A Week in My Life Volunteering at YanaCocha Wildlife Reserve in Ecuador (with Pictures)

Kai McKinnon
45 min readMay 12, 2019

Day 1: Monkeys!

I’m awake in my cabin in the Amazon rainforest at 6:00am. The relentless downpour on our tin roof on top of the high humidity and excitement of being here has me up before dawn. So much happened yesterday that I know if I don’t write it down now I’ll forget. This article is a journal of sorts documenting some of what I did, saw, ate, and learned while living in a jungle wildlife refuge for a week.

Me in Baños, the closest city to Puyo

I stayed for a night with a lovely, lively big host family in Quito, Ecuador’s capital. The next morning, me and another volunteer, Jannik — a guy from Munich who’d been studying Spanish in Peru for 4 weeks before now — pile into a compact taxi with three other people to make the five hour drive down through the Andes Mountains to Puyo, a town nestled in the edge of the Amazon rainforest. It rains almost the entire drive. Spanish music playing over the radio cuts in and out as the mountains block the signal. Small rivers race across the road traveling down through the hillsides. Some flow in brown strips cutting across the road, evidence of recent mudslides that wiped out all the vegetation in their path.

Wikipedia says Puyo is a town of 30,000, but by the look of it that’s only if you count the various odd homes — mostly brightly-colored painted cinderblocks with corrugated metal roofs — peppered in small groups along the roadside as we drive the last stretch towards its center. Clotheslines and rusted out satellite dishes complete their facades.

Grecia, one of the awesome vets

“Downtown” is a mix of winding streets of two and three story buildings with knock-off electronics beneath posters for massages in the windows. There are tons of taxis and children playing with stray dogs — always more dogs — between street carts selling produce or meat and plantains on a stick at every corner. We pass all that by a few kilometers to where our taxi drops Jannik and me off at the gate to the Wildlife Refuge. It’s a half-dozen small houses, each no bigger than a single big room, surrounding a corrugated metal-roofed common area with chairs, tables, a modest kitchen, and a handful of other volunteers shuffling between tasks. Well-kept mud-gravel paths cut through exotic plants and trees. Parrots, parakeets, and other colorful birds I don’t recognize line the walkway greeting newcomers. Jannik and I shake hands with Raúl and Marc, two veterinarians, in the common room. Both speak much better English than I speak Spanish, but we still struggle to communicate. It’ll take a few days for us to settle into a comfortable spanglish.

The common area

Marc takes our names and then exclaims “Monkeys?”. Jannik and I are game, though we of course have absolutely no idea what for. “You need boots,” Marc says. Jannik pulls out a pair of knee-high rubber boots from his suitcase. I’m already wearing comfortable waterproof boots that go up to my ankles. “Nooo,” Marc says. “You get wet,” he laughs. He takes us around back one of the cabins to a line of boots for unprepared volunteers like me.

“Size?” he asks. I know enough to figure he’s asking for my European shoe size, but I have no idea what my European size is (Do you?). “Big,” I reply. The three of us search the rack for the biggest pair, size 45. These fit me, but it’s snug. Good enough. I have monkeys to see.

Next stop: the cutting room. We disinfect our boots with a brief splash into a hollowed-out fuel jug that’s re-filled every morning with diluted chlorine water. Inside the cutting room, a couple volunteers are busy preparing food for various animals. Marc grabs five buckets labelled Arañas, Chorongos, Capuchinos, Chichico Island, and Chichico Cage, and tosses us a mildewed pamphlet with instructions on how much and what kinds of food should go in each bucket.

What to feed which groups of animals when (morning/afternoon)

We dice, mince, and cut strawberries, watermelon, pineapple, mini bananas (lots of bananas), oranges, cauliflower, broccoli, sweet cucumber, and papaya and meticulously load them into the buckets. I’d wondered, before this trip, just how messy things would get. Very messy, it turns out. Putrid, messy. More flies than you can count, messy. Smells to put port-o-potties to shame, messy. Rotten, decaying, moldy, insect-infested, bare-handed messy. Picking out the fuzzy-white food with your bare hands is intro-level reservation work. The flies never stop. The smell is indescribable. I pass what I thought were my limits within an hour of being at YanaCocha. Anything with too much mold goes into the compost bucket. If the fruit melts in your hand but isn’t moldy then throw it in the bucket for the turtles. The other animals will get sick if they eat overripe food, so it’s imperative to wash things off and make sure the animals only get the good stuff. When the bucket is ready, it’s off to the weighing station — an old scale with the buttons rubbed off accessible through the window of the clinic. My bucket for chorongos (if you don’t yet know what a chorongo is then join the club) is 120 grams overweight. Marc picks out a few mini bananas and tosses them into his bucket for arañas. “Close enough,” he tells me. I quickly learn that’s the way of many things at the Refuge.


First up are the chichicos, small monkeys able to fit in your hand. A group of about five are marooned on the aptly-named Monkey Island, a strip of land about as long as a semi-truck trailer and twice as wide. Marc mounts a few strips of bamboo tied atop some fuel jugs and pushes himself across with a long bamboo pole that reaches the bottom of the shallow river. The monkeys dance on the shore as he nears. As soon as he makes it onto dry land he kicks the raft back across and javelins the bamboo pole over for me to follow.

I step onto the raft and, of course, it’s much harder than Marc made it look. There’s no way I’m not going to end up in the river. I regret bringing my phone, but I’m not going to say something now and be that American. Thanks to what I can only chalk up to gymnastics lessons at age 3, I make it across. Marc hands me the bucket, and then the monkeys are on me, sprinting up and down my back stealing as much food as their little hands can carry as I laugh like a giddy child. In my excitement, I fail to even think to get my phone out, so here’s a video from a few days later.

Eager little chichicos

Silje, another volunteer, doesn’t tell me until later that she always shakes the chichicos off because they have needle-like teeth and bite. That’s my number one rule of the jungle: everything bites. More on this later.


Like the island chichicos, the chorongos are marooned on an island and, as Marc explains, also deathly afraid of water, so they won’t escape. However, this time we don’t have a raft to get to them. There’s a small path through the river where the water isn’t more than a foot deep and won’t overflow our boots. We trudge through the shallows careful not to fall. Marc yells “whatever you do don’t stop walking”. If we stop then the chorongos will be able to use us to jump to shore and escape. They don’t seem to me to be particularly concerned with escaping so much as getting to us. The chorongos are probably what you think of when you hear ‘monkeys’. They’re friendly (at least, these ones were), inquisitive, and want to make you their tree. This unfortunately also makes the species vulnerable to irresponsible people who take monkeys as pets. The chorongos’s main island is connected to a much smaller one by a plank that they race across ad nauseum. As soon as we break land they’re on us, hanging off us like we’re a part of their playground. Which we were. Again I forget to take pictures, so here’s a shot from the next day.

