Vacation With a Purpose: Giving back in Guatemala 2017
By Leslie Storer
Animal Care, Conservation, and Research Zoological Manager
Valid passport - check.
Vaccinations, including rabies booster - check.
Review Spanish by watching episodes of Plaza Sesamo on Youtube - check.
Fellow ACCR staff member Virginia and I planned a trip to ARCAS Wildlife Rescue Center in Guatemala in October 2017. In the past the Oakland Zoo organized a trip to this conservation partner, but this time was to be a little different in that we invited only animal care professionals in hopes of sending volunteers with applicable skillsets. Our group consisted of animal care staff from Oakland, San Francisco, and Turtleback Zoos, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and two vet technicians, one from Lindsay Wildlife Experience’s wildlife hospital and one who works at the Wildlife Waystation and Moorpark College’s Teaching Zoo.
We startedouradventure at ARCAS in Hawaii where Andrea and Marjorie, the director and volunteer coordinator, showed us the sea turtle hatchery, a sea turtle in a rehab pool, and a few non-releasable birds and reptiles. The hatchery is the focus of this facility. In Guatemala, it is legal to collect and sell wild sea turtle eggs for human consumption. ARCAS works with the community in a way that encourages egg hunters to give a portion of their eggs to ARCAS for placement in the hatchery. The other way ARCAS acquires eggs is for staff and volunteers to find a nest and collect all of the eggs before the egg hunters do. That evening Marjorie discovered a nest of hatchlings in the hatchery ready for release. The first release we “witnessed” was anticlimactic. The sun had gone down, and we couldn’t see the hatchlings awkwardly “flippering” their way, instinctively, to the ocean.
Later that night we witnessed a different stage of the Olive-Ridley sea turtle life cycle. Around 10pm, Virginia, Courtney (from San Diego), and I followed Cesar, a staff member who was well-versed in the ways of sea turtle nesting. Using only starlight, Cesar noticed tracks that led from the water on the right to the beach plants on the left, and spotted a female starting to dig a nest in the sand with her back flippers. When she started laying, Cesar dug an additional hole to the egg chamber through which he extracted eggs as she deposited them. Onour wayback to ARCAS, with our eggs, we encountered another egg hunter. After Cesar’s lightening-fast transaction, we had two sacks for the hatchery. Virginia, Courtney, and I were exhausted and retired to our thatch-roofed room, but not before seeing the director with anorphaned tamandua that was brought to the center by some community members.
The following morning we woke to discover another nest had hatched, so we were able to see the natural wonder of the sea turtle hatchlings venturing out on their own. Good luck, little turtles!
We also learned that the little tamandua was not doing well. Luckily our veterinary technicians were able to talk with one of the head vets, Dr. Alejandro Morales, over the phone and start some medical care. The people that brought the tamandua to the center claimed to have found it on the ground but, based on its condition, probably tried to keep it as a pet until it started showing signs of sickness.
Later that day, we learned that one of the projects on their To-Do list was to catch and check the bands of eight non-releasable Amazon parrots, one of whom liked to intimidate newcomers by attacking people’s feet. This was definitely a job for trained animal care professionals. We knew how to catch birds without injuring them, how to hold a parrot withoutgettinginjured by a beak that can crack open a walnut, and we knew this intimidation game was common among parrots so we knew how to react. Without hesitation, we gathered supplies then caught and examined each of the parrots within a few minutes, definitely NOT something well-intentioned but untrained volunteers could’ve done.
Welcome to the Jungle
We had no sooner arrived at ARCAS Hawaii than we had departed and were on our way to ARCAS Peten, via a day of tourism in Antigua. This second facility is a wildlife hospital and rehabilitation center that cares for animals confiscated from the illegal pet trade and animals that were found injured or orphaned.
Fueled by a delicious and seemingly endless supply of beans and hand-made corn tortillas, we worked with a variety of species doing basic husbandry and various daily projects like fixing perching, laundry, scrubbing, and cleaning out drains. The list of residents during our visit included, but was limited to, spider and howler monkeys, javelinas, a river otter, deer, crocodiles, turtles, margays, an ocelot, a couple hawks, and a variety of parrot species like Amazons and macaws. The majority of the hospital’s patients were parrots, due to their unfortunate popularity as pets. Luckily Dr. Fernando Martinez, the other vet and director of the program in Peten, has been instrumental in creating a captive breeding and release program for scarlet macaws, now endangered in Guatemala, but that’s an amazing story for another time.
Having packages delivered to a wildlife hospital in the middle of the rainforest can be challenging, so Dr. Morales ordered some supplies and had them delivered to the Oakland Zoo, so we could bring them down. One of these items was a radio collar for an adult ocelot who had recovered from an injury and was now ready to be released.
As animal care professionals, we were aware of the unpredictability of living creatures, so we were all THRILLED to learn that several crocodiles, turtles, three barn owls, two margays, and the ocelot, would likely be ready for release during our visit, AND we would be able to participate. Several crocodiles were released in a neighboring lagoon. They were between three and four feet long (in other words, large enough to be off of the menu of most predators). I released a smaller one with an unceremonious toss (hey, I was nervous! I was holding a small crocodile under my arm, while sliding down an embankment to the water!) and a larger one much more gracefully with the help of a vet intern.
The other animals to be released were crated early in the morning on the following day and driven to Yaxha National Park, part of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. Once in the park, we drove into the forest, under conditions commonly associated with themed rides at Disneyland, until we found a suitable location. The ocelot was first to be released, and Virginia had the honor of opening the crate door. The ocelot took his time, but eventually disappeared into the foliage. Next out were the barn owls, one of which Dr. Morales let me release, sinceheknew how much I love birds. The two margays were next, one requiring a little more coaxing than the other. Finally we all gathered at the edge of a small lake and released about 20 turtles, each of which took their time, because they are turtles.
As if that experience wasn’t enough, our group spent a day at Tikal National Park where our personal guide described the complex history of the ancient Mayas and the surrounding wildlife and plants. Nothing can match the thrill of being at the top of an ancient Mayan pyramid, looking out over the top of the rainforest canopy, and hearing a howler monkey calling.
The rainforest lived up to its name on our last day of work and on our drive the next day to the airport in Belize City. Several of us thought we would surely be stuck in a particularly soggy village in Belize where the road was under a few feet of water, but our driver, through some mechanical miracle, managed to drive the mini-van through the water without flooding the engine, even when the car bottomed out in a pothole hidden beneath the muddy water.
There’s no place like home
Virginia and I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to travel outside of our native habitat, sacrifice the comforts of home (heated water that runs consistently, little to no fear of being attacked by ants, the feeling of not being sticky due to humidity-induced sweat, sunscreen, mosquito repellent and dirt) so we could enjoy this once in a lifetime experience.