Wildtracks: Conservation, Research and Education

Wildtracks blog

Bonding at Wildtracks from the perspective of Mike, our diamond in the rough


First off let me start by saying I am in my 10th year of travelling the World. I’m from the UK but I have spent only 3 of those at home gathering cash to escape and travel again. I have seen some incredible things across our planet and also been in situations which Hollywood could not even dream up! So this year I decided to mix it up a little and instead of taking, actually giving something back…. and even more so by giving back to my favourite animals in the world....Monkeys.

On arrival at Wildtracks the first thing that hit me was the tired looking faces of the volunteers and the "thank god you are finally here" comments! (as usual, I was fashionably late). There were only 7 volunteers at that time and for the first few weeks there was a lot to do, with the constant care of all the animals (a comfortable crew size for the level of work is 12 to 14). I had breakfast on arrival and was out picking seagrass for the manatees within the hour! I felt guilty for being a few days late, so no resting about! Those first few weeks were long, long days but totally enjoyable, getting to know the ropes and the other people staying there. Travelling has made me accustomed to meeting different folks from all over the globe, varied upbringings and life stories but I have never been stuck in a house with them day in day out for 3 months! Luckily nearly all that came through in my 3 months at Wildtracks were decent, good people, and there for the same reasons as I was. You are not going to be best friends with everyone of course, especially with my moods at 6AM in the morning. And you will also have people you click with more. But in my time at Wildtracks, there were a lot of hard working, good spirited people who came through, who’s love for the animals was clear to see. But onto the reason I came...the primates.
I could write a 400 page blog on all the monkeys I built relationships with over the 3 months, but I am going to stick with Nikki, My Little Nightmare, the white faced diva...sorry, capuchin who I’m sure you have read about before on this blog. I also want to talk about the teens - Elliot, Sam, Peanut, Pebbles and Polly.

Where do you even start with Nikki? She is a sanctuary animal and won’t be released as we don’t actually know where she is from – capuchins are not native to Belize (or may have been many, many years ago, but no longer). This means she is a lot more hands-on (and she herself is very 'teeth-on') than the other animals – we are encouraged to be her enrichment, taking time to interact with her. My approach with Nikki was to talk to her as I would a friend. No baby 'coochy-coo's' - just chat to her about anything… but a lot of it. She is still a baby, and therefore she loves to play, unfortunately her playing includes biting, and she doesn’t know her own strength. Her ear bites are legendary - I embraced it - I love the challenge!

Eventually I could get Nikki to respond to a series of claps. If I didn’t clap and ignored her when she was getting feisty, I didn’t want to play. If I double clapped anywhere, her little old lady face would pop over the edge of her hammock and she would come out to play, starting by jumping on my head. If she went into the double door and refused to come back into her pen, I would lock her in with me - she knew she was in trouble and she would immediately calm down. Then I could walk back into her cage with her on my shoulder, calm. Nikki is such a great character, but stubborn, and it took a while for me to get her to respond. But the feeling of understanding when it happened was second to none. I always wanted to have some kind of actual relationship with a primate, not just through a cage. Here, I was getting that, even if sometimes it ended in bruised, bitten ankles! I loved just jumping into that cage on my time off and playing with Nikki, and the biting basically stopped, unless there were new female volunteers around, in which case she seemed to get extremely jealous and take it out on me! Story of my life with females I’m afraid! Then she would be all cute with whoever was new, and look me dead in the eyes. Twisted capuchin logic. But no matter what, I absolutely adore Nikki. Her 'welcome home!' after my days off where better than my 'welcome homes' in the UK. I think the highlight of caring for Nikki was something I didn’t actually see myself, but the story of her surfing along the dirt holding tight onto an iguana tail as it ran through her cage! That’s Nikki in a nutshell. Knowing she could get bitten but willing to be a bit cheeky for a bit of fun…and knowing her roadrunner speed will get her out of there. I miss that kid!

One of the most captivating areas for me was the Forest area, housing the “Teens”…a group of adolescent howler monkeys, and the five spider monkeys. There was something about the Forest in the rain of November that was magical, steam rising from the floor to the tree tops and the Teens cage especially just had something special about it - I loved going out there. Luckily for me the volunteer manager, Matt, was due to have a month off, so needed someone trained up to feed the Teens, which I was delighted to be his replacement, and hoped Nikki would understand me spreading the love!
My first few times looking after these guys I had no idea how I would tell who was who. Little balls of black fur. Only by their genitals could I tell the difference! Now after leaving WIldtracks I don’t know how I could ever think they all looked the same. Each had their own little personality. Each face completely different. Learning their moods and the dynamics within the group was fascinating. Watching which food and leaves they preferred (and that I had heroically collected). I could sit there all day and watch these guys. Enrichment is still encouraged at this stage of their rehabilitation so I was luckily allowed to go in at times outside of feed times to rearrange their cage, putting some vine up for them to swing about on. I would also become their favourite enrichment toy when I was in there – like Nikki, when these guys play it can be draining, but I loved every minute of it. Trying to clean their cage at feed time when they seem to have unanimously agreed that any rake is an intrusion in their home and must be removed pronto. Raking with 5 monkeys attached to the rake and rake handle, your arms and shoulders, in 90 degree heat can make you pretty tired, but is there any better feeling? Pebbles especially can get the distance of a gold model Olympic long jumper, one minute she’s in the corner of the cage, seconds later she is attached to your body! I will be honest here and say there where days towards the end when I was pretty drained and thought It was maybe time to leave… then would come the last feed with the Teens, and Polly is wrapped around you like an infant child, looking at you with those wide eyes and Pebbles is purring into your ear as you feed them their milk, and suddenly everything is ok in the world again. I remember one day especially, heavy rain, smoke from a fire coming though the tree, and all the Howlers around WIldtracks howling away…. and all the teens trying to howl. I was alone in the cage. And felt like one of them (I didnt howl though) It was like the greatest concert I ever attended. These monkeys will be moved to a pre-release enclosure soon and will have their own trees to swing on in a mini forest area for themselves. It only occurred to me when I left that I would probably never get to see these rascals again. And how lucky I was that I was there at that stage where I could still interact on such a level with them. But its time for them to start growing up. Elliot and Sam will make sure they are fine.

All in All Wildtracks was a fantastic experience. An inspirational place. A lifelong dream was fulfilled. Relationships with Primates (and humans) were built. And on leaving I feel that I had a great relationship with all the monkeys I came into contact with at WIldtracks on a daily basis.

One more thing I have learnt from travelling is with any beautiful experience, too much of a good thing, you naturally get bored. You need the moments of clarity to realise what you are doing and what the goal is. I might have talked about interacting with these animals a lot here but it is all about them getting to where they need to be, disease free, well fed, fit and healthy and in a good strong troupe to face the big wide world. I never once called them 'my' monkeys. I don’t expect them to remember me If we meet again. I just hope I played a small part in taking them part of the way along their journey from where they were at the beginning of their lives to where they will one day be, free in the forest.


Published by: Zoe Walker at 2014-04-27 11:48:05   [Link to this article]

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