Wildtracks: Conservation, Research and Education

Wildtracks blog

Making a difference - contributed by Tawni Riepe


As my month of volunteering at Wildtracks comes to an end I cannot help but think about when I will be back here again. From the animals at Wildtracks, the wildlife, people, culture, volunteers and Paul and Zoe, I could not have asked for a better place to expand my knowledge about not only animals, but about different cultures too.

Before coming to Wildtracks, I graduated in 2013 with a Bachelor's of Science in Biology and minoring in Neuroscience with a concentration on ecology and organismal. During school I worked in a parasitology laboratory and volunteered for the Department of Natural Resources working with Sturgeon (a North American temperate water fish). After college I did an internship at a wildlife rescue in Virginia, USA followed by an apprenticeship at a wildlife rescue in Texas, USA. At all of my experiences I have gained a lot of knowledge in a variety of animals but never had the chance to work with marine animals. Coming to Wildtracks my expectations were average, I assumed I would learn the basic husbandry, including feeding, cleaning and exercise for the manatees and primates, but little did I know I was going to receive so much more.

When I first arrived, everyone was in the main house getting ready for dinner and were very welcoming, even after a long days work. On the first full work day I started by swimming with the manatees - Rhamases, Khaleesi, Mitch, and Lucky - to help them get exercise and to stand in as a mother manatee. In the wild the calf would be swimming next to it's mother while they are still nursing, the first two years of it's life! My first swim was with Khaleesi who is a year and a half and is such a beautiful manatee. Our first connection was made when we were swimming together that afternoon, after a few shy moments of her not wanting to follow me around her large pool, she came up to me, brushed her tail across my back and swam to the front of me where she looked looked deep into my eyes and from then on she knew I could be trusted.

Khaleesi came in as an orphaned manatee who could not keep up with her mother and was found swimming around in circles alone. Wildtracks, along with the rescue team, tried for several hours to reunite Khaleesi with her mother but she could not keep up and ended up hurting her flipper on some rocks. At that point Khaleesi became part of Wildtracks where she will be cared for until she is ready for release back into the wild. I now bottle feed Khaleesi four times a day, swim with her, help her every day to grow strong, gain confidence and to reach the goal of being returned back into the wild where she belongs.

Along with the caring for Khaleesi, I also take care of four of the primates who are here at Wildtracks. Two Yucatan Black Howler monkeys, Jazz and Little Pea, who came to Wildtracks for rescue and rehabilitation. Jazz is one of the most handsome monkeys I have ever seen with such a sensitive temperament. My first feed with Jazz he was wary of me and would not come down to interact with me for about a week. Watching Little Pea and I interact he slowly gained trust in me. Now Jazz and Little Pea will greet me at every feed, before going off to play with each other. Every time I work with them I can see the happiness in their eyes, and the compassion they need from me and the Wildtracks team.

Jazz came into Wildtracks in February 2012 as an orphaned 5 1/2 month old monkey. The Belize Forestry Department received a report that someone was walking along the streets trying to sell a baby howler monkey. After his confiscation, he came to Wildtracks a very depressed and unhealthy monkey who needed a lot of attention and care from the dedicated staff and volunteer members. As soon as possible, he was integrated with Little Pea. Little Pea arrived to Wildtracks December 7, 2011 as a few month old howler monkey, with a severe head injury. Not a victim of the pet trade, she had been hit by car. Little Pea suffered neurological damage to her head which included eye rolling, a slight head angle and poor coordination. At about 3 1/2 years old now, she interacts with Jazz, runs all over their enclosure and is a very happy monkey looking forward to her release with Jazz.

Along with Jazz and Little Pea, I also care for two of our sanctuary animals -Nikki and Rafiki. Nikki, our White-faced Capuchin came to Wildtracks like most of the primates do - through the illegal pet trade. She is about 2 1/2 years old and has a huge personality. The first time I went in to her enclosure she immediately came over to me and let me groom her. As a sanctuary animal, Nikki can never go back to the wild where she belongs, and therefore is allowed more human contact than the other primates at Wildtracks. Despite the high amount of human contact, Nikki is still a wild animal and I never let my guard down around her, as she can bite at any moment! Unfortunately for Nikki she cannot be released back into the wild as White-faced Capuchins are not native to Belize, and we do not know which country she came from - so she is a permanent resident here at Wildtracks. Nikki is in a central enclosure where she can see what everyone is doing and unlike the rehab monkeys, can be interacted with throughout the day. She lives next to another monkey also a permanent resident at Wildtracks - Rafiki, a Geoffrey's Spider Monkey. Rafiki, now 4 years old, came to Wildtracks as an ex-pet with a severely twisted spine both laterally and dorsally, and is therefore unable to be released back into the wild. Like many illegal primate pets, Rafiki was kept in a confined space on an inappropriate diet in his early life. Now with the opportunities to climb and swing freely he is a happy monkey here at Wildtracks. These two monkeys get to interact with volunteers and staff much more, as monkeys are very social animals and need social interaction. However, it is important to keep in mind that monkeys are not domestic animals and don't make suitable pets in a regular home. Wildtracks is focused on supporting the Belize government in their efforts to address the illegal pet trade, with the hope of ending it, through national awareness campaigns.

After meeting and interacting with these animals at Wildtracks, I soon came to see I was here for more than just the general husbandry of the animals, I was here to help make a difference in these animals lives. Wildlife rescues I have previously worked at have done wonderful jobs at rescue and release, but here at Wildtracks I have realized there is one crucial step missing, the ability to help an animal find their self confidence. The most important work done at Wildtracks with the primates and the manatees is to help them gain confidence in themselves and their skills, which is extremely important in their release because they then know that they do not need the help from volunteers or staff. Being able to help animals find their self confidence has been such an eye opener, you connect with these animals in so many ways to the point where they teach you everything. How intelligent they are, how to provide them with a voice to speak out to the public about conservation and the illegal pet trade, and how to have an open heart for these animals who cannot speak.

Wildtracks has been an 'out of this world' experience, run by people who have the biggest hearts for these animals I have ever seen, surrounded by a culture who love and support this organization, and not to mention all of the wildlife I constantly see! I have always wanted to find a place that makes me gain knowledge, have fun, help conservation, and learn more about another culture; Wildtracks is the place for this and I will be back again!


Published by: Zoe Walker at 2015-02-27 14:25:00   [Link to this article]

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