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ARCAS Guatemala

ARCAS Guatemala

When I was interviewed for vet school, one of the questions my interviewer asked me was “what do you think the most difficult part of vet school is going to be?”. After taking 4 years off from school to work at various zoos and sanctuaries – hard work, on my feet, for 10+ hours per day and usually with a second job to make ends meet – my answer was easy: “sitting in a classroom every day and expecting to learn well that way.” That proved to be incredibly true, to the point that I was questioning why I ever chose to be a vet when I was so happy with my life beforehand. I’ve spent the last year being stressed out, sitting in a classroom, studying for hours on end, feeling like I’m not learning anything, and being incredibly unhappy.

Then I went to ARCAS and remembered why I wanted to become a veterinarian in the first place.

ARCAS is a non-profit Guatemalan GNO formed in 1989 by a group of Guatemalan citizens who became concerned as they saw their natural habitat and the wildlife that lived in it rapidly declining. They exist to help injured or confiscated wildlife recover enough to rejoin their conspecifics back in the wild and provide a permanent home or find a permanent home at a proper facility for those animals that are non-releasable. When the Guatemalan government stops illegal wildlife traffickers, they confiscate the smuggled animals and bring them to ARCAS for care. When locals find injured wildlife, they bring the animal to ARCAS for care. The most common intakes are howler and spider monkeys and parrots and macaws, though we were also able to work with anteaters, coatimundi, crocodiles, ocelots, jaguars, and a few raptors. It can take up to a decade to properly and successfully rehabilitate a primate so that it is ready to live a wild life, especially if the animal came in at a very young age. Each individual animal that comes in requires intensive and potentially long-term care.

Nestled in the middle of the forest near Flores, Guatemala, ARCAS is isolated from cell phone service and internet signal. The property is totally natural and the work day starts bright and early at 6am to avoid working in the heat of the day if possible. We arrived the morning after 2 flights and a 9-hour overnight bus ride and were given a tour, but the next day we dove into the daily work routine. Three students were assigned to the vet clinic each day while the rest of us tended to the daily husbandry of the animals. In a clinical setting, most of the illnesses presented by exotic and avian cases are illnesses that are prevented by proper husbandry. Because of this, it’s very important for us as veterinarians to know the basic natural history of an exotic animal or bird, and we got to learn just that by participating in their daily routine. We rotated animals so that each of us could get experience with different species. After 6am rounds, we ate breakfast and convened in the outdoor library for discussion-based lectures. Lecture topics ranged from primate care and bird husbandry to the exotic pet trade, to what the government requires before an animal can be released, and how ARCAS maintains medical records. We followed lecture with another round of animal care, lunch, and then afternoon close-up. Being at a wildlife facility meant that although there was a schedule for us every day, that schedule could easily be interrupted. There were at least 2 instances of our morning lectures being interrupted by a new animal intake or because a wild boa constrictor was found stuck in the fence one of the spider monkey habitats. Even daily “routine” in the clinic was subject to change.

Clinic cases included daily medication, fecal floats, CBCs, and tube feeding a variety of animals. Each of us got a different experience during our clinic days, but Dr. Morales also made sure we were able all able to get experience with birds, crocodiles, and goats during our “all-clinic” days. On these days, all of us students participated in a mass treatment procedure. One day, we caught up all the birds in quarantine for vaccination and dewormer. Another day, we drained the reptile pond to catch, weigh, and measure a handful of turtle species and catch, restrain, measure and weigh, and draw blood on crocodiles, including a Cayman. Later in the week we went to visit a private collection of wild animals nearby. We literally chased all of their goats around, caught them, trimmed their hooves and gave them preventatives. I was able to catch an emu before we all went to vaccinate the flock of Currosow. Everyone got their hands on a large bird, and half of us got pooped on by a large bird. We visited the peccaries and tapirs on the property as well, but just to see them.

Over the weekend, our group visited Tikal, the oldest and largest excavated Mayan ruin site in Central America. We went on a tour in the middle of the day and most of us got up at 4am the next morning for the sunrise tour. We hiked to the top of one of the Mayan temples for the sunrise, but it was too foggy to see. We did, however, hear a troop of Howler monkeys in the distance, making the fog slightly spookier. We enjoyed touring around the ruins, relaxing in the pool of the hotel, and hanging out getting to know each other in a beautiful country. We had one day to kill between finishing the program at ARCAS and coming back to St. Kitts, so naturally we spent it at La Aurora Zoo in Guatemala City. I knew most of the people I went on the trip with, but I’m happy to say that I became friends with all of them during the trip. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to go adventuring with.

The unpredictable nature of working with wildlife was a refreshing change of pace from the classrooms at Ross. The staff was great: always eager to help me learn more, challenge me, and make me a better caretaker, student and veterinarian, and they appreciated by enthusiasm for Star Wars Day (and how can you not love a staff that approves of your Star Wars scrubs?). I am very thankful for the opportunity to learn from Dr. Morales, Dr. Hernadez, Anna, and Nele, and for the chance to be a small part of such an amazing organization. I was constantly learning, applying, and loving every second of my experience. This is why I want to be a veterinarian. I want to be constantly learning, having fun, and making an impact on the world through wildlife.


Thank you to Taylor Tvede from Ross University for this awesome experience piece!

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