Animal Rehabilitation in the “Gateway to the Jungle”

YanaCocha Rescue Centre in Puyo, Ecuador originally began as a botanical reserve for endemic plant species of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Noting the large natural space, Puyo citizens began to drop off tortoises that had gotten too large for their backyards, rodents whose mothers had been hit by cars, and any number of creatures to release within the reserve. In 2008, the owner, a botanist-turned-zookeeper, hired a veterinarian, recruited volunteers, and established YanaCocha, a rescue and rehabilitation facility for wild animals located at the edge of the Amazon rainforest. The Centre places a large focus on the release of animals, doing so whenever possible in a nearby protected area in the Amazon. For those that legally or logistically cannot be released, the employees work to provide the most natural conditions possible. I have spent the past week in YanaCocha acting as a volunteer and shadowing the employees, including biologists, animal experts, and veterinarians.

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I live in cabins with other volunteers, falling asleep to the tempestuous sounds of insects, and the occasional hoot from our neighbors in the spider monkey habitat. We work in the Centre, feeding the animals, building habitats, and cleaning cages in the animal clinic, from 8 am to 12 pm and 2:30 pm to 5 pm. Working alongside the employees and owners of the facility allows me to observe the YanaCocha community in their daily lives. During the break for lunch, I engage in conversation with the biologists and veterinarians about their reasons for working at YanaCocha, or their thoughts on various movements and global environmental issues, hoping to glean clues to their individual perspectives on if and how to act upon the current environmental crisis. Some are eager to discuss, and others seem indifferent.

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Invariably, the people at YanaCocha agree that humans have a significant negative impact on the planet. Many point to local or national issues they witness firsthand, such as the polluted rivers leading to the critically endangered status of pink river dolphins.

One employee particularly interested me. He works to improve the habitats at the center, building enrichments to better represent the way each species would exist outside the wire cage. His work is physically exhausting, but he does it well, and is compensated with three meals a day and a barely-livable salary. He hopes to be offered a job at an oil extraction plant being built nearby, deeper in the rainforest. Hearing this, the volunteer to my left asked “After living and working here, how can you accept work that can destroy all that’s around us?” I couldn’t help but think the same thing. The man laughed and said, “Tengo tres hijos en la Universidad. Que quieres que haga?” [I have three sons in the University. What do you want me to do?] He continues to describe how the oil wells are owned by a Chinese company, coming with new technology less detrimental to the rainforest, but his reasoning is obviously defined in his first sentence. When given the choice between doing good for the planet, and providing for one’s family, many will choose the latter. I am eager to begin formally interviewing these individuals next week, and further investigate factors that contribute to the variety of attitudes I observe.

Interactions such as these have characterized the past few days, as I explore environmental perspectives in the town known as the ‘Gateway to the Jungle.’ All acknowledge the fragile existence of our planet, and many are willing to adapt their lives in reaction to environmental issues, yet few seem to think their actions as an individual can have a real or visible impact. I think that perhaps that is what draws many to this work at YanaCocha. An ocelot with a broken leg, a depressed wild deer kept as a pet, a large rare rodent sold for meat – these are issues, caused by human-animal interactions, that the individual can solve. But climate change? Deforestation? Mass species extinction? The individual, perhaps especially in a place as isolated as this one, struggles to fathom having an impact in such expansive and multi-faceted issues facing our international community.

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