The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A True Story of Resilience and Recovery by Andrew Westoll
Purchase The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary here
Purchase The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary here
Being raised in rural Idaho, my family always had a small menagerie of animals around. At various points in my childhood, our backyard/field was home to chickens (and an evil rooster), a variety of pheasant breeds, rabbits, dogs, cats, cows, and llamas. Yes, llamas. I must have been in upper elementary school when my parents bought the first three and the herd expanded from there. Throughout the years, we took them to nursing homes and schools, walked them in holiday parades, and spent the most time with them as 4-H entrants.
Unfortunately, my prime 4-H llama showing (and judging!) skills don’t hold a lot of weight in Washington D.C.
One would think that with so much llama-time under my belt, seeing a few in Peru would not have been a big deal, and yet, you’d be wrong. As any semi-regular reader of this blog’s travel writing knows, I am a sucker for an animal. I’ll suggest a rather out of the way side trip (as in a plane ride away) to *hold* a koala rather than just pose near one; I’ll put extra efforts into organizing an official consulate trip to the panda reserve to get as close as possible to those dumb, yet adorable, creatures; I’ll risk life and limb to reach out and touch whatever fuzzy critter might be native to my current location. I recently heard a rumor that sloth-sightings are possible at our next post. I now want to put “possibly of sloth encounter” as my number one request on our housing survey. Family negotiations are not complete on this point yet. If it is an option, I’ll do it. (I once tried to bribe our guide in Terengganu, Malaysia to find me a tapir. I was totally willing to pay up too, but unfortunately, there was no tapir to be found that day.)
Anyway, cuddly digression aside, I was thrilled with all the llamas and alpacas in Peru! (This is not the place for lesson in the differences between llamas and alpacas- let alone guanacos and vicunas- but let me just remind you all they are different and pretty easily recognized with a bit of Googling.)
Lima itself, being at sea level and on the coast, didn’t have any llamas, but they did have endless stores of llama-themed items, everything from hats and scarves to pens and dolls. You want something with a llama on it? This is your place!
Cusco- now that is where the animal action is at! As the jumping off city to Machu Picchu, people usually spend a day or two in this fantastic town acclimating to the elevation. (At 11,500 feet above sea level, the altitude is no joke.) Lots of tourists taking it easy means lots of tourist traps, many of these being in the form of older women dressed in traditional clothing with brightly colored pouches slung over their shoulder, each containing an adorable lamb, and trailing behind them was often an alpaca on a lead. For whatever price you deemed appropriate (for me this ended up being all the random change in my pocket at the moment), you can get a photo with this woman and her small petting zoo.
Yes, I know it is a racket.
No, I don’t care.
If you are giving me the chance to snuggle up to a ridiculously fluffy alpaca for a handful of coins, there is no way I am going to walk away.
Which I did not.
I could chalk it up to fuzzy thinking from the altitude, which was a bit of a strange sensation, but most of you would see right through that excuse. Lack of good oxygen was not at the root of my experience. I just never pass up the chance to pet/nuzzle/play with an adorable critter.
In all fairness, I do think I need to make one disclaimer before wrapping up this post about my inability to walk away from this delightful tourist-trap found on every corner of the city. The alpaca-on-a-lead was not my only run in with the species.
I may have had alpaca stroganoff for lunch.
I did it.
I couldn’t not.
I grew up with a field of llamas behind my house and I spent the day petting as many alpacas as I could before my change ran out. Curiosity got the better of me. (For the record, alpaca meat isn’t bad. It was a bit tougher than beef, but in a stroganoff, I’m not sure you’d recognize it as not-beef if you weren’t told otherwise.)
Out of politeness, after my meal of alpaca meat, I did steer away from the street-corner critters for the rest of the evening. I was terrified they’d be able to smell their cousin on my breath!
It felt a bit like coming full circle, after having a field of llamas behind our house growing up to visiting them in their native Andean habitat. They’ve been to my place. I’ve been to their place. We’re just a lovely circle of life now.
Never one to pass up a conversation about adorable animals, I was drawn into a couple different ones at the office over the last few days. Just today, chatting over the tops of our cubicles like we often do, a couple of us were talking about shipping pets. In the Foreign Service, this is a major topic that comes up time and time again- how to get a pet (usually a dog or a cat, but I’ve seen serious discussions about birds, rodents, turtles, etc…) from post A to post B. Never a cheap proposition, flying a pet around the world adds up quickly, with thousands of dollars (each move!) going to meet veterinarian requirements, buy tickets, and endure the quarantine process. For some though, a pet is synonymous with family and no expense is too great to have them accompany tour after tour after tour.
