A face only a mother could love

We spent two nights at Golondrinas Hostel in Iquitos–an establishment that offers shared rooms for $7 per night, and boasts a pool, which came in handy given that the city was 90-something degrees with 500 percent humidity. The showers were cold–as was generally the case in Peru, whatever the accommodations in question advertised–but Iquitos was the only city in which I couldn’t fathom wanting a hot shower.

Our host, who had demonstrated a great deal of sympathy for animals while advising us about which activities we might enjoy, recommended visiting a manatee habitat. It was the first I’d heard of it, but the young man’s assurance that we could feed the manatees was all that we needed to get our asses into a mototaxi for the 30-minute ride to the facility on the outskirts of time. (Our mototaxi stalled once or twice, and we realized that it was because were out of very, very low on gas when our driver climbed off the seat, where the tank was located, and turned it on its side to eke every last drop of gas out of the tank. We proceeded without stopping, even when we passed gas stations, which Colin and I stared at longingly while our driver gleefully continued on with our trip. We would later learn that this was a very Peruvian resolution to the problem at hand.)

We arrived at the habitat and our driver promised to wait outside, more than happy to nap in the back Peru_Blog Images_3of the mototaxi in order to secure his return fare. We saw some turtles. Nothing too impressive, seeing as how we have them in California. Then an enclosure with three river otters cavorting in a manner that forced me to revise my earlier opinion that penguins are the most adorable creatures on the planet. The path led us to a ramshackle structure partially covering deep pools of green river water. The structures weren’t large–less than the size of a pool, and they reminded me of the sulphuric water reserves outside the house in King City where I grew up. I felt a twinge in my gut–a reminder that I find the sight of any animal in captivity inherently painful, and we were in a country with very different standards than our own. Which is not to suggest that America has a perfect track record with regards to its treatment of animals. I was reminded of the Morro Bay Aquarium, and the sad conditions its “rescued and rehabilitated” marine mammals were forced to endure. Colin was clearly experiencing the same reluctance, and we walked timidly into the facility, wandering directly into a bathtub with a tiny manatee floating listlessly within. We had found the Morro Bay Aquarium of the Amazon. Just what we needed to ruin the trip, and possibly wind up in a Peruvian prison after a failed rescue operation.

I was prepared to leave. Prepared to cry. Possibly vomit.

An employee must have read my expression because he insisted that Colin and I follow him as he narrated the facility’s history and purpose. We were at a rescue facility, he told us, and the baby Peru_Blog Images_5manatee within the tiny tub was in quarantine his first two days at the facility, mostly on account of his fragile condition and the fact that it was much easier to keep tabs on him in the smaller space than it would have been in the giant pool surrounded by larger manatees. He required eight feedings per day of a very expensive nutrient-rich milk–every two to three hours.

They’re gentle creatures. Not particularly attractive, but when you’re occupying a river with snakes and piranhas, it might not be in your best interest to deck yourself out in feather boas and fishnets. Pardon the pun. Or don’t.

There were six adolescents in the large tank, each of which would be released as soon as he or she was sufficiently healthy to withstand the dangers of river life. Apparently, the manatee is ill-equipped to defend itself against its most dangerous predator: humans.

I was relieved. These bulbous, peaceful animals were not prisoners at the mercy of people who did not understand them. Five soles (about $1.80) purchased a tupperware container filled with strips of lettuce, which are fed to them a single leaf at a time. I stepped out onto a small platform, knelt as low as possible, and tapped the water. Indistinct gray forms would surface. They’re practically blind, and it was by tapping the water that would-be feeders attracted their attention. They have bristly whiskers which function as their sensory receptors. After coming to the surface, they run their whiskered mouths inquisitively over the surface of the platform seeking food. Colin was a little disgusted, and I must admit there was a certain sci-fi quality to their exposed mouths, but they were never violent or even exceptionally demanding in their quest for food. I’ve seen much, much worse from my 20-pound cat. On a regular basis.

Their tails, our guide told us, are enormously powerful, and their best defense tool. Sadly, their tails are not sufficiently effective to protect them against humans who hunt them for their meat despite the fact that they are endangered. In Iquitos, we’d encountered a number of restaurants serving endangered animals–nearly all of the restaurants, in fact. And a child tried to sell us bracelets made from some sort of snake skin, which besides giving me the willies, conjured an image of the shitstorm that would take place at customs at LAX if I tried to saunter through wearing an Amazonian reptile on my wrist. Most likely, they’ve already seen it.

There are notices posted all over our hostel that guests are to bring neither animals nor prostitutes back to the hostel. There’s also an advisory that sex slavery involving children will not be tolerated. A good thing to know, a sad thing to have to state.

It’s nice to know that the manatees, at least, have someone looking out for them, and indistinct figures to pat the water and dispense crisp leaves of lettuce while they await their return to the river, to life as usual, whatever that means for a manatee in Peru.

For a video of me feeding the manatees click here.

(PHOTOS BY COLIN RIGLEY)

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