Eager bigger chorongos

After their feeding platforms are restocked, it’s back through the river — stepping carefully to stay on the narrow strip where the water is less than a foot deep and won’t overflow our boots — to the mainland.

Arañas (Spider Monkeys)

As we approach the spider monkey cage Marc pulls us aside for a warning. “Spider monkeys are really strong and smarter than they look”. Their tails are essentially a fifth arm, and they’ll grab anything they can get their hands on through the chain-link fence. Noted. But they also need to drink, so he shows me how to give them water.

I’m so nervous


More on them later.

A very fast capuchin

After everyone finishes their morning feeding rounds we get a break. I head over to the common area to share stories of fresh bites and scratches and bond with the other volunteers. There are usually between 12–15, they tell me, but this week we’re short-staffed, so there are only 9 of us including the two veterinarians. Most are from Europe — Munich, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, London, Barcelona. All of them speak English, and a few are also fluent in Spanish, among other languages. From Spanish classes I took through middle school I can understand most of what they say, but they usually stick to English.

They don’t call me out, but I’m self-conscious that I’m near the least multi-lingual person there. None of them speak highly of Americans. We’re loud, dependent, think we know-it-all, and elected Trump, they say. I agree. Many of the volunteers are taking gap years. One just graduated high school and is traveling South American for a year. Jannik is in Ecuador and Peru for 10 weeks between his undergrad and masters programs in math and data science. Silje quit her job as a systems engineer in a town an hour north of Oslo to travel the world and learn about animals for a year. Pierre, leaving the next day to continue his tour of South America, is on his way to a workaway.com job next. Maria just graduated high school and is traveling South America deciding what she wants to do next. Same with Sofie. John did his undergrad and masters in Economics and Business Administration in London and was just looking for a relaxing excursion with cute animals before he started applying for jobs. He didn’t get that relaxing vacation at YanaCocha. Marc painted taxis in NYC for two years so that he could afford veterinarian school and then come here to gain experience working with exotic animals for a year. He’s three months in so far.

Most absolutely love being here with the animals (with the glaring exception of John, who’s been here two weeks and is counting the six days until he gets a hot shower), even if they don’t say it in as many words. The work is long and tough, but they do it eagerly. The schedule Marc lays out each morning only specifies tasks from 8:00am to 5:00pm, but most people work over. This place’s mission is worth it. All the animals here were either illegally held as pets and now cannot be reintroduced to the wild or they were injured by humans. One of the monkeys, Nina, lost her arm when she escaped her owner and grabbed a power line. The giant caimen lost its eye in a hunting incident. Two of the parrots had their wings clipped to be sold. One of the eagles had its wings cut for an auction. Every week more animals come. Many of them will be reintroduced to the wild — that’s the goal — but many cannot. The scars they bear from humans prevent them from ever being able to rejoin their natural habitat.

Besides the other volunteers, I share the common area with scorpions, tarantulas, exotic birds, moths the size of my hand, and a wide array of animals that see no difference between their jungle and our communal space.

“They are not pets.”


Every day at 4:30pm one of the vets feeds the nocturnals. Marc asks if Jannik and I want to tag along, and of course we do. They all eat live food on Mondays. Jannik hesitates to heed Marc’s first request, so I jump into the chicken coop to wrangle four big chickens into sacks. Yes, I use my hands. No, chickens aren’t that fast in an enclosed area. And yes, I absolutely look like a fool doing it. But I get those four chickens. Then we count out 15 baby chicks from a crate, grab a rabbit and its babies that died the night before, and head deeper into the forest again to where the animals are kept. Silje runs into us on the way and joins our party without asking. Marc seems unperturbed, so off the four of us go.


YanaCocha has a massive one-eyed caimen. Marc is convinced it’s a dog and calls it over in Spanish. To my surprise, it comes. He tells me to throw the dead rabbit we brought near its head. I do, and the caimen does what caimens do. The rabbit doesn’t last long. I later learn that there are also quite a few wild caimens at YanaCocha. Marc fails to mention those until I see them precipitously close to a walking path. Thanks, Marc.

The one-eyed caimen


There are two cages of eagles because Diva, the biggest, is too aggressive to be kept with the other two. She spreads her wings and stalks forward as we approach. Marc instructs us to stand back, unlocks her cage, cracks open the fence, and tosses a baby chick towards her. She performs a flip to catch the chick in her talon and quickly gulps it down still alive and wriggling. We toss her two more.

Then we lock her cage back up and grab another six chicks for Tian and Orpheus (named after the Greek legend) who share the bigger cage. Tina’s wings were clipped so that she could be sold at auction, so she can’t fly. We poke baby chicks through the cage and wait for the eagles to decapitate and swallow them. It doesn’t take long. I don’t even have time to roll my camera. Later in the week, John and Marc do.

King Vulture

Marc can’t help but glow with pride at the sight of the vulture. “It’s the second-biggest species in the world,” he tells us. “Now the dead chicken.” I grab the leg of the dead chicken we brought and sling it up over the fence. The vulture doesn’t go for it immediately. I’ll have to catch it in action next time.


There are at least two types of owls at the Refuge. Marc tells us what type they are, but I immediately forget, so I call them big owls and little owls. Both are beautiful and sleepy and extremely well camouflaged. We leave some baby chicks free to roam in each’s cage.


One of three wily ocelots in the big enclosure at YanaCocha. Photo by John

Ocelots are wild jungle cats. They’re smaller than big cats, but they’re not pets, Marc warns us. There are three in the big enclosure at YanaCocha. Each gets two live full-grown chickens. However, they have to eat separately or they may fight. Marc tells Jannik and me how to lure just one into each of two trap cages with the chickens. Then we let the ocelots loose and Jannik tosses a chicken over the 12-foot fence for the third. The chickens last longer than you’d expect. The ocelots play with their food before eventually breaking the chicken’s neck or decapitating it. I’ll spare you the video.

Boa Constrictors

Two six-foot boa constrictors are kept in the reptile house. Both get two live chickens, Marc tells us. “Put it right in front,” he says. I’ll chase chickens around a coop, but there’s no way I’m putting my hand inches from a six-foot snake’s mouth, so Marc moves the chicks closer from where I’ve placed them. Jannik and I prepare to watch it feed, but Marc says it’ll take at least another twenty or thirty minutes to make its move. He’s wrong. The snake licks its tongue out. “Don’t move,” Marc tells us. It’s over in a flash. The boa strikes, and the chick dies. The snake wraps completely around the little ball of yellow fur, and that’s all folks.

