From a drafty plane to a monkey mom
The summer after I traveled with DANTA I had another flare up of the ever-persistent travel bug. My heart was yearning for somewhere new and the hands-on experience I missed during my time with DANTA. Another student from my DANTA group messaged me one day with a possible internship she had found. She was applying and thought that I would be interested in the same internship. Of course, she was right.
The link she sent me was to an organization called Global Nomadic which advertises jobs as well as volunteer and internship opportunities around the world. Find one you like and they’ll get you set up (for a small finder’s fee, of course). As it turned out, they were advertising for the exact job I was looking for — monkey mom.
I applied right away, was accepted, and agreed to stay for three months. On Mother’s Day the following May I packed my bags and, waving goodbye to Mom and Dad, boarded a plane for Belize.
After a full day of travel I arrived in the small fishing village of Sarteneja in northern Belize. Well, my arrival was a lot more nerve wracking than I expected. I flew into Belize on a regular flight, then took a very small plane to Sarteneja. The flight was only 15 minutes or so, but I think I experienced every possible emotion and played out every possible scenario in my head, except what actually happened, of course.
Like I said the plane was very small. Like my-seat-folded-out-the-wall small. Like wind-blowing-in-your-hair-through-the-not-so-tightly-sealed-windows small. I was the only American on the flight which of course got me a lot of stares. Mostly stares which conveyed a sense of fear or impending doom which only grew more frightening as we landed in Sarteneja.
I knew that there wouldn’t be an airport, but I expected more than a field. The plane landed as gracefully as it could with a field for a runway. As we rolled to a stop and suddenly the whole plane was staring right at me. Now with this small of a plane it was like 6 pairs of eyes, but it felt like I was standing in front of a sold out arena.
No one moved. Not a single person. Every single person just stared.
Starting to get nervous I began looking around for where I was supposed to go. All I could see were trees. And then a single truck. I had tried to find pictures of the people I’d be working for, for just this scenario. I had found some, but as it always works, none of them were in the truck. I got off the plane anyway and was greeted with a smile from two strangers standing beside an old, beat up truck. Luckily, they knew who I was and I was in the right place. Extremely relieved, I hopped in and began the journey to Wildtracks.
Wildtracks is a primate and manatee rehabilitation center in Belize. They are working to end the illegal pet trade in Belize and protect the native manatees. Being a small organization run by a husband and wife team, volunteers get a ton of hands on experience with the animals as they move through the rehabilitation process leading to eventual release. Exactly what I was hoping fo
Within 3 days I knew I wouldn’t just be staying for three months. I knew that I’d be back many times in the years to come. My main duties during my first experience at Wildtracks mostly involved daily care of the about 15 howler and spider monkeys. I would work with the other volunteers to chop fruit, monitor animal health, develop enrichment, and interact with monkeys who were still in the beginning stages of rehabilitation.
It took a while to begin recognizing the monkeys’ faces, but once I did I could write home about who I’d fallen in love with – Paz. He was a very shy, young monkey who was being transferred to an outdoor enclosure. He was by himself and tended to keep to himself. I absolutely fell in love. He had been kept as a pet on a chain before coming to Wildtracks. When we would get stressed he’d show serious stereotypical pacing, but only a couple feet back and forth, just about the length of the chain he grew up on. Once being moved outside this behavior began to significantly increase and he became even more shy. I made it my mission to make him into a confident monkey. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen during my time at Wildtracks, but I’m happy to report that Paz is now a free monkey (as far as I know – news travels slowly) and hasn’t been displaying any stereotypical behavior since release.
I’ve fallen in love with many wild animals since Paz, but three stand out the most. A margay named Diego and a pair of infant monkeys called Innie and Vicky. Those are stories for a different day, but here are Vicky (left) and Innie (right) to hold you over.
My time at Wildtracks went way too quickly and before I knew it, I had to go home. Since then I’ve made it back to Wildtracks only once, but I am always looking for an opportunity to make a 3rd trip and I hope I’ll be able to make it back infinitely more times.
Moral of the story? If you’re ever on a tiny, drafty plane and you aren’t sure if the men at the end of the landing field are waiting for you, they probably are so hop in! You never know where you’ll end up.
Disclaimer: that’s probably not good advice. So, yeah, maybe not do that 🙂