Volunteering at YanaCocha animal rescue center.
The whole duration of our trip we had wanted to volunteer when we got to Ecuador to help with the ramifications following the 2016 earthquake. As our trip was nearing an end and we knew Ecuador was going to be our last country apart from transiting back home we started to enquire in to places but most programs were either finishing up or didn’t sound like they were actually doing much benefit. Skeptical of not wanting to waste our time or possibly do more harm than good with dodgy volunteer programs we were a little disheartened and unsure how to spend our now large amount of free time in Ecuador. A must-do of our South America trip, visiting the Amazon was also still yet to be ticked off the list so we were unsure of which direction to take. As travelling’s perfect fate would have it we met a Belgian in northern Peru who had just finished a few weeks volunteering at Yana Cocha animal refuge, and the more I talked to him about it, I quickly started to realise we could kill two birds with one stone, but actually we would be killing no birds but in fact protecting them. I had already heard really great reviews from this guy and a few other travellers who had visited the centre but I did some of my own research in to what kind of place this was. I discovered they were a not for profit organization who protect Amazonian animals in an as close to natural habitat as they can from injury, trafficking, or being kept as illegal pets, which we had learned from previous sanctuaries is a huge problem within Latin America. The reviews of the centre were absolutely stellar and I became really excited at the prospect of spending some time here and that I would get to not only see these animals but assist with their protection and hopefully their release.
Day 1: We arrived to the centre, about an hour and a half bus and taxi from Banos, where we had been staying in Ecuador and were pleased that all the staff and volunteers were expecting us, unlike on previous volunteer projects. We have visited two other wildlife sanctuaries/hospitals on our trip but this was by far the most beautiful, we were really really in the jungle! Lush rainforest was as far as you could see, an open air kitchen and lounge area with hammocks and couches was our first arrival point where we met everyone. The most gorgeous old, wise English sheep dog was the first to greet us. Then we were taken around and shown a few of the animals, some spider monkeys, a large caiman, some turtles, a toucan and some parrots all just on the way to our cabin. We settled our things in to our cosy little jungle lodge then went for a quick wander to check out some more monkeys. They were all in beautiful condition in well maintained areas that weren’t even really enclosures which was a great relief. Despite great reviews when you’re in Latin America you always have your doubts about legitimacy until you’ve seen it with your own eyes. Being in the park after hours as the sun was setting was already super cool and a little ‘Night at the Museum’-esque, as all the monkeys ran up to greet us. It also quashed my completely illogical feeling that Zoos and waterfalls and the like close down or turn off over night. Talking to the other volunteers over dinner made me super excited to meet the animals tomorrow, there’s a sloth!!!! But for now I better get some rest so the mischievous monkeys don’t get the better of me while I’m feeding them tomorrow.
Day 2: Today we got up bright and early to begin volunteering after breakfast. Our day started in the cutting room, where all the animals have a strict diet of fruits, nuts, supplements and proteins depending on their level of rehabilitation. I felt like I was back nursing and doing my morning drug round, except instead of a concoction of pills I had a bucket of slightly smelly fruit and veg. Then we went to start feeding the animals, today we were on monkeys, and all our childhood zookeeper dreams came true as we learnt the various methods of feeding them. Some that are being slowly reintroduced in to the wild are on islands that we need to take a small boat to to minimize human interaction and allow them to adapt to their environment. The islands are slowly increased in size until the vet and primatologist are confident that the monkeys could survive in the wild and are at 100% capacity. Some of the animals at the park are like this and able to be released, but many will never be able to function in the wild again as they have been kept as illegal pets for too long or have been deliberately injured on the black market to prevent them from escaping. This part of the job was obviously sad but I could already see the benefits of places like this and enjoyed being able to help provide the animals with a better life. In the centre they have:
-A Margay (similar to an ocelot)
-Two Caimans (crocs)
-Loads of turtles
-Two tortoises, all of whom along with the turtles are free to come and go from the centre but choose to stay
-Racoons-illegally trafficked from the states
-Macaws and Guacamayas
-An amazonian turkey called Johnny who runs the show and thinks he is a dog
-Ferret type mammals
-Rat type mammals
-5 different species of monkeys, Capuchin, Chorongo, Spider, Nocturnal and Pygmy
-Other assorted birds
-My personal favorite, a cuddly sloth called John
-And whichever other animals cruise in from the jungle- you always have to keep an eye out.
We spent the morning feeding the animals and cleaning their cages. I was impressed at the attention to detail, even to sterilize our gumboots in between cages to avoid introducing foreign bacteria to other cages. The vet was running some tour groups and education sessions with school age kids whilst we were working and there were also some university students helping out with the park.
In the afternoon some of the animals get fed again and the volunteers complete general maintenance on the park and enclosures. We also needed to learn a harrowing but important lesson that not all animals can survive on fruit, and that the Ocelots and the Margay need to be able to hunt their live food in order to return to the wild and survive, I won’t go in to too much detail but unfortunately a few little bunnies had to learn a lesson about the great circle of life. Overall my first impressions of the centre are great and I already love all the animals. I’m looking forward to what is in store for the rest of our stay.
Since we snuck back home early for Christmas, our final day at Yana Cocha came around all too quickly. We had really developed a bond with some of the animals and enjoyed studying their behaviors. Brendan in particular had a slight obsession with the monkeys, who had taken to cleaning and grooming him. I think he became one with them. We got to watch John the sloth be released in to his tree, and whilst he will likely never be released in to the wild as the black market had removed his toes on one foot, we were delighted to see that despite this disability he was still able to climb to the very top of his tree. It was also amazing to have a cuddle with him. Did you know sloths don’t have a rib cage or a spine but in fact a shell like a turtle?! I enjoyed the cheeky monkeys climbing all over me in the morning while I would feed them. I also got to face my absolute biggest fear. When we first started at the center there were no snakes which I was quite relieved about. Since being startled by a great big carpet python as a child I have been so phobic of snakes I get the sweats even looking at them in a zoo. However, on one of our last days they brought in a Rainbow Boa Constrictor who had been found in someone’s house! The boys were having a great time checking her over and having a hold before releasing her back in to the wild. I observed feeling pale and clammy from a safe distance before deciding enough was enough. One of the guys who was really experienced with reptiles held her head away as I had a pat. I still feel nauseous thinking about it and wouldn’t be rushing back but I was super proud of myself for conquering my biggest fear, which is what traveling is really all about.
I was really glad we decided to have this experience as the final leg of our trip. Not only did we get to visit some Amazon-edge jungle and see some wildlife but we got to assist in rehabilitating and caring for them. It was definitely something we came home talking about and won’t easily forget.