I learn later that there aren’t any poisonous snakes being kept on the Refuge. They’re too dangerous, Grecia tells me.


Dinner is a tasteless mix of unsalted rice, potatoes, and a small strip of what we think is pork. Afterwards, Silje, the oldest volunteer, lingers in the common area to offer Jannik and me some much-needed advice on her last day. “Wear gloves,” she says. None of the other veterinarians or volunteers do. Get waterproof or water-resistant pants. It only gets wetter, and jeans soak up everything. Say yes to everything that doesn’t look too dangerous because that’s the best way to make the most out of your time here. Close your mouth when walking anywhere. Otherwise you’re going to eat a lot of spiderwebs and bugs. I end up taking out a dozen spider webs a day with my face before the week is out. We like Silje.

Getting ready for bed that night, I’m beat. I find the toilets Marc showed us earlier and sit down to do my business. Of course, it’s the jungle so nothing is without insects. I count twenty-six live ones in the stall with me before the moth with pincers (pincers!) moves and I lose count. I never count again.

Toilet company

Before I came I was told there would be hot water for showers, but I know better than to assume. When I say I’m from New York City, Marvin, one of the other volunteers, tells me outright that there’s no hot water here — as if to preempt my next question. I was ready for that. What I was not ready for was Cher, the name they’d given to the giant tarantula who we share the showers with. Marvin has been here three weeks and never seen her. She came out for me during my first shower. I guess that makes me lucky.


I wonder how they know Cher is female.

Mine’s the pink one

Jannik and I tuck our insect nets around the corners of our beds the way the other men have. There are no mosquitos here (the altitude is too high), but there’s still plenty to bite us. It’s a short walk from the shower stalls to our cabin, and for all I know Cher gets around.

Day 2: Toucans are the Worst

The morning meeting starts at 8:00am after a scant cold breakfast. They tell me that there are usually many more people to share the load, but after a group of Americans and Brits left last week we’re down to nine, so everyone will have to pitch in more to make sure all the work gets done. That’s excellent news for me. Since I’m only here a week, I want to do and try all of the different shifts before I go.

Marc assigns me to Birds with John.

Another rule of the rainforest sets in. It’s wet. I don’t mean that it’s always raining — because it actually usually isn’t (or, it wasn’t when I was there). It’s just always wet. Everything everywhere is, at best, damp. Unworn clothes are moist. Socks are sticky. Sheets are clammy. And once things get wet, they stay wet. That’s just the way of things here. The veteran volunteers seem not to notice.

At least once a day it pours. The sky opens up and a deluge stronger than NYC’s biggest annual storm falls on the reserve. That fills the leaves, and then all day they drip, drip, drip. At any given moment it’s impossible to tell if the drizzling is from an incoming storm or the remnants of the last one.

That and the constant noise ensure the threat of sensory overload even whilst just sitting to relax. Crickets, frogs, rain, monkeys, birds — oh gosh the birds — never quiet. It’s difficult to convey what it’s like to live on the Refuge without beginning every story with it was wet, loud, and covered in insects. Please take it for granted from here on out.

Elated fear

John and I begin preparing the food for guacamayas, pavas & toucans, loros grandes, loros pequenos, and a pocket monkey. Don’t ask me how the monkey made it onto that list. Marc’s mind works in mysterious ways. All of them also eat bananas. They unpeal them with their mouth and then hold them with their foot while chomping off bits like we would eat an apple. The bird cages are loud. And busy. When John and I venture into the first, birds immediately mount on our shoulders. I’m simultaneously overcome with bliss and terrified out of my mind. “It just happens,” John says in his usual monotone British accent. A surprise claw gets him in the back and he almost drops his bucket.

“The Bastard”

Next up is the toucan. There are other birds in this cage, but I’ve only ever been told to worry about the toucan. It’s been affectionately named The Bastard for reasons that become immediately clear to me when we enter. Not fun fact: toucan beaks hurt. And they’re aggressive. The bastard killed three other toucans before the powers at be decided not to put toucans in with it anymore. It must have thought I was a toucan because I swear it went straight for my jugular (at least, that’s what it felt like). John and I all but throw the food in its bowl and flee the cage like mice from a house cat. “Phew, we got off easy today,” he says. I’ll never look at Zazu the same way again. I don’t like toucans. I later learn that the running theory is that The Bastard specifically doesn’t like brunettes. In truth, he only went for me once before deciding his food was more important. They’ll tell me later that when he goes for brunettes they take priority over his food.


As I lay in a hammock waiting for lunch, Johnny (Not to be confused with the human John) wanders over. Johnny looks to me to be a bird, but Marc insists he’s also dog. Johnny can’t fly, but he does wander. It’s not uncommon to find Johnny on a roof somewhere, and though I never see Johnny more than amble a few feet at a time, he has an uncanny knack for appearing out of nowhere in the most haphazard corners of the Refuge. His favorite pastimes include chasing Dorry and petting Atta. Both fluffy “white” dogs, Dorry is cuter than she looks and Atta, smellier. Both roam the Refuge freely looking for scritches and chasing the infrequent car out near the main dirt road. They at least catch plenty of scritches.


I snag some pictures with the birds in the afternoon. Marc shows me how to pet the loros grandes. I swear they snuggle when he does it. When I do it…

Trouble in paradise

After I fail to get animals to show me affection, I join Marc for the afternoon nocturnals run again — this time without live food. The cutting room is full with everyone chopping furiously to get their food in order for the animals. Marc and Rafa flirt with Maria and Sofie any chance they get, though I’m not sure any of them see it that way. It’s 89 degrees Fahrenheit out. I’m just happy to be in short sleeves for the first time since September. “Did you see the score?” someone shouts through the open window. A Spanish team is playing an English team. Don’t ask me which. I have enough to remember with the animals. Every few minutes Raúl comes out to tell us the score. Otherwise John goes to check.

After dinner, Melvin, John, Jannik, and I catch a ride into Puyo to buy toilet paper since the Refuge only provides 1 roll — which Jannik and I never got anyways. It’s $3 for the ten minute ride. We split the fair 3 ways. Ecuador’s currency is the US Dollar. Marvin and John pay theirs in 1 dollar coins. “Those are rare in the US,” I tell them. “Not in Ecuador,” Marvin responds. Sure enough, my change at the market includes 1 dollar and 50 cent coins. Throughout the week and the remainder of my time in Quito, I learn that 1 dollar coins are much more common than dollar bills in Ecuador.

Day 3: Mammals

Marc assigns me to mammals with him.


