Deep in the Amazon, located outside the small town of Iquitos, Peru, far from electricity, wifi, air conditioning and even warm showers, stands the Rainforest Awareness Rescue and Education Center (RAREC). Its mission, as its founder and president John Garnica puts it, is simple.
“Education is the key to lasting change,” Garnica said. “We want to work with the locals, and provide them with the tools they need to support themselves in an ecologically responsible manner, to protect their homes from the threats facing it and to continue to grow.”
RAREC rescues, rehabilitates and releases any wildlife they come across, whether that’s an injured animal in the wild or an animal they see being illegally trafficked in the local market.
Dr. Heather Robertson, Nashville Zoo Director of Veterinary Services, and Sabrina Barnes, Nashville Zoo Primate Supervisor, traveled down to Peru in November of last year to help RAREC staff with animal training and care.
Nashville Zoo has been assisting RAREC financially and with animal care since it was founded in 2011. Robertson and Barnes were able to stay at RAREC facilities for three days working with them day and night to keep the animals alive and healthy.
“Here in Nashville, we’re fortunate to have a larger staff, but at RAREC they’re just trying to make it through the day,” Robertson said. “We say it’s like ‘Groundhog Day.’ Every day we wake up and you hit the ground running, making sure animals get the food they need.”
Robertson worked primarily with injured or sick animals, while Sabrina helped the volunteer RAREC staff learn safe animal-handling practices. Many of the animals that are brought in are socially abnormal compared to animals of the same species in the wild because they were previously held as pets. This can lead to dangerous incidents if not handled correctly.
“At least one of each animal will cling to a keeper because they’re seeking that comfort because they’re an ex-pet,” Barnes said. “That clinging is not aggressive in itself, but when that keeper needs to leave that’s a chance for the animal to become aggressive.”
Barnes also taught the volunteers target training, a technique that involves training an animal to touch an area or object, so keepers can work with the animal more easily, and gathered a list of practices and tips to research when back in the United States.
The team treats and releases animals whenever possible, but also holds animals with more severe injuries or disabilities for longer periods.
Some of the animals RAREC is currently treating, including tapirs, a giant river otter, Amazonian manatee calves, ocelots, a great variety of primates, including spider monkeys, are found at the local Belen Market, known around the world for its corruption. Because this market is located at the start of the Amazon River and easily accessed by other towns, it is a magnet for illegally trafficked animals and other goods.
“The market has people selling meat of critically endangered animals, but these people don’t really know what they’re doing because this is just what their families have always done for a living,” Robertson said. “They go out to the forests and rivers, hunt the turtles and bring them back to the market.”
Although there is much more work to be done in the field, seeing the destruction of the rainforest firsthand pushes Garnica and his team to do their best to make things better.
“There is no ‘try’ in the Amazon, because the stakes are too high,” Garnica said. “The rainforest will not get a second chance. Therefore, there is only ‘do’ and we are doing our best, giving it our all, because that's the only way to do it right.”
Want to help RAREC?
-RAREC partners with members of the Peruvian community to create hand-made keychains sold at the Nashville Zoo gift shop and other outlets. Proceeds go back to the community. This encourages families, otherwise involved with illegal animal trafficking at the Belen Market, to become self-sustainable without hurting their environment. You can help by purchasing a keychain in our gift shop!
-Volunteer with RAREC onsite: With the size of RAREC continuing to grow, they are in constant need for extra helping hands. If you wish to volunteer, please email them at firstname.lastname@example.org
-Monetary Donations: If you wish to donate money directly to RAREC, contact them by email at email@example.com