The world is full of magical creatures, from tiny beetles, bees and butterflies to magnificent whales and soaring birds. I grew up enamoured with whales and dolphins, and was introduced to the wonder of birds when I went to University and met Lee. As the years have passed I have been entranced by all our wildlife. It was on my trip to the Peruvian jungle in 2006 that opened my eyes to a completely new world of magnificent, magical creatures. Here were insects, birds, mammals and reptiles the like of which I had never seen before. Such a multitude of colours, shapes, sizes and sounds. It was overwhelming to say the least.
It was an incredible couple of months and there are still plenty of stories to tell of the wildlife adventures we had, from searching for amphibians, monitoring wildlife from the observation platforms and mist netting for birds along the trails. There is however one activity that really made those months in the jungle extra special. One of the projects run by the team at the Taricaya Ecoreserve is the rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals taken from the jungle for the local pet trade. Most animals rescued were until then destined for zoos, but Taricaya offered a different solution. Rehabilitation and where possible release back into the wild.
As a volunteer at the reserve one of the daily activities was the care of the animals housed in enclosures around the Lodge. On our arrival there were numerous different parrots, from Blue and Yellow, Chestnut-fronted and Scarlet Macaws to Blue-headed, Mealy and Yellow-crowned Amazon Parrots. There were monkeys; white-fronted capuchins, brown capuchins, black spider monkeys and squirrel monkeys. There was a baby peccary affectionately known as Winston and a young tapir called Whinney. There was also a rather fearsome jaguar, who had been mistreated as a cub and now was aggressive and fearful of humans. And my absolute favourite, a beautiful ocelot.
The care of these creatures involved feeding them, cleaning and enriching their enclosures to provide as best quality of life as possible and to help rehabilitate them back to their physical health as well as to help recover their natural abilities for life back in the wild. The preparation of so much soft fruit has certainly left a life long impression. I still cannot eat papaya, the merest hint of its smell taking me back to the overripe fruit of the jungle.
Over the following couple of months new animals were brought to the reserve, from a tiny baby black spider monkey with huge wide eyes that would cling to your neck, to a lovely Tamadura anteater that delighted in rolling and digging around in the termite nests we found it.
The monkeys were always a source of amusement, mostly because they had a knack of escaping! It seemed a never ending task to round up the escapees, coaxing them back into the enclosures and then fixing holes! An adult black spider monkey named Antonia and a white-fronted capuchin named Billy were the main culprits, but they invariably took along one of the other smaller and shyer monkeys for the ride.
But as already mentioned, the ocelot stole my heart. A small to medium-sized, golden yellow cat with black spots and streaks, white neck and belly, she was a beautiful creature but her nature made her magical. She was playful, and would lunge at your feet and legs, playfully biting them. While she would rarely break the skin the volunteers always made sure they wore wellies when near her. She would purr loudly when eating her food. We would take her for walks along the nearby trails, to give her some exercise and get her used to the smells, sights and sounds of the jungle that would hopefully one day become her home. A chain lead, running through a metre length of plastic tubing, was attached to a collar and then we would lead her around. The plastic tubing was important given her tendency to playfully lunge and attack your feet. You also had to be prepared for her to jump and climb up a nearby tree, the lead suddenly going skywards. She would attempt to catch lizards, and occasionally would be successful although at the time she still was not totally sure what she should do with them and would invariably let them escape. I could spend hours watching her in her enclosure, climbing up and over the branches and logs, balancing carefully along their length. She was still gaining her balance and honing her skills, on more than one occasion she fell off and on one memorable occasion she kept a grip doing a complete 360 circle of the branch before gaining her balance again. She loved a cuddle. We would regularly replace the branches and logs in her enclosure. On one such occasion I sat waiting for more branches to be cut when the ocelot came over and sat between my legs, batting and biting them (though again not enough to break the skin) grabbing my legs and arms while allowing me to gently stroke her. By the time the team arrived with new branches she was happily chewing the ends of my salty, sweaty shirt. It was an incredible experience, one I was very humble to have had knowing this is in the end a wild animal that hopefully one day will be released back to fend for herself in the wild.
Ultimately that was the aim for all the animals. It had successfully been done before with a number of monkeys, and other animals. Sometimes such individuals would return to the Lodge surrounds as Lee and I found out one night when we encountered a lovely paca (a large rodent with white spots down its flank). She had been released in February that year and occasionally made return visits.
Although no animals were released while we were volunteering, I sincerely hope most of the animals we helped look after all those years ago, were eventually released, and those that could not be had a full, enriched life with the volunteers who perhaps found them as wonderful as I did.
They may not have been able to breathe fire, become invisible or be some kind of hybrid mix of different animals, but all these creatures were still wonderfully magical.