Thursday, September 5, 2013

Life at the Zoo

Vesty Pakos Zoo lies just beyond the main stretch of shops in Mallasa and is one of the greenest and most open spaces in La Paz. About to celebrate its 20th anniversary in September, the zoo is a staple of the community and it is not uncommon to see dozens of school children lining up outside in the morning, or Cholitas relaxing in the sun. However, it is of course the animals (including jaguars, pumas, and a very human-like spider monkey named Pancho) that are the main attraction. UpClose Bolivia provides the zoo with volunteers, who work in the field of ´animal enrichment´.

Unlike many zoos, Vesty Pakos does not buy animals, instead it rescues any animals which are brought into La Paz by circuses (making animals perform in a circus act is illegal in La Paz). The zoo prides itself on treating their animals with great kindness and respect, which was the vision of Vesty Pakos, the namesake and founder of the zoo. As such, they are currently working hard to build much bigger enclosures for many of the animals. Keeping with this theme of high-quality care, animal enrichment is about stimulating the animals, making them think for their food and providing them with entertainment.

Volunteer, Lee, hard at work in the Zoo
It would be near impossible to provide an example of an average day at the zoo as each day is vastly different. After throwing on some overalls and trekking to the other side of the zoo where we work, we are met by Emerson, who gives us our tasks for the day. While explaining, he always asks what some words are in English (´¿Que significa “Tijeras” en ingles? ´). He should enrol in the English classes that Up Close Bolivia provide the community, or come along to our weekly ‘intercambio’! We then grab our tools, including machetes, sewing needles and string and get to work.
No two days are the same at the zoo. On my first day of work, I made pillows out of discarded zebra costumes - a common sight in La Paz, people dressed up as zebras helping people cross busy roads - which were used to keep the tejones (a sort of Bolivian badger) warm at night. My target was ten but I barely managed to make five as my sewing was terrible. Luckily for the tejones, after much practice I am now a dab hand with a needle. Other tasks include making maggot sandwiches for the monkeys, peanut and mud cakes for the bears and piñatas for almost all the animals. The people who work at the zoo are always willing to lend a helping hand and show us the best way to complete a task, often sacrificing their own time for us.
Volunteer, Lauren, spending some quality time with Evo
the donkey
Naturally, the volunteers are not only there for the animals. Having volunteers work in enrichment takes the pressure off the staff and allows them to focus on other more crucial areas such as animal nutrition, enabling the zoo as a whole to run more effectively.  One of the highlights of the zoo is the people we work alongside. Even if we can´t always communicate due to the language barrier, we are always laughing and joking together, with lots of pointing and hand gestures to get our message across. We have an especially helpful character working beside us, a little brown donkey named Evo (possibly named after the president of Bolivia?) who is adored by both staff and volunteers.
The zoo is a unique project and allows me to tap into my creative side. It is a very rewarding experience and I love knowing that through my work I am improving the quality of life of some amazing animals and building friendships with some fantastic people.
Written by Lauren Treacy
Edited by Naomi Martin

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