Where did you go on vacation when you were a teen? To visit relatives? Sleep away camp? For the past 10 years, the Oakland Zoo has broken new ground with our teen travel program. Each summer, teen volunteers sign up to be part of one of our epic adventures, to destinations like Peru, Uganda and Thailand, where they have the opportunity to meet conservation professionals working in their home countries to preserve some of our most endangered species. For most, it is the first time away from home, out of the country, truly out of their element. Which begs the question- just how do you prepare yourself for the adventure of a lifetime? For our intrepid group of teens traveling to Guatemala this summer, the process has been a long time in the making.
In the Petén region of Guatemala, in the heart of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, lie the grand Mayan city of Tikal, Lake Petén Itza, and the ARCAS animal rehab facility. Begun in 1989 by a group of Guatemalan citizens, ARCAS aims to preserve Guatemala’s natural heritage through education, rehabilitation, and research. The Petén rescue center has grown to be one of the largest facilities of its kind, housing and re-releasing species from spider monkeys to parrots to coatimundis. Since then, they have also added a sea turtle hatchery on the Pacific Coast, and education programs in Guatemala City. A longtime partner of the Oakland Zoo, ARCAS agreed to let this summer’s teen trip visit their facilities, giving teens the chance to participate first-hand in the conservation work they do. The group will do everything from cleaning cages, preparing diets, looking for nesting leatherback turtles, restoring trails, and whatever else comes up- all alongside the wonderful local staff at ARCAS.
Such an opportunity is one that most people will never get to experience in their lifetime, and our teens know it! Choosing to go on a trip with the Zoo requires a big commitment to ensure teens are educated and aware representatives of the Oakland Zoo. And so, since December, they’ve been preparing furiously to get ready. They’ve attended monthly meetings, gone on field trips, written reports on animal and plant species native to Guatemala, and have been working with the staff of KQED’s QUEST to learn how to use cameras and software to create videos of their journey.
Most recently, we spent a day working on enrichment. If you’ve been to the Zoo, or read back through these blogs, you know how important enrichment is for the animals in our care. In 2003, a different group of teens went to ARCAS, where they saw basic enclosures with limited enrichment for the animals. Their project for the week was to create enrichment, along with a book of ideas to use for the future. However, when our vet tech Kody Hilton made a return visit in 2009, she discovered that they weren’t using it. The reason? At the Oakland Zoo, we rely on a variety of recycled and re-used items for enrichment. At ARCAS, where the animals are being prepared for a life back in the wild, they don’t want their patients to associate human trash with food.
A quandary? Maybe not! On May 22, this year’s group worked in the lemur exhibit before heading out around the Zoo to gather a variety of natural items, with the goal of creating some all-natural lemur enrichment. They came back with husks, leaves, flowers, sticks, pinecones and bark. Working in groups, they created enrichment items for the lemurs which we supplemented with their afternoon diet. When they were finished, we put the items in the exhibit and watched to see what would happen. The result? A success! The teens and all the visitors in the Zoo were able to see the lemurs enjoying their new enrichment made from all natural materials. We now hope to replicate the project in 6 weeks when we arrive at ARCAS.
As we now move into the last phase of preparation and start packing, renewing our passports and getting those all-important shots, it’s impossible to know just what our journey has in store for us. One thing is certain though; whatever comes our way, we’ll be prepared.