A guatusa is a big rat. I never saw him because he sleeps too much.



A mapache is the Amazon’s version of a trash panda. YanaCocha’s is named Alex. Alex is smart as hell, but unlike, say, a NYC raccoon, Alex is quite friendly. Alex’s species, however, is not. “Alex is not a pet,” Marc reminds me. His eyes glow. He loves Alex.


A less dangerous coatis

Coatis are big and usually mean even if you know how to handle them. We feed them fruit, but they can eat meat. Of the three in the cage, only one is sometimes friendly (if you know what you’re doing). Marc makes sure the biggest, Hugh Jackman, is safely on the other side of their enclosure before he isolates the less dangerous coatis in a trap area and puts his palm up against the chain-link fence. It sniffs his hand and then prostrates its back for us to scratch it through the holes in the fence.


Bambi is a type of deer. Its mother was killed by people, leaving it orphaned. Raised by humans at YanaCocha, it can never be release back to the wild. On the bright side, he’s lovely and loved dearly.



Kiko is a beaver. He’s extremely shy and doesn’t come out when we first chuck dead fish over the wall into his pond. However, on our way back after cleaning Apa’s enclosure, we get a glimpse of him. He’s a cutie.



Apa is a rare type of fox (or was it a wolf? I definitely would not be a good vet). There are only three in the world in captivity, Marc tells me. Apa stinks. It pees everywhere. Marc and I lure it into a trap area so that we can squeegee its windows. Then he leaves me to feed it:

After we do the morning together Marc has to take off for different activities in the afternoon. John joins me for afternoon mammals which take barely thirty minutes since we can’t feed the ones Rafa is going to train later. With the remaining time, I switch to monkeys (not included in the mammals rounds for reasons no one can explain to me) with Maria. Maria is great, and the monkeys are even more amazing.

Cute and wicked

Especially the capuchins. Marc has warned me that they’re even smarter than the spider monkeys, and they’re cuter to boot. They’re loud, fast, strong, dexterous, and shoot limbs through the bars at anything that wanders within range. And there’s Nina. Recall that Nina lost her arm when she grabbed a live power line. The disability has made her terrified of the other monkeys so much so that she won’t eat if they’re around. Marc has already showed me the technique for feeding her. Maria and I load the trap cage with food, open the door, and wait all of three seconds, which is more than long enough for the other capuchins to dive in for the goodies we’ve left. Nina, however, stays in the main enclosure since she’s still [always] scared and not equipped to duke it out for the prime spoils in the small trap room. We drop the trap door so only she remains in the main enclosure. Then we feed her by herself on a small wooden platform opposite the now cut-off trap cage. She eats with one eye over her shoulder at the other capuchins dueling over the precious hard-boiled egg halves in the trap room (we saved one for Nina, of course. She eats it first). This time her paranoia is not warranted. Capuchins take the longest to feed because all the volunteers know to wait for Nina to eat before re-opening the trap door and moving on. We wait about 10 minutes and then open the trap door. Nina hasn’t quite finished all her food and sprints away. The other capuchins can hold a banana while they flee, but Nina needs all her limbs to climb so she ditches her uneaten food the moment she hears the trap door raise. Sure enough, the other capuchins beeline for her platform. However, Marc has already told me about this, too. Even though Nina didn’t finish all her food she should soon desert her overrun platform and circle back around the other capuchins to pickup the scraps they left in the trap room. I double-back after Maria and I finish rounds just to make sure, and sure enough Nina is in the trap room happily munching away on some untouched apples. Nina always gets her fill. We like Nina.

After Maria helps me, I agree to help her with a few of the quarantine houses. It turns out she’s finished them all, but once she learns I haven’t met Hubbles, that “has” to change. So I met Hubbles. Hubbles is adorable. We also like Hubbles.

Lunch includes some kind of rice dish with string beans and small bits of what we think is tuna or chicken. It’s mostly rice. Dinner will be mostly potatoes. I don’t need the other volunteers to tell me that tomorrow will be the same. The meals my host mother made for me in Quito were similar. Ecuador appears, to me, to just cook with a lot of rice and potatoes. Before they even see the food, Marc and the other volunteers grab mayonnaise they’ve purchased from trips into Puyo. They don’t need to taste our dinner to know it’ll be bland. It was. I don’t mind. I didn’t come for the food.

Our unstructured time today includes emptying burlap sacks of wet bamboo and thorn bushes to use for bringing live food to the ocelots, eagles, snakes, caiman, and owls. “Watch out for tarantulas,” Marc warns us. “Joke?” I ask. “Nooo,” he replies with a confused look on his face.

New Island (it’s not new)

Jannik falls into the water trying to balance on a narrow, submerged log to get to New Island. I didn’t see him go in, but Maria warns me that maybe I should ditch my cellphone (which I’ve been using to take pictures) before trying to cross. I agree and run back to throw it in my cabin. And then, of course, I proceed to fall into the river. It’s freezing. I get water and mud in my boots and completely soak my jeans through up past the crotch. Marc laughs himself silly. I’m just delighted I had someone to tell me to put my phone away first. Jannik’s ends up being broken and he has to borrow mine for the rest of the week. Before it’s all over, the river will take three victims today. Sofie will take a plunge after us. After that, I vow to film anyone attempting to reach the New Island, but for some reason no one wants to go for it again.

We get word from Sofie that Pierre, one of the volunteers who left yesterday, is in the hospital in Quito with a fever. We’re worried, but Sofie doesn’t know more information than that, so there’s not much we can do. Most of the volunteers get sick at some point, usually due to parasites.

Dinner is tasteless starch. The usual. Marc and the other volunteers douse their mush in ketchup, hot sauce, mayonnaise, garlic, salt, or anything else with flavor. There’s only a thin strip of meat sitting on top of the starch. Marc is disappointed. He loves to eat meat. Melvin was the only vegetarian, and he left yesterday. Sofie calls Marc out on loving to eat meat and also loving animals, and he blushes. He doesn’t have a response.

After dinner, Marc goes out to photograph frogs with his prized Canon and Jannik’s headlight — something Marc does most nights.

Jannik, John, and I start another game of Phase 10 — a card game that I’d managed to best them at the previous two nights despite never having heard of it before this trip. The temperature drops 30 degrees from midday when it suddenly starts raining. The wind picks up. Water pounds the metal roof. We have to shout to hear each other speak over the storm despite sitting across a table. Marc wanders in from the pitch-black forest with Jannik’s miner’s light still strapped over his black hoodie. For the last hour he’s been photographing a single little frog on a leaf with his Canon. “It was sleep. It didn’t run so I stay.” He shows us some of the pictures. He’s captured the frog from every angle and multiple distances. The photos are breathtaking, we all agree. He can’t help but smile as we flip through them. I ask him to send me some for this journal. He agrees, although I know if I do ever get them it’ll take weeks. The ceiling thumps and squeaks. “Rats again,” John says. I’d already heard them a few times. Rat poop falls from the rafters onto our table. I win Phase 10 again. I’m 3–0 on the week. But I’m not keeping track.

