A stint as Rolf Harris

Trip Start Jul 30, 2010
Trip End May 29, 2011

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Where I stayed
Amazon Shelter Animal Rescue & Rehabilitation Centrr

Flag of Peru  ,
Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Ten thousand years ago man regarded the natural world as divine, but as he domesticated animals and plants so nature lost some of its mystery and appeared to be little more than a larder that could be raided with impunity."

David Attenborough, The First Eden (1987)

We were almost giddy with happiness as we walked thru the cobbled courtyard and were shown our little room in the El Patio hostel. Bang in the centre of the Miraflores district of Lima it had everything we'd been missing for 10 days: Hot water, 24hr electricity, a fan, a comfortable bed and internet access.

After dumping our stuff in the room and separating out the clothes in urgent need of washing (and putting them in bin-liners to contain the ghastly odour) we headed out for a McDonalds and a Starbucks coffee. Not proud of it but there we go...

The following morning I lay in bed watching the fan spin round, reflecting on how I would write up the Animal Shelter experience. Would I let Gollum-Ian or Smeagol-Ian write this (another Lord of the Rings reference, if you don't know it watch the films, don't bother with the books, life's too short)? I’d written copious notes in my Moleskin but they were hardly blog-material.

So where to start? After the 4 days at the rainforest lodge we were dropped off at their offices just on the outskirts of Puerto Maldonado. The Lonely Planet says about Puerto Maldonado: "...soon endears itself to you” and "...the town’s languid laid-back ambience invites you to linger” What a crock of shit. Unless this was written by town’s mayor the writer had never been to this muddy, impoverished dump of a town.

Not that it really mattered to us as we were 20 minutes on a muddy, swampy dirt track outside PM. We were picked up by the Director of the Animal Rehabilitation Centre in a battered old Hyundi 4x4 (cracked windscreen, rear doors that wouldn’t open and windows that wouldn’t close). Magali – the Director – was not your typical Peruvian. She didn’t look Andean (and if you want to know what an Andean Peruvian looks like you could do worse than look at Herge’s 'Tintin and the Prisoners of the Sun; the characterisation is uncanny), was from a relatively wealthy background and was a former airline stewardess. We could never get to the bottom of what made her set the Centre up but we were aware of a lack of any formal training despite her very evident passion for the animals, or at least the monkeys, at her Centre.

For 5 days and 5 nights we stayed at the Centre. Actually it was more like 5 sleepless nights. Since the Galapagos I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to sleep under a mossie-net; too claustrophobic, too little air and too hot. But at the Centre not using a mossie net was not an option.

When we reached the Centre we discovered it wasn’t on the scale of the rescue and rehab centre we’d been to in Borneo, both in terms of size and professionalism. Admittedly Amazonian animals aren’t as large as Orang-Utans and the enclosures were fairly generous for the small number of animals resident – I use the word ‘resident’ deliberately as there didn’t seem much evidence of preparing any of the inmates for life back in the wild. The centre is home to a red brocket deer, 2 black capuchin monkeys, 2 night monkeys, 3 macaws, 1 peccary (a wild-pig), 3 coatis (a bit like a badger), several tortoises, a couple of red howler monkeys, one of which, Pepe, was old, grumpy, blind in one eye and was a pretty much a pet and treated as such.

As we were shown around the enclosures through ankle-deep mud we became breakfast, lunch and dinner to millions of mosquitos who also considered the Centre home. It became pretty clear, that this was a 2 person operation, Magali and one full-tiime helper, a 19 yr old called Jover, who did the day-to-day jobs of preparing the animals’ food, carrying out repairs to enclosures and who, at times, treated the animals with a bored distain that if nothing else will inculcate a sense of mistrust in humans should any of the animals ever be released.

Claire took the reasonable view that the Centre was really just a private petting zoo for the owner and I could see her point for as I said above there wasn’t much evidence of rehabilitation of the animals in order to prepare them for release back into the wild. There certainly never appeared to be a plan and Magali was always vague when we discussed it. But the Centre has released animals in its 4yrs of running and no one could ever question her overwhelming commitment to the animals. Her methods perhaps...

Our duties were simply to help Jover with his job. This was fine, not difficult, but also not especially time-consuming. Even after Claire became ill and stayed in the room the job still didn’t take much effort. The one exception to this was the cleaning out of the peccary’s enclosure which was a sty 10m sqr and smelt like a nauseating cross between a lake of vomit and Stinking Bishop cheese. It was at least livened up by the discovery of a tarantula.

In some ways it was quite a sweet experience. Because of their small size getting into an enclosure with a capuchin or a night monkey isn’t the death-wish it would be with an Organ-Utan. You can hold and stroke the monkeys, feed them by hand, but this does not prepare them for the wild. I can understand that the very young capuchin needs to be fed, held and groomed as if his mother was doing it but I can’t help but think it should only be by someone who’s there full-time and isn’t carrying the risk of infection.

The Centre needs more volunteers. That way that the animals can be given more enrichment activities, the enclosures made better and with more money the facilities improved, more advice sought and better practices implemented. 

I do really wish the Centre well. I‘m not sure I can see how the Capuchins and the Night monkeys will be released; they are too used to humans now for food to be able to figure out how to get it themselves but the mad, aggressive Coaties will hopefully be set free in the Reserve in the Tambopata area.

This was the last of our voluntary work placements. And whilst not a wholly positive affair it was still an interesting and educative week. The animals in the Amazon suffer at the hands of the illegal animal trade and deforestation just as they do in S.E. Asia and the penalties for those caught, just as in Malaysia, are rarely enforced because of the corruption within the police and politicos. Centres like Amazon Shelter are needed for those animals that are rescued or confiscated. It could be better funded, but Peru, like much of S.E Asia, is poor and when that's the case animals will always come second to human needs or greed.

On the whole we've enjoyed the voluntary work we've done over the last eight months. Some of it has actually been quite physically tough - okay not really. Hot and sweat?, Yes. Tough? No, not unless you consider treading water whilst doing a coral survey tough. Apart from the 2nd voluntary stint in the Galapagos all the projects we've taken part in have been worthwhile , mostly fun and interesting. They have also offered us an insight into that country that we probably would not have seen had we just been travelling. 

Depressingly this leaves us just about 10 weeks before we have return to the ‘real world’.  
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Andy Howell on

Ten weeks till home eh ? That means your going to miss the Royal Wedding, all the pageantry, all the drama, all the sycophancy, all the hypocrisy, all the bloody TV coverage – have you room for a third ???

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