I felt compelled to give back on this trip, to volunteer my time somehow because I currently have so much of it. Initially I had this broad, overarching goal but I didn’t know specifically what I wanted to do. Going into some kind of “program” makes me nervous as Dan and I had a bad experience during our first 2-3 weeks in Nepal. We were first placed in this tiny village with absolutely nothing to do because the kids were all on holiday break. Until we were transferred to Pokhara, we felt like we were wasting time and money. It was such a horrible feeling to think we’d taken out loans and left our lives to sit around and do nothing for anyone. From this experience my fears stem primarily from the actual work – Will there be enough to do? Will I enjoy it? Will I feel like I’m actually making a difference? Secondarily from the organization – Will I like the staff? Will they give me clear directions and training? Will I think the organization is legit? And third, from the fact that I hadn’t had a routine or HAD to do anything for about 5 months, so of course this was concerning.
After not too much deliberation and reading Nomadic Matt‘s page on Ecuador, I thought volunteering with animals would be perfect for Dan and I. We are both introverts, connect easily with animals, and care a lot about wild animal’s well-being (not living in captivity, not being exploited for human gain, etc.) I contacted a few different animal rescue centers in Puyo and Tena in the Amazon and decided that Paseo de los Monos in Puyo would be best for us because of their flexibility with our schedule. They were very accommodating to the exact dates we wanted, which was 1 week total. Although I was still nervous with how everything was going to turn out (because of reasons above), we committed and headed there straight after our tour in the Amazon.
The path walking into Los Monos.
The way the animals live and are treated at Paseo de los Monos really impressed me. All of the animals that live there were either rescued from the black market or poachers, seized from being illegal pets, were harmed in the jungle (for example: a sloth who had been hit by a car showed up one night while we were there and they are currently still rehabilitating her), or whose parents were killed while they were too young to survive on their own. All of their living areas are very spacious and the majority of them are not caged in which is wonderful. Many of the monkeys are able to climb high up into trees and live a semi-wild life. The monkeys who are caged in have tunnels that run through the park so they can still explore and not feel cooped up.
This is one of the parks for the Wooly monkeys. As you can see, no fence around the top!
There are even Squirrel Monkeys and a Coati named Nana who live completely free, and have the liberty of running around the park and showing off to the tourists that visit. Additionally Los Monos is able to accommodate to many different animals successfully – Monkeys (Wooly, Spider, Squirrel, Tamarind, White and Black Capuchins), Margay, Turtles, Parrots, Coati, Kinkajou and Pechari.
Kinky the Kinkajou. Kinky currently lives inside a terrace in the house. He is let out every night to run around and terrorize Dan and I. He is really cute but growing into an aggressive male. He will hopefully be freed into the wild!
Misha was clearly our favorite. She is a Margay who came to Los Monos as a kitten after poachers killed her mom.
Did you know that parrots are the most commonly trafficked animal and illegal pet?
Six Pechari live at Los Monos and all came from a zoo in the area. They were all living in cement blocks and were rarely fed. Now, they live in a muddy paradise.
One of the Woolys sunning themselves. This is cute but these monkeys are NEVER on the ground in the wild. They spend their entire lives in the tree tops. Only when they are kept as pets or in cages do they really learn to walk.
Nana the Coati who lives in total freedom at Los Monos.
Lola, the spider monkey, was also one of my very favorites. She was very sweet, always reaching out to us as we’d approach her cage. She also has a little baby named Anita that she totes around with her.
Our main job as volunteers was to help with the twice a day feedings for all of the animals, which included food preparation and distribution. This could take quite a few hours because the food is very carefully assembled for each specific animal. Everything is chosen with care (the animals eat different fruits, vegetables, and sometimes protein each day), disinfected, cut properly, and distributed in clean bowls after every meal. We were also responsible for giving the animals fresh water (always bottled), cleaning and disinfecting cages, and other odd jobs that needed to be done. The work wasn’t the most glamorous but we really didn’t mind it because it gave us a chance to interact with and observe all of the animals.
Dan working with Irene to build plant protectors.
As you can see, this organization is completely legitimate and they are doing very important work of trying to reverse the tragedies that humans continuously put on wild animals. After our tour in the Amazon and everything we learned there, I was even more grateful that animal rescue centers like this exist, but on the flip side, it’s actually really sad that they have to. I was a little worried it was going to be like a zoo but it is exactly the opposite (even though tourists are allowed to visit) and I completely support what they are doing.
So, were my previous fears and concerns of volunteering realized? Did we enjoy our time there and feel useful?