Day 4: We Mess Up

My rounds today start with quarantine & clinic. It sounds disease-ridden, but the animals here are (mostly) just newly rescued and waiting to be transferred to bigger living areas once the staff has confirmed they don’t have any diseases that might infect the other animals.

I meet Grecia, a third veterinarian who works the quarantine & clinic every day from 8:00am to 5:00pm. She’s perhaps the most patient, joyful woman I’ll meet in Ecuador (we like Grecia!), though her spotty English and my worse Spanish mean we’ll talk past each other for much of the day.

It doesn’t help that her morning starts with an emergency. The sloth wet itself last night, and then the temperature plummeted. By the time Grecia arrived in the morning it was screaming in pain, and its body temperature had dropped precipitously. She runs to get a hair dryer and start an IV drip while apologizing profusely for having to leave me to do the walkway birds by myself on my first time.

The sloth
He’s going to the food!

I head to the cutting room trying (but failing) to keep all the instructions for what these birds eat in my head at once. Marc and Rafa are floating around, so I shout fruits out and they laugh or agree I can feed them to the walkway birds. It’s Thursday, so most of the fruits are almost a week old and have started to mold. Frequently someone holds up a fruit in the cutting room that’s WAY past ripe but not quite molding yet. “Give it to the turtles” everyone yells. Marc just calls, “TORTUGAS”. It’s a running joke and also the truth. The turtles have their own bucket next to the compost one. I throw half a papaya into the turtle bucket. “Muy bueno,” Marc says, “Las tortugas need fresh fruit, too.” The line between turtle food and compost is quite flexible, I’ve learned. They like most fruits and vegetables.

Give it to the turtles

“I betchu a dollar you won’t eat one of those bananas,” I say to Rafa in the cutting room. Almost all are brown. Most have their guts spilling out and are covered in flies. “Banana yogurt,” Rafa later calls them. I hit the branch with my knife and flies scatter. Rafa reaches into the winged maelstrom and pulls one out that’s still completely covered with peal, though brown. “It’s fine,” he says, brushing away a flying ant. “You can eat it. It’s fine.” “Then eat it,” I reply. There’s no way I think he’s going to eat it. He peals back the top and chomps a bite off. “It tastes fine.” Jannik, John, and I erupt into laugher. It’s disgusting. I can’t believe he’s eaten it. Vets and vets in training are a different breed entirely. I flip him a dollar coin.

Okay, these guys aren’t chip and chop, but they’re still cute

The first two walkway birds I have to take out for the day are Chip and Chop. They’re always together and have their own little hut that they like to squawk down at people from until the sun goes away.

One of the other birds, a colorful green loros grandes too big to fit on my forearm, whistles a catcall whenever anyone passes. I’m not sure who taught it that, but my money’s on Rafa. I try to get a video, but the bird is intent on chasing me for food whenever I get close.

Marc passes with a chichico monkey hanging off the giant toothless skull tattoo of lady liberty on his forearm. He tells me it escaped in the middle of the night. From where, I have no idea. I get the sense that escaped monkeys aren’t a terribly rare occurrence at YanaCocha.

Polly lands on my shoulder! Polly is a connoisseur of shoulders. During the daylight hours he roams free, from shoulder to shoulder, but usually he opts for Grecia if she’s around. Marc and I may have been the only ones there, but I don’t care! Polly still came to me!

Polly came to me!
Bluetooth toothing it up

Next up is Bluetooth, another of the loros grandes. Bluetooth had its wings clipped to be sold at an auction and now he can’t fly, but using his mouth and feet he seems almost as mobile in the trees as some of the chichicos.

After I finish all the walkway birds, I head back to get more instructions from Gracie. She gives me feeding notes for one of the quarantine houses. Realizing I’ll again fail remember everything — and despite my hands already being covered in animal urine and worse — I pull out my phone to jot down the bits I’ll need:

  1. One parrot (loro pequeno) — plate
  2. Three chichicos — two bowls, one a double portion for two that share a cage
  3. One watusa — the big bowl
The cutting house

Back to the cutting room. Maria went home yesterday and Sofie isn’t feeling well, so it’s just me, Jannik and John in here hacking away — about a fourth of the normal staff. Marc pokes his head in. “Can I have your attention? I have something important to say.” Marc never talks like this. Something is up. We all put down our knives. “We’re going to release Hubbles on the New Island now.” Wait, that’s good news right? “But he always escape and go to the boy cabin.” I have so many questions. Marc seems to sense them coming. “We don’t know how he escape. He not muy wet when we find him so we don’t think he swim. But it always raining so we don’t know. Put kennel in your cabin. If he come to hug you at night put him in the kennel.” Oh if I could only be so lucky! And in case you’re curious — no, we don’t shut the cabin door at night (they lost the key before my time, so we have to climb through a window whenever we lock ourselves out), and closing the windows in this humidity would be suicide anyways.

The coatis

I finish feeding the house I’m working on. By this time John is done with his [much easier] rounds (actual birds (see: Day 2)). On Marc’s orders, John offers to help me in lieu of warming his favorite hammock. We fill a white ceramic casserole dish for the quarantined Coatis, a bowl for two chichicos, a small plate for a baby possum, and half a dozen bowls for birds still in quarantine. On the way to the house Grecia sees us and joins. The Coatis is hard (John had warned me), she says. She isn’t kidding. It hisses and bites at her fingers. There’s a trap door she can use, but she’s good enough to throw in the casserole dish and get her hand out the way before its teeth get her. It snarls at her through the bars for good measure and then proceeds to gnash the food to pulp. It’s the only animal I’ve seen eat near half its weight in food. Still it looks ravished.

Then Grecia pulls back a small towel in a big cage sitting in the corner of the opposite side of the house to show us a sleeping baby possum. Aside from Hubbles it’s perhaps the cutest animal in the Refuge. “Is my favorite,” she tells us. I’ll come back after work to snap a picture.

Feigning innocence

The bird house is loud beyond words. Those. Birds. Can. Screech. Most of the volunteers hate the bird house. I don’t so much mind the screeching. I’m just shocked no one told me there’s a second toucan! Never mind The Bastard. This second toucan is a true gift from the devil. Getting bowls to/from its cage without getting my fingers nipped is a futile endeavor. I stockpile a few new scratches for our lunchtime war stories later.

