right leg. What then ensues is an epic tug of war, with me hauling full-strength on Tim’s upper body and Balu doing his best to work his claws up to Tim’s pocket (where he had been keeping the rest of the bread), while the other two haul back on Balu’s rope to try to gain us some wiggle room. Fortunately, we manage to get Tim free with no real damage – save for the expert removal of Tim’s lower pant leg and pocket. I think for me, the most shocking part about the whole thing is that the other volunteers seem relatively comfortable with it – this definitely isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Tim later comments that it was nice to have a fourth person around to help pull him away; under normal circumstances he would have had to back himself free of Balu’s grip all alone.
I slowly digest all that’s happened as I spend the rest of the day with my crazy monkeys, suddenly appreciative of the relatively limited scale of damage they can manage. After nearly making it scot-free through my short stint in quarantine, Marcos finally manages to rake his fingernails across my forearm as I absentmindedly pass too close to his cage.
The next day I’ll be starting my first full day with Balu, during which I’ll be observing the team of three while they work. I’ll have to pay close attention because Tim leaves the following day, after which I’ll be playing a key role in Balu’s handling. Only in Bolivia can a place like this exist.
Wish us luck!
Andrew (a.k.a. Mandrew) is a Mechanical Engineer by trade and travel writer/photographer by passion, and is currently on an open-ended break from his career to travel the world in search of meaningful experiences, alternative and practical knowledge and life-changing inspiration. He’s spent the past year traveling through Central and South America with his wife Chelsea, who represents the better half of their blogging team at Two Bein’ Chili. With the ultimate goal of identifying a sustainable means of living that can keep them both as far away as possible from the nine-to-five grind, if everything goes as planned they’ll find themselves owning and operating an awesome organic farm/backpacker hostel in the mountains of British Colombia, Canada. You can follow Andrew and Chelsea through their blog (www.twobeinchili.com), on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/twobeinchili) & on twitter (www.twitter.com/TwoBeinChili).