In this rambling tête-à-tête about shipping between posts, I learned that the Frankfurt airport is apparently the Shangri-La of airports for travelling pets. In addition to nice rest facilities for the critters, and staff who are attentive and actually seem to care (apparently this is not a given), the airport has a top-notch veterinarian on call at all times.
Wondering why an airport would put so much effort into animal transportation had me a bit baffled, until a colleague mentioned that the airport is used as a main hub for circus animal movements in Europe. Of course, this sent my brain down a widly different path, as the thought of sending circus animals by plane had not really ever occurred to me. Apparently, my childhood selection of picture books, plastic toys, and Disney movies has me eternally convinced at all circus animals travel by train- you know, the one with the red engine, the elephant with his trunk sticking out of the side of a car, the car with the giraffe head periscoping out of the top of his roof, and brightly painted advertisements up and down its length. This is how circus has moved, does move, and will always move. Right?
Welcome to the 21st century, Michelle! Circuses are fancy and travel by air. Sadly, this just doesn’t create the same nostalgic mental image as the train congers up. There are no lions roaring in the belly of the plane, no head/trunk holes in the fuselage for various critter pieces parts, although maybe if it were a private plane it could be brightly painted in primary colors.
Of course, with my recent trip to Johannesburg, the talk of elephants and lions smoothly slid into one about trips to various animal parks in South Africa. Unfortunately, I was not able to get out of town to do full-on safari trip, but I did squeeze in half-day trips, one to an elephant halfway house and the other to a lion park.
Yes, I said elephant halfway house.
Just a few hours outside of Johannesburg is an elephant park that houses a mere handful of pachyderms at a time- those who are awaiting placement in new homes. These giants come from a variety of places: one from a zoo that had closed down, one from a bigger park that was having social issues within its herds, and a couple from private complexes that could no longer house them. The day I went to the park, I was unable to meet the oldest member of the transient crew, as he had apparently “gotten up on the left side of the bed” and was in no mood for visitors. The keepers said the transition from the zoo has not been an easy one and he often opts of our socialization.
But, even if Old Man was grumpy that day, I still got to meet and spend the morning with some awesome creatures. The park is small and has a rolling population, but they have a great visitor program. Paired with an attached monkey park (which I opted out of!), elephant visitors still have to make their way through a free-range monkey enclosure to reach the sanctuary of the big guys. (There were monkeys out and about, but not in the terrifying numbers that still haunt my dreams after a trip to Monkey Forest in Bali. At no point was I concerned for my well-being or pondered the possible full ramifications of a broken-skin monkey bite.)
The tour started with a time to feed two of the elephants, mostly just a mash of pellets that they sucked into their trunks like powerful wet/dry vacuums. Our group was mostly adults and some folks were satisfied after dropping a handful or two into a trunk, so with a half-full bucket of pellets left, I went ahead and took a few extra turns at snack time. (The two kids our group were terrified of the elephants and hid behind their parents, regardless of the amount of coaxing by those they trusted. The adults didn’t seem overly interested, and the way I saw it, those enormous mammals ended some serious calories to survive the day, so really, I was the hero of the morning, at least in the long-lashed eyes of my new friends.)
Feeding time was followed by a really nice informational session in an outdoor classroom. We all plopped ourselves down on wooden benches and learned about the differences between Asian and African elephants (the usual, size, ears, toes, etc.), but also some really cool facts about how elephant skulls help cool their brains and about their five sets of ever larger teeth. Coming from someone who signs up for every imaginable animal outing possible when I travel, I was really impressed with the mini-biology lesson I got from the ranger and definitely came away from the day not only having interacted with elephants, but with a bit more critter data in my cranium.
The highlight of the morning was getting up close and personal (up close and pachydermal?) with the stars of the show. Having no fear of the enormous animal, I walked right up to him and his trainer, full of questions about his age, history, future, etc. The trainer looked at me and said, “Have you spent time with elephants before?” I could only laugh and reply in the affirmative, as a detailed list of my many animal visits wasn’t on the morning agenda. After some hugs and kisses, it was time to bid adieu to our new friends and their wonderful keepers. (These men obviously loved their charges and took amazing care of them. It was really impressive to see the relationships that had been formed between man and animal and to hear of how hard the reserve works to send their animals away from the halfway house to safe and healthy forever homes.)
Elephants were the itinerary for the first weekend I was in South Africa, but after that incredible outing, it was time to get down to business. I flew to Johannesburg on business and it was time to clock in. I had a week of community liaison office coordinator training ahead of me- a very full week of conducting training sessions for CLOs posted mostly in Africa, but a few from other regions, who were looking for support and a deeper understanding of their roles in their embassies and consulates. This was an amazing week of teaching (it made me realize how much I miss my classroom!) and networking, but as soon as we wrapped up the last session on Friday afternoon, I was off making plans for a Saturday trip to the lion park!