We finish that house, do the reptile house, and then get ready to start cleaning up when Marc and Sofie come running. Marc says something to Grecia in Spanish. I don’t follow, but Grecia and Rafa start running. Sofie beckons for John and me to follow. With Grecia leading the charge, we make our way back to the arañas cage. Inside, there’s another mouth to feed. One of the arañas gave birth in the night. It’s a baby girl.

1 day old spider monkey. Photo by Marc

Speechless, everyone watches the mother carry the new baby around the cage. She parades her daughter before us, climbing right up against the nearest wall of the enclosure. The baby is shy. It turns its face away whenever it catches our eye. It’s beyond adorable. This is what I came for.

Raúl decides that the nets currently in the trap cage (the feeding area) have to be removed immediately since they could be a hazard to the newborn. Marc and Rafa go to fetch a ladder. They steal the only one on the Refuge tall enough from Jorge — the now-disgruntled groundskeeper and, I learn later, the “big big boss,” as Marc calls him — who is building a new house for two of the walkway parrots. Then the pair recruits me to help because “we need tall person”. I get that a lot. This time it works out in my favor. Over the next hour, we manage to dismantle the net and replace it with a hammock. Marc does most of the heavy lifting while I hold the ladder and fawn over the baby.

We work straight through our pre-lunch break. I’m exhausted, but happy. After eating, I find one of a dozen hammocks strung up around the Refuge to close my eyes for a short while. Then it’s back to rounds for quarantine & clinic. I’m floating on air. There’s a new baby, and it’s everything. I can’t wait to go watch her more later. Maybe catch a few more pictures. Grecia has me start in the mammal quarantine house. I prepare the food for the pair of monkeys and Coatis and then enter the mammal house alone.

We messed up. One of the cage doors is cracked open. I’m not thinking straight. Which cage is that. Should it be open? It’s empty. The monkeys are making a lot of noise. Where’s the Coatis? Why’s the cage empty? I open the door fully and hear a growl. Beside the baby possum’s cage, the Coatis is, through the bars, eating the remains of the baby possum. I throw the food on a shelf, slam the door shut, and run to get Grecia. I rap on the door to the clinic and then burst through without waiting for a response. “Emergencia! Problemo. Problemo grande!” I don’t know what to say. Later tonight when I recount these decisions I’ll determine that, in retrospect, my panicked brain thought that maybe if I just got Grecia there fast enough she could save the long-dead baby possum. Grecia comes running. She opens the door to the mammal house and gasps. She’s dejected beyond words. “Cierra la puerta,” she says. I shut the door leaving her alone with a wild carnivorous animal. Snarls ring through the chickenwire strung about the top of the house. A few minutes later she reappears with the remains of the baby possum wrapped in its towel. “Lo siento,” I say. “It’s okay,” she responds. “It’s okay. It happens.” She places the remains in the clinic and then goes to tell the others the terrible news. I’ll learn later today that Marc had woken at 12:00am, 3:00am, and 6:00am every morning for a month to check on the possum when it was an infant. “It was all a waste,” he’ll tell me later that afternoon. It’ll be the most plastic laugh I’ll ever hear him give. “Oh well,” he’ll say. Then he’ll mumble something in Spanish that I can’t make out.

Many of the animals on the Refuge are cute. Some are various levels of domesticated. Most are wild. It’s easy to forget that looking at them in cages or feeding them through trap doors, but the consequences for getting their rehabilitation wrong are very real for their safety and the people who care for and about them. After seeing the broken faces of those two caretakers, that’s a lesson I won’t soon forget.

John and I go back to preparing food. We remember the rest of the rounds well enough that we don’t have to go back and ask Grecia for instructions. We’ve run out of most of the foods we need to feed the animals, but Raúl only restocks the cutting room on Friday afternoons, so all the animals get bananas, crab apples, lettuce, and corn — the cheap stuff.

I ask John why he “hates” it here. In his deep English accent (which I have almost as much trouble understanding as Grecia’s labored English), he replies that he doesn’t hate it. It’s just not what he expected. He wanted to go to a four-star resort where they ate amazing meals, lounged near a pool, and sometimes cuddled cute animals. That’s not this place. I can attest that YanaCocha, at times, definitely has the feel of a few young guys winging it. As far as he’s concerned, the travel agency he went through deceived him, and he didn’t know it until the moment he walked through YanaCocha’s front gate. “Most of the Brits and Americans hate it,” he tells me. “The Europeans love it.” I’ve already come to a similar conclusion. I don’t feel the same way about YanaCocha as John (and I went through a different agency), but I also had a better idea of what I was getting myself into — shout out to Medidata for sending me and BlueBoard and Oyster who planned my trip and advised me beforehand to keep an open mind and made sure I was willing to work!

Dinner is disappointing again. Rafa bought extra chicken that he heats up for himself. Marc smothers his rice and potatoes in tomato sauce. Lolita is the cook and also cleans the cabins when we’re working. Marc offers her funny comments in blushing Spanish that make her laugh, but the food doesn’t get any better. We finish the meal telling war stories of our latest cuts and bruises. We share a collective sigh for the baby possum. Everyone laughs that I’ve managed to collect a few bug bites on my bald head. I show a bloody scrape from one of the loros grandes that Marc goaded me into allowing to jump on my bare arm.

From there the conversation shifts to movies. Rafa has finished the first of his two-month internship at YanaCocha towards becoming a veterinarian before he returns to his home in Mexico. Few movies span Mexico, Catalonia, Denmark, Britain, the United States, Germany, and our interests, but of course Finding Nemo is one.

Jannik explains Finding Nemo was ruined for him because when Nemo’s mother died his father would and should have switched genders. That “plot hole” “ruined” it for him. That’s animal obsessives for you.

Jannik would no-doubt object to being characterized as an animal obsessive. Compared to Rafa and Marc it’s a fair objection, but I’ll remind you that Jannik is paying to spend four weeks picking up poop after exotic rainforest species. If that’s not an animal obsessive then I don’t know what is.

There’s a private house on YanaCocha’s property. I think Raúl might live there, but I never learn for sure. The house has WiFi and allows the volunteers to sit on the porch to siphon it as long as they don’t come inside. The whole arrangement seems odd to me, so I don’t really go. I didn’t come to the rainforest to scroll through my phone anyways. I check my messages once a day to make sure I haven’t missed an emergency, and I let Jannik borrow my phone (despite his best efforts to salvage his with dry rice, it was soundly defeated by the river) to contact his family, but other than that I’m happy only using my phone for pictures and videos.

