Following friends through rehab - Mitch returns for Innie's release

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I’ll always remember the day I first met Innie, then a young Yucatan black howler monkeys at Wildtracks, and the moment he leapt onto my neck and purred in my ear. Looking back it was a pretty life-changing moment. It led to me returning to Wildtracks again and again and again. I’ve met so many truly incredible people, monkeys, and manatees during my summers here, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that Innie is a little extra special to me. When I first met him he was a tiny baby with a broken arm, the only monkey of his age group at Wildtracks. Affectionate, seemingly confident (as long as his carers were nearby to back him up), and prone to mood swings, he was a handful, but everyone adored him. Then along came Vicky, a pudgy gorilla-like baby with an attitude and confidence that put Innie’s to shame. Thus, a new troop was formed. Now “Innie and co.” consists of Innie, Vicky, Maggie, and Finn...and they are one of the troops moving to freedom in Fireburn this year.

Looking back over four summers following this dynamic, hilarious group of misfit monkeys, it has been quite an adventure full of ups and downs and funny stories. There was the time Innie and Vicky first slept together in the incubator as babies – Innie screaming and desperately pounding on the door with his tiny fists while Vicky was fast asleep clasped to his back, her face snuggled in his fur. Anyone who has met Maggie knows she is a story in and of herself; she’s a cross between a lanky jungle cat and a yeti who is somehow both very wise and aloof. Her style of play has always involved sneaky ankle attacks and ripping out of hair, which I believe she was collecting in a secret stash somewhere. Finn has been a constant source of bubbly goofiness, always trying to chuckle and play regardless of the social situation. Combine Finn’s determination to play and lack of social awareness with Innie’s predisposition to temper tantrums and you had a recipe for a memorable time.

Of course there were hard days too. There was Vicky’s stubborn determination to lay in the dirt in the pre-release enclosure instead of climbing in the trees where her portly figure made her slightly less than graceful. There were troop shake-ups as Kat and then later Kenya had to be pulled from Troop Innie and co. (I won’t point fingers, but Vicky you need to work on your jealousy issues). There were no shortage of monkey scuffles, monkey nips, and lots and lots of monkey poo, including but not limited to a slap to the face with a tail covered in diarrhea - but I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.

Even the days leading up to their move to Fireburn were eventful and entertaining as always. My attempt to gather a faecal sample before releases nearly resulted in pandemonium when Innie assumed the plastic container was a syringe of milk, bringing back memories of milk time with Innie and his near frightening obsession with anything resembling a syringe of milk (a condition I’ve termed milk fever). Next came Vicky’s fantastic and reality-defying escape. After locking Innie and co. into the enclosure in pre-release in preparation for their transport to Fireburn, Vicky somehow escaped, either by wedging her way out the corner of two locked doors, or by digging and squeezing out of a hole along the bottom of the cage. Her characteristic belly would suggest both of those things would have been near impossible, but we assume she was just displeased with her food portions inside the enclosure and decided to take matters into her own hands - we lured her back with more food. Finn continued to display his innate need to play even as we kenneled him for the trip to Fireburn. He play-chuckled while simultaneously white-knuckle gripping the cage to avoid capture. Eventually all four were kenneled and after one final walk with Innie to the boat, they were on their way to Fireburn.

My time at Wildtracks following Innie and his troop has been indescribable. It truly was an adventure, but now they are about to begin a brand new adventure as they start a life as wild monkeys. I’m confident that they are well equipped to thrive thanks to this incredible place, Paul and Zoe’s selfless determination to help wildlife in Belize, and all the incredible people who’ve worked so hard to bring Innie and co. to this point. I wish Innie's the best of luck for amazing lives back in the wild, and I thank them for the experience of a lifetime by getting to know them and to play a role in their rehabilitation.

Do I need experience to volunteer at Wildtracks?

How to sum up my time at Wildtracks is an easy one… AMAZING! This is something I would never have thought I’d have the delight to be able to do, as I have no wildlife conservation / rehab experience at all, in fact, I have no animal experience whatsoever. However, this is not a problem for volunteering at Wildtracks, as long as you are committed and reliable, then training and working / interacting with the animals won’t be an issue, as you are shown the ropes, plus there is always someone at hand to ask if ever unsure.

When I arrived at Wildtracks I was placed with the spider monkeys, and from the first time I saw them, I felt the connection between man and monkey. I loved working with the spider monkeys as, like humans, every single one has its own personality. Over my 6 week period here, I got to see and learn each of their personalities and what they liked and didn’t like. At first, the spiders took a few days to get used to me, but as the time went on and as the monkeys got used to me and I them, our relationship grew, and now I get warm greetings from Frisky, and get a warm hand squeeze from the charming Charlie, and trust me, the best type of greeting is definitely one from a monkey.

The day to day duties involved cutting the fruit for the monkey feeds, this was mainly papayas and bananas, but we also used other fruits such as cantaloupe, mango and even coconut, to name a few. After the fruit was chopped, we gave each group of monkeys their bowls and made sure they had plenty of browse and water. The feeds are 4 times a day at times 06:30, 12:00, 14:00 and 16:00, and during the feed time, I would check each monkey to ensure it was healthy and behaving normally.

