In 1993, I started working as a volunteer at the Córdoba Zoo. We were called “Guardazoo”: a group of children and teenagers led by Alejandra Juárez, the director.
It was one of my most significant experiences, and therefore the one that will the hardest to write about. Especially about the howler monkeys, my great loves.
I’ve never came into such a close contact and been so close in such a continued manner with other wild animals like that before. I went there for a whole year, every weekends and winter holidays. The zoo was practically what gave my life a meaning that year, even though I was in my last year of high school, which was very important as well.
People and animals I met that year made a profound impression on me. To the point where I have kept in touch with many people or stayed friends with them. I will tell you the story about the howlers another time, once I have enough strength to do so… which is not today.
Aside from the monkeys, there were a lot of other animals I took care of.
And they still recognize me several months or years later. Khapu, the spider monkey that lived her last years in the Shelter for Howler Monkeys of La Cumbre, recognized and leaped into my arms six or seven years after our last meeting.
Maybe she remembered the two weekends she spent at my house, when we took turns to take her at our homes and give the two girls that were taking care of her during the week. Khapu was a young orphan that couldn’t be left alone. We carried her home as a group as she were a newborn, wrapped in a quilt so that she couldn’t be seen, her tail around her waist. Sometimes, someone would want to see the “baby” and was surprised when they saw the small hairy head.
She slept while hugging me to the point where I had to take her with me to the bathroom. She was very mischievous, jumping from cupboards to closets, throwing everything to the floor, and she even tried to escape through the window and I had to stop her from doing so by pulling on her tail. She enjoyed playing a lot, when we pretended to let her fall or threw her up in the air or tickling her. She was making sounds similar to laughs and she was clearly happy
I also remember Zoila, a female black-legged seriama that was walking free inside the zoo and that knew I was the one bringing her eggs and meat, she always waited for me and followed me. It hurt me a lot when I heard of her death after she entered a cougar’s cage to eat the meat that was inside.
Another time, I gave food to two black vulture chicks. In my eyes, they were beautiful even though they had a scary appearance with their all-black feathers and bald head. I had a friend, Verónica, who loved wolves and we would always visited them together even though I was scared to go and put my head in between the bars to get nibbled like she did, which was a form of friendship between wolves.
She also took care of a black-chested buzzard eagle and once, she asked me to feed it.
Since I didn’t have gloves and I didn’t know her very well, I left the food on the ground while feeling bad knowing that she would probably not eat the food.
One day, I was walking around while taking care of wild baby boars since their mother was being raised by a person who didn’t know how to take care of them very well. My job was to make sure they didn’t bite. Of course on that day, I came back home by bus in my uniform and people were staring and even commenting that I was obviously coming from a zoo, look at the wild boar!
I had friends everywhere in the zoo: several llamas in the barn area, a baby coati that was sleeping belly up, a ferret that I had to put a leash on and that I fed eggs, greater rhea chicks that didn’t know how to eat yet (their parents didn’t show them how to), mouflons that were used to me entering their living space to change their litter.
There were also parrots, baboons, tigers, which I visited quite often and petted through their cage bars. I remember on a winter evening, I spent hours checking on a Chaco eagle under anaesthesia to make sure that it was still breathing. Unfortunately, the dose was too high and he didn’t make it.
Every weekend was unique; I never knew what was going to happen, which animals I was going to take care of, which babies I was going to meet.
Until my job became patrolling, I then used the occasion to memorize all information on every species that was written on the signs. I learned so much! Moreover, we sometimes had to attend classes organized by Alejandra or someone else.
Of course, it was also difficult time. Not all the animals were taken care of the way we wanted, nor were they sheltered in modern cages. Many times I came back home in tears because of the death of some animal. I finally had to take the decision to stop volunteering in order to completely dedicate myself to studying biology and to new projects, but I still kept in touch and visited the zoo.
In 2006, I returned to being a volunteer during one of my trips to Argentina (I’m living in Montreal now). The Guardazoo group is now located in the town of La Cumbre, a shelter for howler monkeys. However I volunteered at the zoo’s hospital for several weeks. Under the guidance of Maria Paula, the carer, I was assigned to cleaning the cages, feed the animals and even walking skunks, little armadillos, southern tamanduas, llamas, owls, porcupines, and much more. It brought back many memories, but the situation was clearly very different.
We, all the Guardazoos, kept an unforgettable memory of that time.
Each one of us could write a whole book about it! For many, that experience made them want to study veterinary medicine or biology. Couples were formed, life-long friendships were created. But more than anything, the experience enabled us to know animals as individuals, learn their personalities, see and feel how each one of them was so special.
It was one the experiences that makes me the most nostalgic and that profoundly affected me the most while at the same time I feel very happy to have been able to have gone through all that at the zoo being so young.
Author: Helena Arroyo
Translation: Noëlla Moussa