Later that night Jannik and John are already asleep in our cabin. I’m writing this. Around 11:30pm my computer stops charging. I assume it must be the outlet. Rafa comes in ten minutes later to let me know that the power is out in the entire Refuge after some kind of explosion. I’ll have to learn more tomorrow. There’s never a dull day at YanaCocha.

Day 5: Chlorine Friday

The banana stick post-cutting

The power is back. I never figure out what happened with the explosion. It’s my last day of work, so Marc and Raúl allow me to choose which rounds I do. Naturally I pick the monkeys (if my pick wasn’t already obvious to you then you haven’t been reading closely!). We’re now even more short-staffed since Maria left yesterday, so Marc leaves me to begin cutting all the monkeys’ foods by myself while he prepares for chlorine Friday. I cut up dozens of bananas — fun fact: monkey really do love bananas. They go crazy for them, and we always have to make sure they have enough so that they won’t fight. In fact, the only food they seem to like more than bananas is hard-boiled eggs, which they get just twice a week.

In the cutting room I learn that the sloth died overnight. Grecia is doing the autopsy now. It was mentioned at the morning meeting, but they were talking fast in Spanish and mumbling through the announcement, so I didn’t catch it.

Despite our best efforts, animals die. That’s the unfortunate way of things even at YanaCocha. The vets bounce back quickly. Some losses hit the volunteers harder.

I do chichico island by myself. Marc takes nocturnal island. To everyone’s immense relief, Hubbles is still there, fast asleep in a brand new mini house that Sofie and Jannik both fell in a river to complete yesterday. Marc and I do chorongo island together. I ask him to take a video of the last time the monkeys will jump all over me. He’s more than happy to oblige. By now I know he loves taking pictures and videos of the volunteers and the animals.

(From left to right) Grecia, Marc, and John when the baby spider monkey is born

After the chorongos, we head to the chichico cage and then the capuchins. I ask Marc when he knew he wanted to be a veterinarian. He doesn’t remember, but he says he always knew he wanted to work with animals — even when he was a child and the teacher asked in school what everyone wanted to do when they grew up. There’s more to Marc than I first guessed when I arrived. At 27, he comes off as introverted, looks down when he smiles, has multiple intimidating tattoos, mutters through his words in English or Spanish, and is all-around reminiscent of a high school kid forced into mowing the lawn when all they want to do it play video games. He keeps a spiral bound notebook in which he demands each volunteer write him a message before they leave. I skimmed through it a bit yesterday and found many people had the same initial read of him as me. We were wrong. They’d changed their minds as well. A cold, disgruntled twenty-something couldn’t be further from Marc’s actual personality. He’s the hardest-working person on the Refuge by an order of magnitude — always the first to scale a ladder, forge a river, or hoist a bag of monkey poop. Truly, he’s simply kind. Every time a bug lands on him he smiles and identifies it before brushing it off as gently as he can. In the same way that some of us get life from other people, art, music, food, or money, Marc gets it from animals; all animals. He relishes not just in training, healing, and freeing them but also in the thankless, unseen, and low-paid work of caring for them. Later I’ll ask about his dog back in Spain (“No Espania, soy de Catalonia,” he’ll quickly correct me and everyone else), and he’ll clap his hands together in excitement as he fumbles with his phone to show me pictures of his black German Shepherd mix. He takes my favorite video of the week.

We reach the arañas cage. By now I’m an expert. I act as a decoy to lure them all out of the trap cage. Marc shuts it, and we scrub it clean of feces and yesterday’s uneaten food. Marc lingers near the chain-link fence until the new mother lets him examine and even touch her newborn. The little girl clings to her mommy with hands barely big enough to wrap around my index finger. “They’re actually too cute,” I say.

Marc must think I’ve gotten the wrong idea about arañas because he asks if he can tell me a story. It was before his time, he says. Years ago, a volunteer left the spider monkey cage open and one escaped. Raúl closed the entire Refuge and made everyone leave, but a tourist — an army man (from America, I presume) — insisted he could help. He found the spider monkey first. It broke both of his arms and scratched his face terribly before Raúl was able to intervene and get it back into its cage. These animals are not pets.

We take the heavy poop bins — trash bins used to collect feces and uneaten food all week — back to the cutting house area to be cleaned. True to Clorine Friday’s reputation, it’s hell. The hottest day of the week cooks the waste bins to pungent, putrid soup. Since we’re short-staffed, Raúl doesn’t even make us scrub down everything they usually wash in chlorine, but it still takes three hours for me, Sofie, John, Rafa, and Marc to clean and bleach all the bins, cages, and cutting areas (Jannik is sick with the stomach bug Sofie had the day before). I’m so exhausted I collapse for an hour-long nap after scarfing down my rice and potato lunch. Afternoon rounds, my last, are the easiest I’ve done all week. Jannik is back in commission, and with only bananas, apples, and lettuce remaining, all the monkeys get the same thing (albeit with different portions and piece sizes). We find some untouched hard-boiled eggs right before we head out and throw those in for the capuchins.

There’s never extra work in the afternoon on Chlorine Fridays, so Marc takes me, Jannik, Sofie, and John to see a nearby cacao plantation. We pile into the cab, squeezing everyone except John into the backseat. Marc knows the cabbie. He’s known every taxi driver we’ve had all week. The taxi rockets down the bumpy road towards the main street back to Puyo. It’s a stick shift — every vehicle I ride in Ecuador is — and jerks us just as much shifting gears as when we hit a deep pothole.

The plantation is massive, at least some sprawling sixty acres cut out of the forest, by my guess. A middle-aged woman who speaks only Spanish gives us a walking tour. I translate for John as best I can while Jannik and Marc fill in the gaps in my Spanish. They mix cacao with different fruits to get new flavors. We see lemon-cacao, papaya-cacao, and coffee-cacao, and a small type of pineapple that isn’t actually pineapple. My tourist finger is attacking my camera double-time. Ecuador has perhaps no greater national pride than its cacao. Everywhere I go people boast about it, thrusting raw powder under my nose to smell or taste.

Then we see a bunch of cacao they’ve already picked. The red ones are easier to grow, but our guide tells us that the yellow ones are the best in the entire world. Our guide shows us the machines they use to process it and also one of the tents they use for drying before it’s back outside for us to try some. I can’t wait. Marc and Sofie have been talking it up.

