Sunday, June 19, 2016

Visiting the Animal Rescue Center at Lake Petén

18-19 June 2016

A friend sent me a link for a television program, the PBS show “Nature.”  This particular episode featured an animal rescue center and sanctuary in Guatemala.  Turned out that the center, ARCAS (in Spanish, Asociación de Rescate y Conservación de Vida Silvestre – or, in English, something like the Association of Wildlife Rescue and Conservation), is right here by Lake Petén! 

I checked with our hotel people, and they said just go to Flores and catch a boat across the lake, not a problem.  Here’s a map to show how where everything is located:
The red dot with the H is where our hotel is, in the town of Santa Elena.  The green bubble B is the island of Flores, in Lake Petén.  Pretty, quaint, and where most of the tourists stay when they come up north.  Isla Flores is connected to the mainland by a causeway, so people can walk or drive back and forth.  It’s a really short walk, less than a kilometer, less than half a mile.  And on the map, the purple circle with the A is ARCAS, the rescue center.

So I walked down our street, crossed most of the causeway, and just before arriving on the island of Flores I found a guy with a boat looking for customers.  We had a nice little conversation, all in Spanish, about how I wanted to go to ARCAS, he knew where it was, he asked if I wanted to go and come back, yes I did, he thought an hour would be enough time there, and we negotiated a price.  I clambered into the wooden boat, a friend of his came by and she said she’d go for the ride and keep him company, and we headed off across the small arm of the lake. 

We chatted a bit as we motored the couple of miles or km to ARCAS – where was I from, was I married, did I have children, how big is my family.  I’m able to explain that I was a teacher, I’m married but no children, my students are my children, we’re retired, we sold everything and we’re travelling, that I have brothers and a sister and some of them have children so I have nieces and nephews.  Sometimes I feel like I’m speaking textbook Spanish, these are the sorts of conversations one tends to practice in language class when in school.  But it made for conversation, I understood our captain’s questions and could put together answers, and it passed the time.
We arrived at the ARCAS dock, which really was just a couple of narrow boards that made the structure of the dock, not even the crossboards were there.  Mr. Capitan helped me off, since I explained my balance isn’t very good.  He pointed out the path up to the animal sanctuary, we agreed I’d be back in about an hour, and off I went, hiking up the hill and heading toward the animal sounds.

I first met the parrots, tons of rescued parrots, in a couple of huge cages.  I said hello and took a few photos, mostly being ignored by the birds.  Parrots are stolen from their nests as babies, and often never learn to live in the wild.  So these parrots will be in these giant cages for the rest of their lives.
Then I saw the monkeys, crazy spider monkeys, with extra long arms and legs and a long long tail, all helping them scurry along the cage walls or swing from the branches and ropes in their cage.  They came over to see me (or see if I had food, most likely), and continued to swing their way around their enclosure.  I tried taking photos but spider monkeys seem to be in perpetual motion, and most of the photos are a bit blurred.  Or totally blurred.  There was one little baby monkey who seemed to be the only little one in there.  And I have no idea how many monkeys were there, it was hard to keep track of counting with all of them moving around nonstop.

And oh, the ocelots!  First I saw the bigger ocelot, a young male, lying under a series of ramps in their large enclosure.  I talked to him, and he seemed to look at me, and then started limping around the enclosure.  Oh, poor baby, he was missing a front leg!!!  I guessed that maybe he got caught in a trap, so I talked to him and apologized on behalf of the human species for injuring him so badly.

As I was talking, I heard someone behind me calling, “Hola!  Hola!”  I turned around, and no one was there.  Just the cage of parrots.  Uh, so the parrots were saying hello now that I was no longer there?

I went back to chatting with Mr Ocelot, standing at the corner of his enclosure.  He went back and lay down in the shade.  And then suddenly a blur of spotted fur jumped down from over my head somewhere, landing on the part of the ramp right in front of my face!  I was totally startled, and it took a moment to realize that this was another ocelot, smaller, and in constant motion like the monkeys. 

