Central America | Guatemala | Peten – Monkey Buisness
For a place that was only supposed to consume a few days of my stay here in Guatemala Im beginning to wonder if there is an exit door from Peten. Ive been here for over 3 weeks now and as much as I want to get cycling again I also want to stay and take in more. I just finished a seven day volunteer gig at a place called ARCAS.
ARCAS is an animal rehabilitation center with 45 acres of jungle nestled on the edge of Lago Peten Itza. Within the center there are no vehicles, no telephones, stores or distractions. There are trails, viewing platforms, docks, an incredible amount of wildlife and as much peace as can be fit into ones soul.
ARCAS was founded by a multidisciplinary group of Guatemalans in 1989. It is an NGO with a goal of preserving endangered wildlife species and their habitat. Most of the animals are brought in by a government department whose name I cant remember. There job is to catch the poachers they cannot otherwise deter. The center is home to about 50 spider monkeys, 4 howler monkeys, 3 ocelots, kinkajous, well over 100 parrots of all descriptions, 40 or more scarlet macaws, toucans, pacas, tigrillos and turtles. There is as well 1 baby spider monkey which is fed 5 times a day and yes it acts just like a human baby as well as a baby kinkajou which just opened its eyes 3 days ago. The process for rehabilitation and their eventual release into the wild depends on the species as well as other factors such as age and injuries. My primary responsibility for the week was a pen of spider monkeys…yea!. Each morning at 7am I would make my way to the centers quarantine area change into rubber boots, after shaking out any possible scorpions or tarantulas, then enter a cage of 15 rambumcouis monkeys amidst the deafening screeches of the parrots.
It was a little intimidating initially. Entering the pen you first walk into a dark cement room, lock the steel door behind you and then face a chain link door covered in these wild characters. You then try to coax them off the door with bad jokes or a couple squirts of your water hose. They know the routine and they like to play. In the mornings the cage needs to be swept out water replaced and then food prepared and served. At 11:00am the pen is swept and washed and at 2:oopm they are fed for the final time. The entire time you are in the pen with them, unless they are eating, they play games with you. They are
forever sneaking up on the soap bucket and scooping hand fulls of suds, snatching up the broom and swinging by with it, trying to take off with the water hose which is your only defence and grabbing at your hair and clothes or trying to steal a free ride on some part of your body. They also pee and poop at free will and of course they are always perched above you. They are very fast and agile and so you really need to be on the ball.
Unfortunately a part of the rehab process is to limit your contact with them which means not talking to them or encouraging them to give hugs or any of the other cute things you really want to do with them. This is probably the hardest part of the job. Even talking to them is discouraged so I sang or whistled Bob Marley my whole time inside their pen, they really enjoy reggae. The spider monkeys are fed an incredible salad of bananas, pineapple, watermelon, oranges, cantaloupe, papaya, whiskil and cabbage. It is an enormous amount of food to chop up and looks fit for a king. Getting it into the cage unscathed is a mission for 007. But it is fun.
Learning animal behaviour is an interesting process also. I began by wearing a hat into the pen. On my first morning one of the other volunteers taking care of monkeys came out to where I was preparing my things and asked with controlled panic ‘is there poop in my hair?’. I laughed so hard I could barely respond but of course that was response enough. Her long hair was indeed decorated…So I assumed the ball cap would
save me that event. I soon learned however that the alpha male of my pen didn’t like the ball cap. He would grab at it the whole time I was in the pen. He did take it off my head a few times and after being tossed around a bit it ended up full of, for lack of a better word ‘monkey shit’, so I succumbed to defeat, stopped wearing the hat and guess what….I never received a direct hit. He would also (the alpha male) challenge me in other ways for example swinging by and hitting me, grabbing the handle of the broom or taking away the bucket. If I responded with any show of aggression he would bare his teeth and make verbal gestures that supported his position in the pen.
I learned by watching the other monkeys that the only response was to be permissive. Looking into his eyes when contested always resulted in aggressive behaviour. On a couple of occasions I did get a little concerned as his level of aggression grew but as long as I did not make eye contact and did not respond to his provocation his temperament remained level. All of the other monkeys in my pen were great. One in particular, a female who wanted nothing to do with all the chaos the other monkeys would brew and would steel piggy back rides from me when ever she could. Of course your not supposed to get attached or let the animals get comfortable with you (not an easy task when receiving daily hugs) and so I had to work her off sometimes with a squirt of the water hose. Spider monkeys have incredible agility and energy. It is amazing to view them from the observation deck in the rehab area, a large section of jungle cordoned off by electric fence. It is the last place they stay before being released back into the wild. They can also be viewed in the wild in places like the ruins of Tikal.
I also had the opportunity to take care of the parrots. These are smart birds and some managed to
escape form they’re pen every night and so each morning was spent catching the critters. That was a lot of fun also. I was able to feed the kinkajous once. The kinkajous look deceptively like cute toy animals. They have huge round dark brown eyes that sit half way out of there heads. They’re fur is an incredibly soft light brown and they have tails like monkeys. When I entered their pen a couple of them climbed up my leg. One managed to get up onto my shoulders and lick my ear. They are not the harmless
pets they appear to be however and so I was gentle and
calm in disrobing him from me.
The volunteers are fun, we had campfires, played
instruments and sang. Swam in the lake. Played dominos and cards. I managed to complete a couple of drawings that made me happy from the inside out. I spent time swinging in a hammock reading or sleeping and went for walks in the woods. It was a real retreat for me and I could have stayed a full month.
On my last day at ARCAS I was awakened to a reality I
could have done without, one which doesn’t surface each day at the center. When I walked into the building where I worked at 7am I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a full grown jaguar. He was laying on a stainless steel inspection table mouth ajar and still as the table that supported him. Blood still dripping out his open mouth. He had been shot the night before by someone hoping to make some money from his pelt. This animal was beautiful. We were all a bit shook up knowing the small numbers that are still in existence. It is a fact of life however and will remain a fact of life for as long as poverty remains a fact of life in Peten. I hope you are all enjoying these stories as much as I am enjoying the adventures. I miss you all.
Love Peace and Reggae, Blair