First up are the cacao seeds themselves. Our guide’s mother and father join us. At some point her children, flanked by dogs, come back from working the fields as well. It’s a family farm. The grandmother is an utter delight. She doesn’t speak a word of English but can read a face with the expertise you’d expect from three generations of feeding families with her own hands. She cuts us a fresh cacao and then glows with pride as each of us sucks the delicious sweet nectar like you would eat lychee. They’re fantastic — sweet with a hint of citrus, but not too heavy. She asks if we like it though she already knows the answer.

John eats the whole thing, seed and all, before he realizes we’re only supposed to suck off the covering. Sofie and Marc ­love the seeds and play-fight for the rest while we tour another area of the farm. Sofie’s the youngest volunteer, but all week she’s had every one of the guys wrapped around her finger, and everyone knows it. She carries the plate.

The grandmother pours us each a shot’s worth of the cacao extract next. It is without a doubt the most delicious thing I’ve tasted in Ecuador. The grandfather tells us this bottle is one day old but the nectar is best after three days of fermentation. The grandmother agrees and retreats into their barn to return with a bottle of three day old extract. It’s better than the first by a long shot. At $5 for 750ml, John and I buy three bottles.

(From left to right) John, Jannik, Rafa, Marc, Sofie, Me

We head back to YanaCocha to clean up for the nice dinner I insisted we go out for in Puyo to celebrate me and John’s last night. I ask for an authentic Ecuadorian place, but Rafa and Marc insist that’s a terrible idea. Instead we go to their favorite restaurant in Puyo, American Me. It’s a strange crossover between a classic diner and a lightly-travelled (read: empty) ethnic cuisine restaurant you might find facing a highway in northern Queens. The most expensive thing on the menu is a $6 steak sandwich with papas fritas and all the works. We order a specialty drink for the six of us. The waiters run next door to a bar to get them to make it. A short while later the manager delivers it to our table himself and promptly takes out his phone for a picture. “Say ‘Estados Unidos!’” he says before snapping the picture for their website or front window. It’s all terribly cringey. And also a legitimately fun time.

Back at YanaCocha we uncork the bottles of nectar we bought at the cacao plantation. Marc, Rafa, and Sofie took a detour (read: 6 shots of tequila each) on the way back, so they’re doing what drunk people do while Jannik and John try to break my undefeated record at Phase 10. Rafa pulls out a ukulele. He only knows one song, but damn can he play it. Marc stumbles over to the cabinet to get his spiral bound notebook. He demands John and I write him a message now, before we leave tomorrow. “Just write ‘you’re a stupid punta’. Thanks for nothing. Two lines. Just two lines. Some girl took an entire page. What the hell. Just write two lines.” Most of the notebook is empty. I write an entire page’s worth. My message is a raunchy gay love letter confessing to a litany of scandalous exploits Marc and I purportedly did together this week, including a fling behind the arañas cage. They don’t know I’m gay, but I expect a few have guessed — and gay humor plays well with them. Marc tries to read my message out loud but he gets stuck on all the unfamiliar words. After his third attempt at ‘caress’ Sofie snatches it away and laughs herself hoarse preaching Marc and my’s fictitious sexual exploits to the group. I win at Phase 10 again.

Day 6: The Sendoff

It’s time to return to Quito. I say goodbye to Marc, Jannik, and the others and wait out near the WiFi house for the taxi that my host mother promised me a week ago would be here today at 9:00am. I know — thanks to numerous warnings and a week’s worth of experience — that meeting times in Ecuador are more like guidelines, so I’m prepared to be patient. Unsurprisingly, the little car won’t bumble down the rocky dirt road until 10:17am. Right on [Ecuadoran] time. Until then, I pull out my computer to capture my last thoughts of YanaCocha.

My driver’s happy dashboard troll

Sofie runs over to tell me that all of Pierre’s tests in Quito came back good. He’s going to leave the hospital soon and be okay. We’re all relieved. I’ll later learn that Monika, my host mother in Quito, is good friends with Raúl and called him more than once to check up on Jannik and me. Truly, Monika and Marc are cut from the same cloth — people whose core instinct is to share their space with others. A host of Ecuadorians I’ve met on this trip are the same. My driver back to Quito, a guy in his late twenties who only speaks Spanish, will stop in Baños to allow me to take pictures. Then he’ll buy me an entire bag of the juiciest sugar cane I’ve ever had. “Está bien?” he’ll ask. My meager Spanish won’t allow me to express how enormously thankful I am. It seems to me that this way of welcoming people is inherent to Ecuador’s culture in a way that’s not true for New York, and — even though I can hardly say I’m an expert in Ecuador after a week — for this I am impressed and grateful.

As I sit on the WiFi porch surrounded by the ceaseless song of the forest, I’m struck by how remarkable this journey and its people have been.

These are amazing people.

They’re different from me in an unfamiliar way that I don’t expect to fully grasp in a week, but I’ve seen more than enough to be tremendously impressed by their affection and dedication to these animals.

Should you volunteer at YanaCocha? I don’t know. Maybe. It felt like I was back at summer camp for a week while also being a caretaker at a zoo. The exotic animals were amazing. The ice-cold showers, camp food, long hours, single drinkable faucet, digestive issues, oft-repulsive and thankless work, and omnipresent insects were all challenging. I’m glad I did it, but I’m also not chomping at the bit to come back. I will say that I learned — or experienced — something new here. And I don’t just mean the exposure to intriguing animals.

Do you remember the last time you were outside at a picnic or around a campfire and swatted at a bug? Do you remember trying to clap a gnat that had wandered into your kitchen? These people — the volunteers and veterinarians — don’t. That may sound like a small thing, but to me it isn’t at all. It’s had somewhat of an outsized impact on me. It wasn’t until today that I realized that all this week I haven’t either — and I certainly hadn’t ever thought twice about killing a fly or mosquito before this week. Think about that for a moment— I’ve been here for a week and not once have I ever seen anyone try to kill a spider, fly, moth, cockroach, or anything else (that we weren’t feeding to a carnivore). Hardly anyone here is vegetarian — they tell me how difficult it is to eat vegetarian in Ecuador — but they do share a tangible, visible respect for wildlife that I’d never experienced firsthand. These people see an animal, pet first, and then ask about venom or poison second. Without thinking, they find the inherent value in animals’ lives and well-beings. They all want to put in the work to reverse even a small bit of the impact we’ve had on their habitat. I never — ever — saw a single disposable tissue or paper towel on the Refuge. Not once did I hear any volunteer or vet mention climate change or demonize people — even pet owners. That’s not what they’re here for. They’re just driven to help animals in whatever way they can. It looks almost naively pure to me and yet it’s a tremendously uplifting reverence to be surrounded by.

I’ll miss them.



Kai McKinnon

Software Engineer and aspiring fantasy writer living in Brooklyn