I have always had the childhood fantasy of being an animal keeper. To be a feeder of wildlife, a friend of beasts sounded like a dream job… until a party pooper would burst my bubble with horror stories of menial tasks and dirty manual labour. “All you’ll be doing is clean animal poop,” they say. “You won’t actually get a chance to interact with the animals.”
Is working at a wildlife rescue centre all dirt and no play? I was about to find out during my weekend volunteering at the Jogjakarta Wildlife Rescue Centre, a Fuze Ecoteer Responsible Travel programme.
As the name suggests, the Jogjakarta Wildlife Rescue Centre (WRC) is located in Yogjakarta, Indonesia. WRC houses over 200 animals and 27 different species including raptors, gibbons, wild cats, and the main attraction – orang utans. But WRC is no mere menagerie, the animals that seek refuge here all have a sorry past they keep behind their defensive stares. Some were kidnapped from their homes, some were exotic pets of bored owners, and others came close to becoming a prize on the dinner table. With the help of the Ministry of Forestry Republic of Indonesia, these rescued wildlife were given a sanctuary in WRC until they can be rehabilitated and released back into the wild.
WRC has over 30 employees, including animal keepers and veterinarians who come together to help make the animals as comfortable as possible. I was to be one of their many foreign volunteers who shadow a different animal keeper each day and work up close with the incredible wildlife. On my To-Do List for the weekend included preparing animal feed, feeding animals, cleaning cages and yoga.
Task 1: Karma Yoga
We set up our blue yoga mats at one of the many mini-villages that are scattered throughout the centre. At dawn, we move to the beautiful sound of gibbons singing their hearts out; At dusk, our tired bodies and busy minds tune out to the sound of silence, occasionally interrupted by the pitter patter of rain or an orchestra of crickets. As my rigid body softens, the sound of the forest exfoliated the rusty edges of my soul. If there were a perfect place to do yoga, this was it. Have you ever heard the echoes of gibbons? It is one of the most beautiful sounds in the world. The whooping sound, almost like a harmonious siren, reverberates throughout the forest and resonates within you. But it’s one thing to hear the sounds, and another to see the furry black primates singing right in front of your eyes. I can still feel the vibrations in my heart as they playfully swing themselves around the cage while belting out their tune.
It was a shame I didn’t get to work closely with the gibbons and orang utans because all volunteers must be vaccinated before they are allowed to work in the primate enclosures. We also had to wear a face mask to keep our viruses away from the animals. The disappointment did not last long as I was thoroughly comforted by the sincere level of care the centre showed towards protecting the welfare of both wildlife and volunteers.
Task 2: Cleaning bird poop
Instead, I was given the opportunity to bond with the many raptors, owls, parrots and frisky little porcupines in the centre. Pak Sang Sang, a 40-something tanned-skin uncle who smiled with his eyes led us to the raptor enclosure that houses about 20 odd eagles and owls. I marvelled at the handsomeness of the Changeable Hawk-Eagles, I looked into the sad eyes of a blind hawk, I couldn’t stop gawking at the Barred Eagle-Owl who eyed me with so much suspicion, and I laughed so hard at the porcupines who had so much zest in their steps.
Opposite the raptor enclosure was the parrot enclosure. Like a Faber Castell painting coming to life, it was the most colourful space I had ever been in. A volunteer and I tried to get the parrots to say “Hi” but it responded us with high-pitched sounds of human laughter! There must have been so much joy and laughter in the centre amongst the animal keepers and volunteers that the parrots were able to mimic it so effortlessly.
Pak Sang Sang handed us a coconut broom each and instructed us to clean bird droppings and fruits that were scattered on the floor of the cages. With much care, we entered the birdcages and brushed the floor, using the force of water to reveal the clean cement underneath the dirt. It was a mix of excitement, adrenalin, caution and honour to be able to be within arms reach of these magnificent animals. Every second in the four wired walls with the bird, we kept cautious of their speed and sharp claws. However, the birds were often nonchalant about our existence. They would look us in acknowledgement and return to staring into the abyss. It was as if the animal returned the humble respect we gave them.
Task 3: Feeding time
The dangerous nature of these birds was evident during feeding time. Feeding the parrots was fun; we stuck fresh papayas, corn, and bananas onto logs that were hanging from the roof. Once we closed the cage door behind us, the parrots would immediately flock over to the fruits and with the might of their curved beaks, they would tear up the fruits and use their grey tongues to manoeuvre bits of fruits into their mouth.
“Now it’s time for you to kill some mice to feed the raptors,” Rosa, the PR manager of WRC, announced. She could not be more wrong. We were about to euthanise some live lizards instead. Sensing our discomfort, Pak Sang Sang kindly took it upon himself to comatose the little lizards. With each hard smack on the floor, he comforted us with a shake of his head and a wave of his hand, muttering “Tidak apa apa, tidak apa apa… (No problem, no problem).”
While he did all the dirty work, we had the honour of tossing the fainted lizards into the individual raptor cages. This was to be done by opening the cage door by ever so slightly. Pak Sang Sang repeatedly reminded us to be quick and careful as the raptor might mistakenly sink its sharp talons into our arms instead of the lizard. I aimed and threw the lizard into the cage with the speed of a clumsy human and the raptors showed their gratitude with a show of their lethal speed.
Task 4: Food preparation
My yearning to work with the primates came true the next day when I was assigned to food preparation duty. It was in between removing rotten fruits from fresh ones when I learnt that all animal feed that enters the centre are leftovers donated by Carrefour Hypermarket. Although WRC works closely with the wildlife and forestry department, the centre is 100% reliant on donations from kind-hearted volunteers and organisations.
I entered the food prep area with fear that it would be a long day sorting stinky fruits, but the friendly animal keepers were so interesting to chat with I lost track of time. They practised their English with me while I practised my Indonesian. And because we were quick to be done, they assigned me a special task of preparing fruit iced lollies for the primates!
It was such a fun little project! For the orang utans, we stuffed an assortment of diced fruits, peanuts, banana leaves, flowers, twigs, honey and water into a plastic water bottle and put them in a freezer. For the gibbons, we used a syringe and injected honey and water into hollow toy balls. Busy with their daily tasks, the animal keepers can only afford to reward the animals with these enrichment toys with the help of volunteers.
The orang utans loved their iced lollies. I saw how Ucok lovingly shared her lollie with her baby, how Boni greedily ripped open the plastic bottle, how Dedek dipped his frozen bottle into his water trough to speed up the melting, and how Gogon carefully twist open the bottle cap and stick his tongue into the bottle. What unique human-like personalities these orang utans have!
A warm sense of satisfaction flows through my blood vessels as I saw how each of the orang utans, gibbons and even birds enjoyed the different food enrichment that I had prepared over the weekend. The joyful image of them savouring and playing with something other than the usual fruits and veggies will stay with me forever.
But that is not the only memorable moment during my weekend volunteering in the Jogjakarta Wildlife Rescue Centre. This weekend may have been filled with unglamorous tasks of cleaning poop and sorting fruits, but it was filled with unforgettable, sincere memories. I will never forget my first time being mooned by a macaque’s red behind, the true passion the animal keepers have for the centre, and I will definitely never forget seeing the cutest thing I had ever seen in my life – a leopard cat cub.