At this point, a man showed up and introduced himself.  He spoke no English, so we ended up with Spanish.  He explained that this whole section of the sanctuary had the animals that, for one reason or another, couldn’t be retrained and set free.  Yes, Mr Ocelot lost his leg in a trap.  So he can’t climb trees, or run, or hunt.  He’ll be in the enclosure forever.  The other one was Ms Ocelot, and she was a pet for a long time, growing up with a family and being treated like a house cat.  She’s too used to people, has no fear of them, and so they don’t think she can be taught to fear humans enough to be reintroduced to the wild.

I asked if there was a chance that these two ocelots might have a baby.  (I really speak Spanish like a child, with rather limited vocabulary.)  He said the female had been there for seven months, no baby yet, but they hope they’ll get together and mate.  All they can do is hope this happens.

He let me in the gate so I could get closer, and take some photos through the fencing.  It was funny, I put the camera lens between the metal and the female came over and stood up, as if she wanted to be pet, or fed, or maybe lick my fingers.  I wasn’t sure how friendly she was, so I moved my hands.  My guide guy said that she’s pretty friendly, but you never know.  So no, I didn’t pet Ms Ocelot, I just talked to both of them.  (And we talked about their toys, old coconuts with feathers stuck in them!)

Mr Guide explained that there was a baby spider monkey who was born in the enclosure.  The adults won’t be able to be reintroduced to the wild, but they hope the baby will once he’s old enough to be taken from his mother.  We talked about how sad it is that people take wild animals and try to make them pets.  I mean, the ocelots are gorgeous and they look like they’d be very sweet.  But a male grows to about the size of a medium dog – and suddenly that cute little ocelot isn’t as cute or as sweet.  Those teeth and claws are designed for hunting and killing, and that ocelot isn’t going to be happy living in a house and not having room to run and climb.  How can someone think they can have that animal living in their house forever?  Especially if they have children too?

And the monkeys!  Monkeys are cute, but, well, I told Mr Guide that monkeys just aren’t clean – which made him laugh.  Seriously, though, walking by the monkey cage you can smell how, well, unclean monkeys are about their personal hygiene and sanitary habits.  Neither one of us could imagine having a monkey in the house.

We walked by a pool, and I asked if these were crocodiles.  Turns out that there were two caimans, which can’t be released because they don’t have caimans in Guatemala.  These were smuggled in from further south.  So rather than introducing a foreign species into this environment, the caimans will just live in the pool.  (Again, who wants to have a four foot caiman or alligator or crocodile as a pet????  How unsafe is that???)

As we walked over to the large bird enclosures, more and more parrots started calling, “Hola!  Hola!”  I’d reply with “hola!” and they’d respond, and we’d go back and forth for a while.  There were several beautiful scarlet macaws; the center has a program where they breed scarlet macaws and release them into the wild because the population in Guatemala is dwindling.  There were also several green macaws, and a single blue macaw.  But these can’t be released, because again these would be foreign species.  Neither the blue nor green macaws are native to Guatemala.  So these victims of the illicit exotic animal trade are rescued, only to live the rest of their lives in large enclosures.  More space than in a small cage in someone’s house, but still an enclosure rather than living in the jungle, where they truly belong.

Many of the birds had areas of feathers that were either missing or fuzzy as if the birds were moulting.  I asked if they were moulting (“changing the feathers” in my Spanish), and Mr Guide said no, the birds get very stressed and over preen, pulling out their feathers.  Some are stolen as babies, others live with families that don’t really know how to take care of them, and of course others have their tails or wings clipped so they can no longer fly normal distances.  Again, these birds can’t be released and freed – they just aren’t able to fly away from predators, or find their own food, or avoid humans again.  Especially since they now call “Hola!  Hola!” to any people they see.