Unfortunately my response is complicated and contradictory. Yes and no.
The organization proved to be completely respectable and I whole heartedly believe that the animals have a good life there (as I already explained above). The staff is also very dedicated to their work and each person has the animal’s best interests at heart. Dan and I also thoroughly enjoyed spending time being in the company of so many different animals. My favorite memory is of our nightly walks after all our work was completed. We’d slowly walk through the grounds saying hi to and observing each animal. The best part is that we’d always be followed by Nana the Coati, Pancho, along with the spider monkeys, and Roberto the squirrel monkey through his tunnels. It was hilarious to feel like we had all these animal friends and made it worth all of the hard work at the end of the day.
Roberto is in the tunnel on the left and Pancho sitting in the tunnel on the right.
The downside of our experience is best described in 5 words: I sat in monkey poop. And I don’t mean outside. I mean inside where the staff and volunteers live, at our kitchen table. It was the very first day we had arrived and I was feeling exhausted from a motion sickness filled bus ride from Coca. Imagine walking into a place for the first time, not knowing anyone yet, not knowing what to expect, sitting in a chair in a place you’d think is “safe”, and placing your behind directly in monkey caca. I didn’t realize that little Mancho, the tamarind monkey, (who I adore by the way) was allowed to relieve himself wherever he wanted in the house when he’s not in his cage. At the time this really didn’t bother me and I laughed it off, figuring it would be an occupational hazard.
The adorable culprit. Like Kinky, Mancho lives in a terrace in the house. He was attacked upon arrival by the squirrel monkeys who managed to mangle his leg. Sadly, Mancho probably won’t ever live in the wild.
That night after Dan and I went to bed, I heard strong flapping sounds. A wing hit my head! I figured it was a huge moth until it came rearing back towards me again. I flipped on the light and saw before me a bat. Freaked out, I ran to get one of the staff to remove it from our room. The second night, I heard the ominous flapping sounds again and was smacked in the head a second time by another bat. The third night, Dan was the victim to these nightly intruders. We figured out they were entering through a small gap in the window and Dan was able to pull it shut with a clothes hanger.
I won’t go into much more detail because of my large amount of respect for Los Monos but I think Dan and I have higher standards for cleanliness and living situations. We did not feel at ease inside the house and were scared going to bed every night. I felt very bad because it was effecting our ability to enjoy the experience fully. After trying to keep as open of minds as possible the first two days, we decided after the third bat attack that we would be leaving 2 days early. It was the best choice anyways because our next bus journey to Guayaquil would be very long (8 hours) and given my motion sickness, it would be best for me to break up the trip. The staff was very understanding especially as we planned it out so we’d only miss one full day of volunteer work.
Leaving early was an especially tough decision for me to make. This was something I really wanted to do and I had already made the commitment to see it through. I also loved every other aspect of Los Monos. At first, I really didn’t know what to do. Then, I heard the story of Pancho (one of my favorites, a spider monkey) and how he came to Los Monos.
Pancho was kept illegally as a pet in a small pueblo near Puyo. His owners kept him in a very small cage even when he grew very large limiting his ability to climb, to walk, to grow even. One day, his owners decided for some reason to let him out of his cage. Not used to his surroundings, Pancho put his hand into a large pot of boiling water, burning all of the skin off of his hand. After that, anytime Pancho would reach for something, his owners would smack his hands and arms with a wooden stick.
Pancho is somewhat aggressive but who wouldn’t be after that experience?
This story and many others, that are just as disgusting, made me feel sick. I see these animals who came from terrible upbringings, from environments that were not natural to them. Now, they are happy and live great lives thanks to Los Monos. But definitely not as great as their lives would have been if they were free, swinging through the trees, gathering their own food, and not getting stared at by humans everyday. They unfortunately did not have a choice. Their fate was decided for them by selfish humans that decided to capture, sell, or hunt them.
Pancho made me realize that my fate and destiny is decided by me. I am so fortunate to have complete freedom to come, to go, to change a situation if it’s not what’s best for me, unlike the poor rescue animals. I wouldn’t be hurting anyone by leaving Los Monos early but only negatively effecting myself (and Dan) by staying. I knew right then it was best for us to go.
If a situation is mostly good but there is something missing, we are able to justify why we should stay or continue even if it’s not right for us. Even if we aren’t happy. Because we think we should be happy for the opportunity or because it’s something we originally wanted, like me wanting to volunteer with animals. But, we change and things change, and sometimes situations don’t turn out like we build up in our own minds. So while it may be difficult to do so, walking away is sometimes the best option if it isn’t painting your spirit gold.