My high school friend, Paige, studied abroad at a wildlife refuge center located outside of a remote fishing village in northern Belize with no electricity or running water. Paige returned after a Summer, the happiest I had ever seen her. She recounted tales of wild adventures assisting in the care of primates and manatees during their rehabilitation at Wildtracks. After hearing about her experiences, I wanted nothing more than to join her. Last Summer was the perfect opportunity, and I was able to volunteer with Wildtracks for twelve weeks.

Arriving to Wildtracks was a little bit of a shock given the living conditions. I arrived during the rainy season and as they operate solely on solar power, electricity was extremely rare. After a few weeks of adjusting to brackish water bucket showers and waking up with the roosters, I found my place among the fourteen volunteers. I established a daily routine based around the four monkey and manatee feeds that started at 6am and ended at 6pm. Because Wildtracks is the only reliable animal center available to much of Belize, it often takes in any animal that is found as an illegal pet or rescued from unsafe zoos. Missy, a Neotropical otter, came to Wildtracks after the Office of the Environment found her and her brother swimming around in a gentleman’s bathtub. Although the main skills of the center did not specialize in carnivorous mammals, Wildtracks was quick to accept Missy and aid in her rehabilitation.

Missy had been residing at Wildtracks for about eight months when I arrived, and I inherited the role as her main keeper when a volunteer’s term ended. The learning curve is extremely steep at a place like Wildtracks, as it is nearly entirely staffed by volunteers who often leave after only a few short months. I had no idea what to expect when I first learned that I was going to be caring for an otter, and the swarms of mosquitoes outside made me less than excited to be spending time in the shallow lagoon looking out for her. To introduce me to Missy, the previous caretaker took me out for a swim with her to see how we interacted.

Missy was more like a small puppy (with incredibly sharp teeth) than anything else. She dug for crabs in the shallow lagoon and eagerly scampered up (with her incredibly sharp claws) her caretaker’s shoulder to show off her prize and chomp loudly in the caretaker’s ear. With a quick chirp, Missy dove again into the lagoon to search for another treat. This continued for twenty more minutes before we lured her back into her enclosure using a freshly caught fish. After that I was sold, and Missy was mine to care for throughout the duration of my stay. I returned to Wildtracks earlier this year to visit the monkeys and friends I had left behind last summer, but Missy wasn’t there. She was able to be released just two months ago into the lagoon system of Belize. Her tracker collar shows she’s doing quite well and those daily hunts for crabs and fish have prepared her well for the wild. I hope to return to Wildtracks again after I graduate and donate more of my time with the incredible creatures that show up to its doors. More animals that we cared for include Yucatan Black Howler monkeys, Geoffroy’s Spider Monkeys, Florida Manatees, and Currasow. I’ll never forget my time in Belize, and be forever thankful to the volunteers and staff who allow so many volunteers to make a difference in the lives of over one hundred animals at the center.

–Taylor Billings

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