I also spoke with a young woman from Germany who is a volunteer here, working at ARCAS.  She was on her way to chop up fruit for the birds’ lunch, and they were all excited to see her.  But she held off for a bit to talk to me about her three weeks of volunteer work.  She spoke English, and explained that all the animals up in the front area were the ones that will never return to the jungle because either they’re foreign species, injured to the point of being unable to fend for themselves, or too acclimated to humans and thus in danger of being re-caught or killed easily.  In the back, they have a separate area for animals that are being cared for but allowed to live in a more natural environment, in the hopes that they will re-adapt to living in the jungle once again.  This is where the baby monkey will go, with the other spider monkeys who will eventually be released.  This is also where the scarlet macaws are bred.  She said that the program tries to minimize human contact for these animals – they’re fed, and occasionally observed, but the volunteers and staff don’t talk to them, or pet them, or interact with the animals other than providing food and water, and cleaning the cages if needed.  (I can see why visitors aren’t allowed back there.  My natural inclination is to talk to the animals, tell the cats how beautiful they are, or the monkeys how funny they are, and to generally apologize on behalf of the human species for interfering with their lives.  Yeah, don’t want to do that with animals in the wild.  Although, well, I do that too.)

So while it was really interesting to see these animals up close, and talk to (or with) them, well, it also is really sad.  More so because these animals are destined to live in cages because they can no longer live in the wild, all due to people wanting either to make money at the animals’ expense, or because someone wants an “exotic” pet.

Me, I’ll stick with cats or dogs, thank you.

My hour was up, and I had my friendly Mr Guide point out the path back to the “dock.”  I told him in Spanish that I’m always a little lost, and he laughed.  Though it is true! 

For more info, the ARCAS Petén website is:

El Capitan of the boat was waiting for me, and we headed back to his mooring spot along the causeway.  The sky was dark up ahead and the wind was kicking up waves, and we could see that a storm was headed our way.  We made it back to the rocks, and he went to give me change for my big bills.  (Most of the Guatemalan money is in bills, with only small change in coins.)  Well, the wind blew a bill or two out of his hands and into the lake, so all we could do is laugh.  The bills are plastic, the bill was floating away, and he apologized that he had to short me ten quetzales (about $1.25 US).  Yeah, I didn’t really care, what could we do.  I headed off for lunch, he headed back to the boat to pick up his runaway money.

There’s a restaurant on Isla Flores, right overlooking the lake, called Raise’s.  They have frozen hibiscus tea, which has some lime and sugar and is absolutely wonderfully refreshing after a hot walk through the jungle.  It also is the most amazing ruby red drink, topped with the icy pink frozen part.  So delicious!  They also have wonderful tacos – not the crunchy had corn tortillas of the US, but sweet white maize soft tortillas, filled with grilled chicken and peppers (or pork, sausage, or steak if you prefer).  Served with fresh pico de gallo, it’s an inexpensive and fast lunch (with about two servings of veg wrapped up in those tacos).  We’ve eaten here before, so when the staff saw me by myself they came over to see what happened to “mi sposo.”  I explained he was at the hotel, and that I visited ARCAS, which everyone seemed to know.  I said that I like animals and archaeology, but my husband likes cities more.  They laughed and understood.

Oh, I also found some concrete statues of the Mayan jaguar sculpture along the road.  Absolutely had to take their photos, they probably are the only jaguars I’ll see while in Guatemala.  (There’s also a zoo near ARCAS, where they have some rescued jaguars who can’t be returned to the wild.  I thought that might be even more depressing, so I skipped that and just visited the rescue center itself.)

And I'm adding a few photos of the lake on a sunny day, because it really is a beautiful place.

It’s Sunday now – the wifi went out last night and I couldn’t finish this blog.  We’re now back in Antigua after an early morning flight, back at our favorite Hotel Monasterio, where the staff greeted us like family.  We had arranged with our friendly taxi driver to pick us up at the airport, but he’s in a run today so sent his son.  Our taxi friend’s name is Santos.  Guess what his son is named?  Angelo!  I love it!  (Makes me wonder what Angelo’s son is named, though.)

Happy Father’s Day to all!

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