If you’ve read more than about three entries on this blog, you are well aware that much of my travel revolves around the ability to go see (and more importantly, touch) *all* the animals. Being based in Southeast Asia has given me some fantastic animal-touching opportunities: snuggling a koala, being a mahout for a day, illicitly touching a panda bear, etc. (Click the links for a quick jump to each of those animal-rific tales. They will open in a new window, so no need to worry about losing this one.) If the chance is there, I’m going to take it! With that in mind and with three weeks of being a solo-traveler in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the first things I did was take the chance to go visit the city zoo.
Now, zoos are not my favorite way to see animals, as I much prefer to get even closer and more personal with the critters, but I’ve been to some fantastic animal reserves/parks, which are just fancier names for zoos, but also usually with a bit more forward-thinking take on keeping wild animals. The animal-area in HCMC is called a “zoo,” but that didn’t put me off in the least. San Diego calls their animal park a zoo and it is amazingly well done, creature-centric and education focused.
So, one day last week, I skittered out of work as soon as I could, made the quick dash to my temporary apartment (a mere one block from the consulate- what a commute!) and changed into a sundress and headed out the door, all in the span of about ten minutes. My CLO-provided map (thanks , HCMC CLO office!) said that the zoo was a convenient fifteen minute walk, so after a brief consultation with the front desk to make sure I was headed in the right direction (Vietnamese street names all still look the same to me- I have not gotten to a higher level of language understanding yet!) and a book and a bottle of water in my bag, out I went.
The map did not lie about the distance, but I may have slightly overestimated the convenience factor, mainly because I had to cross several large streets and at this early point in my HCMC tenure I had not yet grasped the finer points of local traffic patterns. (A week and a half in, I can report that I’ve gotten pretty good at playing Vietnamese “Frogger” and can weave my way across six lanes of traffic without missing a step.) Arriving in one piece at the front gate, I was a bit taken aback by the general appearance of the entrance to the zoo; rundown is a sliggt understatement. Rather than reading “zoo,” the welcome had more of a “so-creepy-you-might-die-inside-park” vibes. But whatever. I braved the traffic to get there, I was going to see what it had to offer, so I quickly offered up my two dollar entry fee and headed on in.
Saigon Zoo (the official name) is comprised of two main parts: the animals and the botanical gardens. One of these was well-worth my $2 and the other was not.
I’ve seen a zoo or two in my time, but this one ranks as one of the worst. There was a strange array of animals, everything from reptiles galore to sadly swaying elephants. The most abundant caged animal was deer- there was a huge dirt area dedicated to a herd of probably fifty critters. (The “caged” designation is key, as other than the deer, the second most ubiquitous animal at the zoo was rats. I saw enough free-range rats to last me for the next few weeks. ) The best exhibit was the sea otters, mostly because they were actually active and seemed halfway happy. They had just been fed a bucket of fish heads (where were the bodies?) and were skittering around from pond to pond eating their seafood-inspired lunches.
But, putting aside the deplorable menagerie and wandering a few meters away , I found a decent botanical garden. It was really more of a nice park that a botanical garden (no labels on flora, nothing seemingly in any order), but I’ll stick with their nomenclature on this one. Toss the poor city parks group a proverbial bone! The park was nice. It was filled with benches, a fountain and several smaller parks-within-a-park. It will come as no surprise that my favorite part of the botanical park was the two huge cranes who wandered by the bench where I had settled in with the book I brought along, in hopes of a peaceful evening. (HCMC is *loud,* so any bit of quiet is a nice reprieve from the bus horns, scooter squeals and general ruckus of a quickly expanding Asian city.) But back to the cranes. These two long-legged, long-necked, long-beaked buddies just walked by as if they had not a care in the world and I was just another inanimate object- a piece of the bench. (Did they make their great escape from the zoo side? If so, props to you giant cranes! Run while you can.)
My afternoon at the zoo was definitely not what I had envisioned when I logged off my State Department systems and headed out the door for the day, but it ended up being an interesting and entertaining evening, regardless. Would I recommend the Saigon Zoo to folks headed through town? Nope. But, if I lived here long –term (rather than my current three-week TDY) I think I’d be a frequent visitor, as the breath of fresh air a bit of calm among the chaos of the city would make for a welcome reprieve. Just ignore the swaying elephants, hungry-looking snakes and slightly mangy deer.