So after 2 months of travelling, as much as we loved the hum drum of tourist life, Soph and I decided to volunteer in Ecuador at an animal refuge and rehab NGO sanctuary called AmaZOOnico. The project is set in the centre of the Oriente Amazon jungle, next to the Rio Napo. We paid $150 for a month including living and food costs. All the volunteers lived in the same house, along with permanent residents such as scorpions and tarantulas. To get to the nearest community involved a local boat down the river. We started our days eating a mammoth breakfast at 6am and chopping fruit from 7am and then the hustle and bustle of cleaning enclosures and feeding 200 animals commenced. Our days were punctuated by tourist groups arriving, at which point one of us would stop cleaning to give them a tour. While a day to day account may not be interesting, a few particularly interesting/bizarre incidents are definitely worth sharing!
On arrival, we hung up mosquito nets anticipating that the jungle may be out to get us, and sure enough as soon as Soph swept under the bed two dead scorpions turned up. We also found out that Johan the Spider-Monkey was recaptured the day we arrived, a previous volunteer had let him out and he was terrorising the locals – killing other monkeys, birds and even a pig during a previous escapade.
After two days of trying to understand the Spanish lingo for monkey, dangerous, ripe fruit etc we also had to endure our first frutas, a grueling start to the day involving carrying massive amounts of fruit (animal feed). Midweek, we walked the 20 minutes through the jungle to neighbouring Liana Lodge (the posh eco-hotel) for food, and on the way home learned the not so shocking truth that at night the jungle gets very very dark. Having wandered lost for an hour, we made it back to the Lodge with hanging heads and burning ears to ask the other volunteers to show us the way home.
Week One also saw our first autopsy – so whenever an animal dies unexpectedly the Colombian vet Alejo finds out way and also enjoys watching new volunteers squirm as they help him. I will never forget the sound of a tortoise shell being prized apart, or the smell within!
At the end of the week we made a dash to Tena (when I say dash I mean a boat ride to the road followed by 2 hour bus) to pick up essential rainforest supplies – chocolate, cigarettes, wine no less…and of course our friend flashed us while we made our goodbye-to-the-internet skype calls.
Our second week saw many highs and lows. Sophie’s favourite baby Squirel Monkey (Barizo en Español) died of a parasitic infection.
One evening after work Rebecca and I were disturbed from our hammocks in the voli house by a boat bearing a Ministry of Environment official who in turn was bearing a massive Boa Constrictor. We helped clean it and force fed it some dead mice but unfortunately it ended up dying having suffered too much trauma pre-arrival. This did lead to another autopsy however…
It was a busy week for reptiles – Soph and Rebecca were about to feed the mice, and got a shock to find a Rainbow Boa snuggled up in one of the tanks, no mice left. We released it again, and on closer inspection I found two mice absolutely quaking in a corner tube…obviously they were one too many for the snake after nine other snacks!
There was a big party for the head volunteer Sarah’s 30th birthday which at least granted a much happier celebratory feel to the week!
AmaZOOnico celebrated its 20th anniversary this week. We were given traditional yucaa (fermented root drink) and a similar fermentation of bamboo that i’m told has human saliva as one of its ingredients. There was little choice in accepting the drink – refusing it can lead to it being upended on your head! Our manager Sophia also told us that “we must to dance with a real Kechua man” as a mark of respect – an awkwardness that is heightened by the peculiarity of the dance – involving standing opposite a man not touching and barely shuffling your feet left to right.
We also headed to Ahuano, the nearest village on the next tributary – again we got lost trying to find the boat harbour and enlisted the help of three kids (all under 6 years old) before their aunt offered to ferry us to Ahuano.
Back in the daily life of AmaZOOnico, a night monkey arrived and instantly became a favourite in animal charades with her huge eyes and monk hair cut.
Navi the cheeky 2 year old Tapir escaped in an attempt to nuzzle up to more cooing tourists and had to be tempted back with watermelon. After that she became much more like a stroppy teen waiting to perform more acts of defiance!
In our final week at AmaZOOnico we spent a lot of time saying goodbye mainly to the animals. I had named the two Brazilian Parrots Iggy and Foz after the falls Foz de Iguazu – on our last day Iggy my favourite affectionately decided my hair was a good home, and Foz bit Sophie with a lot more anger than affection.
Soph had the one remaining baby Squirel Monkey determinedly attached to her arm, until she had to spray water to encourage him off (much the monkey’s resentment).
The Macaws escaped from the Spider Monkeys who were stealing their food, and Sophie and Alejo climbed trees with fruit in an attempt to tempt them down.
I finally got to clean out the Anaconda tank – in the sexy waders that made me look like an “oompalumpa” according to Soph. I was a wee bit careful with where I placed my feet, especially when I saw the snake moving!
My only animal injury occurred (minus the many mosquitos) – I was doing a tour, and even after my increasingly angry warnings a boy leaned too close to one of the baby Ocelots Huachi. The cub started trying to grab a fallen camera case, and the boy leaned in to play tug of war with an Ocelot, while the mother took photos! FOOL! I grabbed the kids hand away, just as Huachi’s claw dug into my thumb. And the cub looked so cute!
We waved goodbye to Rebecca on the morning of the 27th July, and are now set for Colombia. There are of course many more memories, and photos, but i’d recommend just going to AmaZOOnico yourself!
Follow the link if you’re more interested in the project or fancy volunteering – never mind the terrible website, the place anything but:
Hover over the photographs, for those marked property of Rebecca Desmots please ask permission for use – check out her site: