Adventures Abroad: A day’s work at the Amaru Zoo

Be careful — they can kill you!” the Zookeeper jokes as I recoil from an aggressive parrot at Cuenca’s Amaru Zoo. The quip comes from Victoria Arbelaez, the owner of the zoo, while she teaches me how to clean the aviary and restock the food trays with dozens of hungry birds still inside.


I am one of eight Lewis & Clark students to do volunteer work at the Amaru Zoo, and I’m simultaneously fascinated and intimidated by the creatures that we care for. The zookeepers at Amaru are often amused by my overly cautious nature, especially around animals as seemingly harmless as birds. In my own defense, my skittishness around the parrots isn’t entirely unreasonable — macaws are capable of crushing a person’s knuckle in their beaks when they’re provoked.


Fortunately, the parrots at the Amaru Zoo are well-accustomed to humans, and don’t make any attempt to bite me. Rather, they offer salutations: when I enter the aviary, I’m greeted with a chorus of “Hola!” “Hola!” “Hola!” from the dozens of birds that were originally held captive as illegal pets in Cuenca. The parrots’ scratchy, high-pitched imitations of human speech are amusing, but they also serve as a sobering reminder that all of the animals at Amaru were rescued from unsafe situations in Cuenca.


Whether we’re bathing enormous Galapagos tortoises or measuring the growth of tiny frogs, there’s always something interesting to do at the Amaru zoo. One of my favorite jobs is holding small eagles for the raptor trainer while he takes them out of their cages for flight practice. All I have to do is hold one of the smaller raptors and prevent it from flying off prematurely.


Holding raptors is an easy job for a professional, but as a novice I struggled at first, trying to prevent the bird from flying away while adjusting to the feeling of its sharp talons poking through my leather handler’s glove. I had to hold my arm out straight for as long as the hefty bird is perched on my wrist. Holding this position saps my arm’s strength after a while, but if I relax my muscles the raptor instinctively tries to fly away, which provokes a great deal of clawing and squawking from both of us.


As with any job, working at the zoo has its mundane moments, but those are usually followed by fascinating close encounters with animals I’ve only ever seen at a distance. Case in point: one afternoon, after a day of painting enclosures and cleaning bird cages, one of the zookeepers offered to give me an up-close-and-personal look at one of the zoo’s more dangerous residents. I’m excited, but also a little nervous — this time, if a zookeeper warned me that the animal could kill me, they wouldn’t be joking.


However, while I feel an incredible adrenaline rush from standing next to a massive crocodile, the poor beast doesn’t make any attempt to attack me. In fact, he probably doesn’t even know I’m there. The crocodile was shot in the head ten times before being rescued and relocated by the Amaru staff. As a result, the colossal reptile is now blind: one of his eyes had to be removed and the other one barely opens.


I’ve been fascinated by crocodiles my entire life. Their scaly visage and smooth, angular bodies have always reminded me of the dinosaurs that enthralled me as a child. I’m also impressed and intimidated by their colossal size: at Amaru, 14 men were needed to lift the “ciego cocodrilo” into its new enclosure. As a result, it saddens me to see this once-mighty animal reduced to a quiet, listless shell of its former self.


As of publication, it is still unclear whether the blind crocodile will survive. Crocodiles are tough, but being shot 10 times will take a toll on just about any animal. The zookeepers at Amaru have had trouble getting him to eat, and the trauma he’s been through may simply be too much to recover from.


It’s always discouraging when the zoo’s inhabitants struggle to recover from trauma, especially trauma that was inflicted by aggressive humans. However, my time holding hawks and feeding parrots reminds me that many of the creatures here are able to get back on their feet (or talons or paws) and live a comfortable, safe life at the zoo. The fact that so many rescued animals have survived is a testament to the dedication of staff  at Amaru, and it’s an honor to work alongside them.


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