Wildtracks...The Return of the Kat!
Many moons ago, possibly twelve years ago, I first visited Wildtracks as a naïve, fresh-faced volunteer and got the chance to stay. For two years, Wildtracks became my place of work, Sarteneja my home, the cenote my bath, the jungle my playground, the volunteers my family, and Paul and Zoe my voice of reason!
I left and continued with my life, in a roundabout way. However, in November 2016 I had an epiphany and returned for a flying visit. I was welcomed back and ridiculed as if I had never left.
During my first stint at Wildtracks, volunteers at the farm would share time in Fireburn Reserve, mapping, doing wildlife transects, camera trap maintenance, clearing the Mayan ruin site and teaching at the village school. Others would work with the manatees (one manatee at a time mind!), 24 hour feeding and observation schedules, and caring for all manner of other wildlife that found its way to our door. University students and project groups would visit, gap year groups would set up camp, local volunteers and school classes would come and see what we were doing, life was never quiet!
Those were the days when evening drinks on the jetty were spent dreaming about building permanent manatee pools and reintroducing howler monkeys to Fireburn Reserve.
Guess what. Dreams can become reality. There are now zillions of howler monkeys in Fireburn! Successfully rehabilitated and howling away! Imagine my ears whilst stirring beans in field base (by solar powered light might I add) listening to the fellows chatting away up in the trees.
The ethos of Wildtracks has not and I don’t think ever will change. The volunteers and local workers still have a ‘can do’ attitude. An aura of ‘get on with it’ floats around like a friendly Duende. Paul and Zoe still survive on three hours of sleep, whether that’s because they are making a deadline or an impromptu "full-moon-rising-parties" just ‘happened’, work still gets done.
Wildtracks has experienced big change. Paul and Zoe now virtually live with the orphaned howlers and spiders ‘all the better to do night feeds’ and merely lean off a computer chair to attend to their wards. Volunteers walk around the place with various branches and twigs draped around them ‘this one is……try it, its Izzie’s favourite’. Whether the furry creatures are undergoing intensive rehabilitation, are in integration or experiencing life in the huge pre-release enclosures, every single volunteer has the single aim of eventual release in mind. The number of times in my first week I had to interrupt conversations to ask if people were talking about a person or monkey is slightly embarrassing. I think it’s a testament to the dedication of the monkey team and how closely observations are made that this happened and I did overhear other ‘newbies’ doing the same. Embarrassment gone.
The manatee pools are things dreams are made of! When I saw them I did have to do a ‘In my day’ speech. In my day ‘we had a kids paddling pool, to be emptied and filled twice a day from the lagoon by hand’. In my day ‘WE DUG THE LAGOON OUT BY HAND USING BUCKETS, I BLED’. Not convinced I was believed, as they had a digger last year. Lucky them. Seven manatees were being cared for during this visit, including one who admitted herself by arriving outside the lagoon enclosure one morning. The word about Wildtracks must be spreading.
This visit I did, I learnt, I realised and remembered: the sunrises and the sunsets, I can still catch a scorpion, you can still get cold and sunburnt in Belize, Fireburn still thrives and Lincoln suits a moustache, a tractor can be driven with three wheels, there is never too much rum or too much coffee, and that sleep can happen tomorrow.
The whole staff and volunteer team works as one, as it did ‘in the olden days’, now its just a much bigger team. Slicker, more professional, gaining expertise and recognition as the years roll on.
Paul and Zoe, still heading it, being proud, making others proud, encouraging, nurturing people and animals. Paul still cracking jokes over the dining table, still getting bitten. Zoe still being everyone’s big sister, welcoming, organising and putting up with her husband Paul.
It might have been ten years since my last visit but it won’t be ten years until I return.
Paul and Zoe and the Wildtracks team, thank you for everything.
Published by: Zoe Walker at 2017-02-22 21:09:07 [Link to this article]
How one Google search changed my life...
It's easier to continue with a life you might consider comfortable, than deal with the uncertainty of disruptions. I had drifted down this path that most would consider successful. But for me, I spent one too many mornings unhappy, dreading the day ahead. I literally felt like I was living the dream life of somebody else and I kept asking myself, "how did I get here?" I needed a change, but what?
Once I was ready to take the leap, that's where the Google search came to be. "Volunteering with Manatees". Why? It was the first thing I was ever passionate about - saving manatees from extinction.
Fast-forward 7 months, after quitting my job, leaving NYC and traveling for the first 3 months of my "freedom", I found myself at Wildtracks. I remember walking in to chaos at breakfast and not knowing what to expect. After a few days of getting acclimated, I was asked if I'd like to go meet Annie, a one year old howler monkey, in the nursery. I thought "What am I doing meeting a baby monkey? I came here for manatees...", but of course I kept this to myself. I can still remember the first time Annie climbed into my lap and purred. It was like nothing I've ever experienced in my life. And from that moment I knew, my life would never be the same....
I found out after that initial meeting, that I'd be in the Nursery Unit, caring for a mixed troop of two male spider monkeys and two female howler monkeys, as well as sharing the care of two adult howler monkey troops preparing for their release back into the wild. Letting go of what I imagined my life at Wildtracks would be with manatees was an adjustment, but I would not change a single thing about my time. After two months, I was getting close to when I would have to say goodbye, but then I asked to extend, not once, but twice. I left Wildtracks almost five months ago and I still think about the monkeys I cared for in the Nursery every day - Annie, Kam, Cas and Anerie (they have my heart). Every decision I make is, at least a little bit, impacted by those crazy little monkeys.
