I spent 5 weeks volunteering at La Paz Zoológico with Upclose Bolivia and you can read more about my experience living in La Paz here. In this post I will just be talking about the zoo as I have a tonne of animal pictures. I’m also gonna say that the zoo does really good work, yes some of the cages are small BUT over 90% of the animals have been rescued from cruelty and death. It might not be perfect but many cannot be released into the wild and I know that everyone who works there cares deeply about them and this is the best situation. It could be better, yes, but so can everything. Maybe you could make a donation if you feel strongly and would like to help.
I only had two shifts as the zoo on the first week due to one being cancelled and spending sometime at the horse centre. Vary met me on a very cold grey morning, sometimes the mornings in La Paz are Perry grey but true sun soon burns he clouds away. I was taken into the zoo and introduced to a bunch of people who’s names I instantly forgot, but I would learn over the course of the 5 weeks. I got given a special pair of overalls and I was off to work. Johnny number 1 (there are two) took me to one the cage where this guy lived. Yep I’ve forgotten then name.
Johnny was carrying a petrol powered strimmer and he told me that I was going to cut the grass. I was a little concerned as I hate strummers and this was powerful. I soon found out he was cutting the grass and put on lots of safety equipment. My job was to take the grass and take it to the finish area. I was soon introduced to Santiago who looked after the animals in this area which included bears, parrots, doves, a turkey, hawks and owls. I spent a lot of time with Santiago and cleaned out the cages. My main jobs was assisting the zoo keepers with feeding and cleaning the animals but there were other fun things to do.
The next day I went around with Johnny 2 who looked after an ostrich, tortoises, condors, vicuñas, pigs, llamas and aplacas. With Johnny I spent several shifts. On one occasion I had to split up some llamas as one was being the alpha male and attacked another, I cleaned the water pools and each time I turned around the alpacas had creeped up on me but ran away at the sight of my face. To be honest they are weird looking creatures and I was kinda scared of them. One day a little baby llama was born so let’s start with pics of him. Johnny didn’t speak any English so it was fun trying to make myself understood. Especially the day he had the afternoon off and had to rush back to El Alto to watch the France vs Belgium semi final.
And the pics of the Jonny’s other animals
The final zookeeper I spent a lot of time with was Alison. Alison did speak English well but I was trying not to speak too much. With Alison I looked after sheep, pigs, rabbits, parrots, condors, turkeys, more parrots as there were a lot of species. One cage is particularly as fun as the birds were a little aggressive and when I was laughing as the vet ran away from the birds that were chasing her this guy jumped on my head.
With Alison I did a deep clean of the cages. On Thursdays they clean the animals cages much more throughly and due to the cleaning products involved they can’t feed the animals as they normally would. This is where someone the enrichment comes in and I’ll come on to this later. And here are some of Alison’s other animals.
On one of my last days Alison took me on her weekend round that included anacondas, which I was fine with until she opened the door and told me to hose the area down. It’s humid and requires lots of water. Luckily for me they were well fed and stayed still the entire time. I also got to count the turtles and see a few other reptiles Upclose.
Another area that I was sent to a few times had some horses donkeys and vicuñas. It was fun to get Upclose and feed them and there was a new born goal that was in a larger area outside the cages who delighted in stealing all the food I was trying to give to the other animals.
As I said above I spent a lot of time with Santigo, despite only knowing a few words of English he always smiled and went out of his way to make me feel welcome. Another task I complied with him was the weekly cleaning of the rabbits and guinea pigs. Luckily for these guys they were not on anyone’s menu unlike the donkeys who I fed the loose hay. But let’s look at the cute animals first.
Okay so now death. We had an interesting conservation with John and Sharon about this. In the hospital there was a field of donkeys and Santiago one day told me they feed them to the carnivores, as the zoo has Pumas and Jaguars who need to be fed. I tried to keep an eye on the number of donkeys but one day John, who is the and was volunteering at the zoo with his mother Sharon, asked if they were feeding the donkeys to the animals as he had worked out something was going on too. We had a discussion about the ethics of it and all decided that the meat has to come from somewhere. So is it any worse to have live animals on site and slaughter them for meat or to buy it from a slaughterhouse. It did make me feel uneasy watching he donkeys who were effectively on death row, but I eat meat and it’s exactly where it comes from. I suppose by shopping in supermarkets I’ve become desensitised to the process and it was interesting to discuss and question. I don’t think the zoo are doing anything wrong, they are simply being the hunter in the process as they can’t let the cats hunt. Speaking of which here are the cats being fed some chicken.
One day Sharon, Matthias, John and I were told that we were going fishing. There is a medium sized pond with ducks and geese and a tonne of fish. We took our lines, filled a bucket with water and headed to the water. Walking out on one of the platforms we had one hour until the zoo opened. John went first and soon had hauled up a fish using the bread as bait. It turns out they are hungry and no so bright. I think I’m the end we caught 7 fish, 4 of which were Johns. It was really challenging to get the hook out their mouths and I had trouble keeping them still when we did. I wasn’t wearing gloves and they jumped all over the place. We put the fish in the bucket and they were distributed to the cats cages so that they had something to play with at dinner time. I was also impressed that I managed to catch a fish and I had a second go in my last day when it was just myself and the zoo keeper, that time o caught three but she caught eight in a row. Still successful fishing. Tick.
One fun task we did was to make nice for the monkeys. We had to collect bottles, lean them, make holes in the lids and fill the bottles with fruit, milk and vitamins. The juices where then given to the monkeys. Sadly I don’t have pictures with them and the juice but I do have a video I’ll post when I can.
At other times we would do animal enrichment which meant making toys for the animals to play with. We did this for the pigs several times and as these are intelligent animals we had to find a game that would be worthy of them.
We went collecting bottles, cut off the necks and slotted two identical bottles together. We melted small holes in the side and pushed food through. The idea behind this is that the pigs push them along with their snouts and the food falls out, but it’s not too easy for them. Here’s it in action.
So I could go into loads of detail about my time at the zoo but I think this is enough to give you a decent idea. Whilst I now know I wouldn’t want to be a zookeeper full time I would jump at the chance to do it again. Everyone was so lovely and even write me notes when I left. The language barrier was a small challenge but it didn’t stop me interacting as best as I could. On the last day I took a lot of photos with the animals so I’ll leve you with those for now.