Tarqui: Life & death in the Ecuadorian Amazon
One of our traveling goals is to volunteer across the world, largely for projects serving animals. So far we’ve done this in Guatemala and Costa Rica. Now it was Ecuador’s turn. Enter ZooRefugio Tarqui and 10 days of living in a zoo. You read that right: LIVING in a zoo. Walking past the Jaguar and Puma enclosures every night on our way to bed never ceased to elicit at least a little panic. Which is rightly so, once you’ve seen these big cats stalk and kill live prey. Why oh why can’t all the world’s creatures be vegetarian?!
It had been several months since we worked with wildlife and I was itching to volunteer again. After researching various options, most of which seemed to be located around Puyo, Ecuador, we settled on ZooRefugio Tarqui. The zoo was started by a local family who also live there, relying upon the visitors’ entry fees, an associated restaurant, the husband’s work as an electrician, donations, and volunteer fees to keep the place running. It really is a huge undertaking for this family: everything they do, ultimately, is for the animals.
While it is technically a “zoo” – which means visitors pay a small fee to look at the animals in their enclosures – and zoos are places about which I feel deep ambivalence, this was no ordinary zoo. That is because most, if not all, of the animals here had been illegally kept as pets or were captured at some point during the wildlife-trafficking process. The Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment then brings them to the zoo (and other similar projects) to provide caretaking. And, like Costa Rica and Guatemala, the government then does nothing to financially support the projects it relies upon. Our understanding is that the zoo will release an animal back to the wild if it has not yet become too reliant on humans for their daily needs; otherwise, they will live out their days having staff and volunteers like us clean their enclosures and serve them food.
The zoo is home to a variety of Amazonian wildlife, including several large cats: two Jaguars (one of whom is named “Brenda” of all things and the other “Precioso”), four Pumas (aka mountain lions/ cougars), two Ocelots, and one Margay. The zoo also houses several Capuchin Monkeys, a couple of Spider Monkeys (a favorite of Toby’s), Boa Constrictors, Black Caiman (story to follow), Peccaries (stinky “New World Pigs”), Capybaras (the world’s largest rodent), Coatis, Cabezas de Mate (weasel-like critters called Tayras in English), a variety of parrots, a young Kinkajou, two baby Raccoons (called “mapaches” here), and one exemplar of a tiny species of monkey called “Chichico” (or “Pichico” in Peru; I believe in English it is a brown-mantled tamarin).
As I mentioned, our accommodation was smack in the midst of the zoo, so we woke up and went to sleep to the sounds of the animals. In between, we mostly spent our days chopping up kilos upon kilos of fruits and veg (I’ll be happy to never slice another banana – to make “oritos” – in my life), cleaning the animals’ eating areas, and delivering them food. We saw and experienced so much during our stint, however, that it can’t all be described adequately. So let me just briefly share photos and stories of some of the highlights. Or in my case as a vegetarian, some of these might better be called “lowlights”.
Hover over the lower part of each picture with your cursor to read the associated story, then click on an arrow for more:
Oh yeah: people
Really, this part should fall under the “highlights” section, but I tend to keep the memories I shared with people separate from those involving the zoo’s residents. Volunteering at the zoo reminded me somewhat of being at camp. I mean, you eat all your meals with your co-volunteers (and complain about the food together), work and sweat alongside each other, and sleep in bunkbeds in rooms (with rats scurrying overhead) next to each other. We shared laughs, frustrations and some amazing experiences. And I am glad to report that we’ve already had the opportunity to catch up with some of them since our volunteering days.
In addition to working together with the animals, we also shared a lovely day off from volunteering, thanks to William, one of the zoo’s founders. William played tourguide for the day, taking us to visit a local indigenous village, where we gals had our faces painted in the style done for celebrations and all of us took a shot at blowing a dart through a pipe at a target (bullseye for me, wahoo!). We also went on a canoe ride down the Pastaza River, overcame mucho fear by rope-swinging beyond a sheer cliff into a grand vista of the Amazon basin, and hiking to a lovely waterfall, where we stripped off into our swimmies and plunged ourselves into the icy water below. The day ended with a trip to an ice cream parlor. Perfect!
As I mentioned, we ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the zoo, mostly cooked by the zoo-restaurant’s staff or Fanny (the other co-founder) herself. They did a pretty good job of varying the meals, but let’s just say that after a handful of days, the sight of rice and lentils (for me) and rice and fish (for the others) was less than exciting. So the Saturday night before we left, we decided to share a bit of our food culture with the family: pizza and wine! With the help of William and Fanny’s children, we made and rolled out fresh pizza dough and decorated each base with a variety of toppings. The sauce was made by yours truly: extra spicy, the way Toby and I like it. We may have made the sauce a but TOO spicy, given the looks on all the Ecuadorians’ faces (they don’t really do spicy there), but everyone ate their share and seemed to enjoy having played a role in making it come together. 🙂
Volunteering at ZooRefugio Tarqui was different from our previous volunteer stints – different animals, different setting, different work – but equally amazing. We lived in a zoo! We got to see large cats so close up that it was scary! I made friends with a tiny monkey! A peccary greeted me by rubbing its head between my legs! We made toys for jaguars and pumas! I had running races with a wild pig! As you might imagine, the pictures and stories above are only a tiny fraction of our collection. And our collection of memories is even more rich.
I look forward to our next volunteering adventure, though I have no idea where in the world that will be!