Aside from the day to day duties there are plenty of other things going on that you could get involved with and help. During my 6 weeks here, I helped with catching a wild manatee, now named ‘The Duchess’, I got involved with tube feeding The Duchess, scrubbing manatee pools to make sure they are clean, having one on one time with the baby calf, Hope, assisting with an aspiration operation on L.C. the manatee, making enrichment for the spider monkeys and chopping the browse for both the howler and spider monkeys. These are just some of the other wonderful tasks I got my hands stuck in with, so, you will never feel like there’s nothing to do, and you can always find something to help with.

Later on in my time here, I was introduced to two adult howler monkeys in the pre-release site. These two monkeys – Kat and Balou – are on their last stage before they are released into the forest at Fireburn, and then they will be tracked to check their progress and to see how their release is going. Similar to the spider monkeys, I fed these at the same times, but this time I got to go in the enclosure with them, to give them their fruit and their milk. I still remember one of the first times I gave Kat and Balou their milk, Kat came down and drank from the milk bowl which was in my hand. She continued to stay here for a while and my heart melted, and then from that point, I was both a spider and a howler monkey type of person.

I had a lot of fun here, and what Paul and Zoe have started is just unbelievable, knowing that what you are doing is helping getting both the monkeys and the manatees back into the wild where possible is a feeling like no other. You can see how both monkeys and manatees progress from the young, like Hope and the monkeys in the nursery, to the adults and see how much more independent they have become.

I would recommend Wildtracks to anyone with an interest in these animals, and like myself and others here, having no experience isn’t an issue. I made a lot of friends here (monkey and human), I also feel like I made a difference, albeit a small one, but a difference none the less, but mainly I made memories - memories which I shall cherish and never forget.

Thank you Paul and Zoe for having me, and thank you Wildtracks, I look forward to volunteering here again in the near future!

Wildtracks...The Return of the Kat!

Many moons ago, possibly twelve years ago, I first visited Wildtracks as a naïve, fresh-faced volunteer and got the chance to stay. For two years, Wildtracks became my place of work, Sarteneja my home, the cenote my bath, the jungle my playground, the volunteers my family, and Paul and Zoe my voice of reason!

I left and continued with my life, in a roundabout way. However, in November 2016 I had an epiphany and returned for a flying visit. I was welcomed back and ridiculed as if I had never left.

During my first stint at Wildtracks, volunteers at the farm would share time in Fireburn Reserve, mapping, doing wildlife transects, camera trap maintenance, clearing the Mayan ruin site and teaching at the village school. Others would work with the manatees (one manatee at a time mind!), 24 hour feeding and observation schedules, and caring for all manner of other wildlife that found its way to our door. University students and project groups would visit, gap year groups would set up camp, local volunteers and school classes would come and see what we were doing, life was never quiet!

Those were the days when evening drinks on the jetty were spent dreaming about building permanent manatee pools and reintroducing howler monkeys to Fireburn Reserve.

Guess what. Dreams can become reality. There are now zillions of howler monkeys in Fireburn! Successfully rehabilitated and howling away! Imagine my ears whilst stirring beans in field base (by solar powered light might I add) listening to the fellows chatting away up in the trees.

The ethos of Wildtracks has not and I don’t think ever will change. The volunteers and local workers still have a ‘can do’ attitude. An aura of ‘get on with it’ floats around like a friendly Duende. Paul and Zoe still survive on three hours of sleep, whether that’s because they are making a deadline or an impromptu "full-moon-rising-parties" just ‘happened’, work still gets done.

Wildtracks has experienced big change. Paul and Zoe now virtually live with the orphaned howlers and spiders ‘all the better to do night feeds’ and merely lean off a computer chair to attend to their wards. Volunteers walk around the place with various branches and twigs draped around them ‘this one is……try it, its Izzie’s favourite’. Whether the furry creatures are undergoing intensive rehabilitation, are in integration or experiencing life in the huge pre-release enclosures, every single volunteer has the single aim of eventual release in mind. The number of times in my first week I had to interrupt conversations to ask if people were talking about a person or monkey is slightly embarrassing. I think it’s a testament to the dedication of the monkey team and how closely observations are made that this happened and I did overhear other ‘newbies’ doing the same. Embarrassment gone.

The manatee pools are things dreams are made of! When I saw them I did have to do a ‘In my day’ speech. In my day ‘we had a kids paddling pool, to be emptied and filled twice a day from the lagoon by hand’. In my day ‘WE DUG THE LAGOON OUT BY HAND USING BUCKETS, I BLED’. Not convinced I was believed, as they had a digger last year. Lucky them. Seven manatees were being cared for during this visit, including one who admitted herself by arriving outside the lagoon enclosure one morning. The word about Wildtracks must be spreading.

This visit I did, I learnt, I realised and remembered: the sunrises and the sunsets, I can still catch a scorpion, you can still get cold and sunburnt in Belize, Fireburn still thrives and Lincoln suits a moustache, a tractor can be driven with three wheels, there is never too much rum or too much coffee, and that sleep can happen tomorrow.

The whole staff and volunteer team works as one, as it did ‘in the olden days’, now its just a much bigger team. Slicker, more professional, gaining expertise and recognition as the years roll on.

Paul and Zoe, still heading it, being proud, making others proud, encouraging, nurturing people and animals. Paul still cracking jokes over the dining table, still getting bitten. Zoe still being everyone’s big sister, welcoming, organising and putting up with her husband Paul.

It might have been ten years since my last visit but it won’t be ten years until I return.

Paul and Zoe and the Wildtracks team, thank you for everything.