Wildtracks: Conservation, Research and Education

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Falling in love at Wildtracks - a hazard of the job


I came to Wildtracks without any experience in either primate or manatee rehabilitation, and really didn't have any idea what I was going to be doing. I had traveled a fair bit in my young 25 years, and really enjoyed Belize in the past, so when I stumbled upon Wildtracks' website, it seemed like one more exciting adventure that I could cross off my list. I am a self-proclaimed independent woman who has never wanted to settle down and never felt a connection that has ever made me want to stay in one place. But, after Wildtracks, that all changed. Like all wonderful moments in life, it's the moments that we don't account for, or expect, that make an everlasting impact on our lives - I am no exception to that human law and, naturally, as all typical love stories begin, I didn't expect it.

I didn't plan on adopting the persona of a young mother, but I did, and did it without even realizing it. I spent many days feeling sick with worry over the scratches and missed milk feeds because a monkey was being bullied in her troop, or crying over the weight gains of the baby manatees as we helped them go from struggling to thriving. I didn't plan on spending time in a lagoon with a manatee learning to be wild and feeling like a proud mother when he left my side to explore, and frustrated and annoyed when he didn't do as expected. I didn't plan on stressing out about the cold and waking up multiple times in the night hoping that the person scheduled for fire duty had also woken up and put logs on the fire to keep little Khaleesi manatee warm. I didn't plan on loving these animals so much, that I'd carve a little place out for them in my heart, making them as important as any child of my own would be. All I had planned on was learning. I planned on finding direction in my own life through helping animals and I planned on meeting amazing people. But, like most things, I got more than I bargained for.

I particularly felt a connection with one of the manatees, Rameses. He was the first manatee I had ever met, touched, swam with and bottle fed. When I first met him and his whiskery face came bobbing out of the water with these beautifully kind eyes, I knew my heart didn't belong to just me anymore. I had reached out my hand to gently pat his rough, gray skin and I was utterly amazed. The swims with the manatees are to maintain digestive health, encouraging physical and mental activity, as well as to give these social young mammals company. As the manatee gets closer to being released, the swims are reduced to remove human contact so that the manatee will not identify humans as companions. Rameses was not scheduled for release yet, so volunteers still had occasional swims with him. After our initial meeting, I got into the water with him, and I honestly think that was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. At first he was a bit shy, but then I was too - I had never really seen a manatee before, much less climbed into a lagoon enclosure to swim with the 300+ lb mammal! He swam around and around me, barrel rolling and having a great time, but pretty much ignoring me, which was fine with me, because I think I just stood there like a moron with my mouth hanging open in sheer excitement of being this close to him. But, fear not, by the next swim, we were both excited to have one another in the water, and we swam laps, building up both his and my muscle tone, and having a great time; he would nudge my legs or bring his head out of the water to look at me, and sometimes I'd swim ahead of him and he'd come zooming up behind me until he ran into me. And it was during that swim that we went from strangers to friends.

After my second swim with Rameses I began bugging Julie, the manatee team leader, every day asking if I could be assigned to Rameses and be his primary caregiver. I had to wait an entire week, but finally she came up to me and said, "Liz, we have a date with Rameses!" and I'm sure I shrieked like a maniac before being reminded that we need to remain quite, the animals can hear us... From that moment on, I was a happily busy manatee carer!

Becoming Rameses caregiver meant that I excitedly woke up every morning at 5:30am to make his morning bottle, and we'd meet at the lagoon edge. I'd enjoy the sunrise as he noisily gulped his "banana milkshake”. At that stage, when I first started with him, he got 4 bottles a day, with regular swims, which meant I got to spend a lot of time with him (what a shame!). Unfortunately, there were some chores that I didn't so much care for, like sea grass harvesting. At that time, Rameses was eating two five-gallon buckets full of seagrass every day, which mean that I the spent 2+ hours every-other-day, struggling to harvest seagrass from the lagoon, bumping into razor sharp rocks or wading through knee deep mud in order to sustain him. I had been named The Sea Grassing Master, but I think that was a lie, because I don't know that I was very good at it and no one else wanted to do it... it definitely was not one of my favorite chores, but for Rameses, I'd have done it until my dying day!

Over the course of the next several weeks Rhamases became bigger and stronger and our interaction with him was reduced to minimal. His tracking tag arrived, which meant we would be able to let him into the lagoon, as part of his soft-release. I was thrilled to be there for this momentous occasion, and so happy that I got to be part of this step of his rehabilitation. Rameses would be released into the lagoon every morning after his morning bottle feed, and out for 10 hours a day, roaming about and eating and munching on grass, learning how to navigate and becoming a wilder manatee. Again, lucky me! I got to spend time each day monitoring him, providing the initial introduction to the seagrass beds, and watching him learn and become more excited and comfortable in his new world. It never ceased to amaze me how every night, as he came in for his feed, that he always seemed SO MUCH larger! The numerous hours of constant sea grass scrummaging enabled him to pile on weight, and become faster in his swimming, increasing in stamina day by day. He became and more confident and independent as he went further into soft release. It was amazing that in the 2 months that I got to spend with him how much of a change he underwent, and I am so excited to see what this world has in store for him.

While there is SO much more that has happened during my stay at Wildtracks, it was the every day rule and gruel of 5:30 AM wake ups, water shortages, dirty laundry, scorpions in your bed, scratches and cuts, thousands of bug bites and sunburns that would add up to not only change my perception of Wildtracks, but define my understanding of how much work and dedication goes into rehabbing these endangered species. Wildracks and its staff and volunteers play a major role in each and every one of these animal’s lives. Without their care, these animals would not have the chance to be returned to the wild as healthy, confident and thriving individuals. Being able to be a part of this amazing organization has been a true gift - I never would have thought I'd fall in love like I did with these animals, and because of that, I happily have left a bit of my heart behind in each animal that I had the ability to work with. Thank you so much, Wildtracks and staff, I hope to see you all again very soon!


Published by: Zoe Walker at 2015-06-06 09:26:43   [Link to this article]

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