My time at Wildtracks was by far the most challenging, but incredibly rewarding experiences of my life and I know I will be back there again. I hope that in sharing my story there might be at least one person who I touch that will realize it is never too late to adjust your path and find happiness again. It is not easy, but it is worth it. Trust me!
Published by: Zoe Walker at 2017-01-03 07:26:03 [Link to this article]
A day in a life of caring for Hope
Before I started out as a volunteer at Wildtracks on the manatee team, I naively assumed that all manatees were much alike: gentle seagrass-munching giants. Two weeks later, I have to take back my initial presumption, as I am astonished by how diverse the characters of each of the 7 manatees in rehabilitation actually are. The youngest of the lot, Hope has quite a personality!
My first encounter and bonding opportunity with her was during one of her pool changes. She inquisitively investigated me and almost immediately started nibbling on the cord of my swim shorts. The mischievous little manatee calf even managed to regain hold of the cord after I thought that I had safely tucked it away… Currently her intensive care pool gets changed twice a day and during this time one of the caretakers spends exercise (read “quality”) time in her larger play pool with her. It is an absolute treat to see her twirl in the water and play with her tennis ball. At times she gets a thrill out of actively chasing the person in the pool with her, while at other times she enjoys hitching a ride. She was born early August, so she is still a little baby! As manatees stay with their mothers until the age of 2, the human foster parents at Wildtracks provide her with plenty of contact, providing important social support, making the pool interactive play dates a vital part of her foster care.
To keep the compact “little sausage” of over 70 pounds nice and plump, she requires feeding every 3 hours. Going to bed late, getting up in the middle of the night or getting up early are all a very small sacrifice to make once you sit down in the pool and bottle feed little Hope, eagerly awaiting her next milk bottle. She is a very easy-going manatee calf and takes to new people with ease. She even assists with the bottle feeding by climbing on her feeder’s knees. She is also a very smart cookie. For instance before each feed we measure the temperature but she never mistakes the thermometer for her milk bottle. Instead she would be staring impatiently at the edge of the pool where the milk bottle is placed.
After finishing her bottle, she falls into what we refer to as her “food coma”. Sometimes she likes to snuggle for nearly an hour, and I just cherish every moment of it. At the end of a feed we place a frame of seagrass at the bottom of the pool for her. This is not only a tasty dessert for her, it also prevents her from getting bored and encourages her to learn natural foraging behaviour, further preparing her for her release into the wild.
Hope really is a delight to work with and every day taking care of her puts a smile on my face. It feels like such a privilege to play a small part along the way of her rehabilitation process before she will eventually be able to roam in the wild on her own!
Published by: Zoe Walker at 2016-12-22 08:00:31 [Link to this article]
What kind of person are you - manatee or monkey?
If someone was to tell me five years ago that, at age 18, I would be spending three months in the Belize jungle rehabilitating spider monkeys, I would have simply laughed and maybe said a quick, ‘I wish’. Now that I am here- I could not imagine being anywhere else in the world. I have had a passion and love for the health and welfare of animals since a young age. I have always dreamt of one day being a part of a rehabilitation center. For the most part, I thought it was a pretty far-fetched idea to travel to a foreign country to work for one. I assumed I was to do what all recent high school graduates do - jump straight into college. But, thanks to Laura, a past volunteer who now lives and works in Sarteneja, I found Wildtracks. Wildtracks has been a home to me for almost three months and there has never been day when I have regretted my decision to join the volunteer team.
Coming to Wildtracks I kept an open mind but I really wanted to work specifically with the manatees. I started immediately working with them and loved every minute I was able to spend on the ‘Mana-team’. Alysha (Primate Programme Manager) kindly asked me one day if I would be willing to meet some of the monkeys to potentially work with them. I said yes, obviously (but really, who says no to Alysha?), and that day met Casanova and Kamal, two baby spider monkeys. I can honestly say I have never worked harder for anyone or anything’s attention than I did for Cas. Once he finally accepted me, it was one of the greatest days and fondest memories I have here. Turns out, I am totally a monkey person - specifically a spider monkey person. I now currently work with Ellie, the most recent young spider monkey brought into Wildtracks who, because of her young age requires intensive hands-on care, along with Cas and Kam. They each have such unique and incredible personalities. I am thankful I have had the opportunity to work with not only the manatees, but also the three most incredible spider monkeys.
Being part of the Wildtracks Team has taught me many things, both animal and non-animal related. I now have the skills to properly get monkey poop out of clothes with limited resources, take an excellent fecal sample, and make impeccable spider monkey noises. I can also sleep through anything - from dogs barking, to the roar of the howlers. Thank you, Wildtracks! Among these great life skills I have acquired, I have had the opportunity to learn about conservation. It is beyond fascinating to listen to Paul and Zoe and hear the stories of the work they have been and continue to do. I have absolutely loved that aspect of being at Wildtracks. The learning experiences you encounter here are endless.
The idea of leaving here, which one day will sadly come, is a hard thought to bear. I cannot imagine my mornings starting without a ‘gooooood morning’ from Paul followed by a huge monkey hug by my little crazy monkey Ellie. My time here has been well worth all of the monkey poop down my back and every trip up and down the stairs to the nursery.
Published by: Zoe Walker at 2016-11-11 15:09:05 [Link to this article]