Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina

At this time, one year ago, I was working at the only primate rehabilitation center in Argentina. I cannot believe the time has gone by so quickly, or how much I still miss that place.

Going to Argentina last summer to work with monkeys there was by far the greatest experience of my life. It was, in some ways, not at all what I expected but I wouldn’t change it for the world. It still amazes me with everything I learned and experienced there.

There is so much to tell that the hardest part is knowing where to begin. I guess, a good place to start would be the beginning…

After three flights, a three hour bus ride, and a thirty minute taxi ride up the side of a mountain, I finally made it to the primate rehabilitation center. It was not quite what I had been envisioning. It was in the mountains, so it was colder than I had prepared for. But, the landscape was gorgeous and I was immediately greeted by many animals and a few people, which made me (temporarily) forget the cold. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was enough electricity for a few light bulbs, as well as enough running water for two sinks and the restroom located approximately five minutes away from our sleeping quarters. There was even a laundry facility! If you like to wash your clothes in a river that is. Throughout my stay, let’s just say that clothes were not washed as frequently as they could have been. And, when they were, the little waterfall became my “wash and tumble” cycle, my hand soap became laundry detergent, and a fallen tree trunk became my drier. This all worked surprisingly well, except for the fact that my drier required three days time, and I rarely felt that I could sacrifice the article of clothing that I was washing for that long.

Despite these unique living conditions, I loved my time there. I worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, doing anything and everything that needed to be done to take care of 150 Black Howler monkeys, 20 Capuchin monkeys, 50 dogs, 15 llamas, 7 goats, 6 chickens, 2 cats, and 2 pumas. These days consisted of washing food platters, preparing food, carrying food and water, cleaning cages, counting and observing monkeys, acting as a surrogate mother to four infant monkeys, chopping firewood, cleaning the living spaces, and giving tours to many guests.

Needless to say, these animals became my life; and, I loved almost every minute of it. I won’t deny that there were some rough spots, but the good outweighed the bad. In particular, I am so thankful for the bonds that I developed with the animals. One of the baby monkeys became particularly attached to me, and never wanted to leave my side. She would run up to me as soon as she saw me, and wanted nothing more than to sit on my shoulder wrapped up against my face and neck all day. That was my little Pakita. I am hoping to go back to Argentina this fall, and I am curious to see if she will remember me.

The stories I could tell about the animals are endless, but instead I will focus on the big picture. During my five weeks at the rehabilitation center in Argentina, I learned about much more than just animals. I learned about Argentinian culture, I improved my Spanish, I learned about the research process during a field study, I documented and interpreted primate facial expressions. I learned how to read and interpret monkeys. I now know how to feed them, take care of them, even how to administer some medications. I learned about their individual personalities, preferences, and habits. I got to rehabilitate monkeys, and reintroduce them into the wild. I protected and befriended a monkey that was brought to the rehabilitation center after years of abuse. I saw the monkeys grow and thrive. And, I was able to document and analyze their facial expressions and how the monkeys use these to communicate. I also learned about Capuchin monkeys, and experienced their incredible intelligence first-hand. It is no wonder why they are often used in movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Night at the Museum! They are absolutely brilliant! I will never forget how often I was in awe of the animals at the center, or how often the animals taught me a valuable lesson. From the importance of sharing, to not judging a book b y its cover, to the value of life, these animals reminded me of many of life’s important lessons.

There is no substitute for the hands-on experience I received during my time in Argentina. It was an unforgettable experience that has made me a stronger and better person. So, I would like to thank everyone who helped to make my trip possible. In particular, I would like to thank Northern Illinois University for supporting me academically, emotionally, and financially. Thank you for the Honors EYE Grant, the USOAR Grant, and the Provost’s Study Abroad Travel Grant. Without these donations, I never would have been able to go on this trip, nor would I have been able to change the lives of animals, or my own.

Monkey Kiss

Baby Monkey on Shoulder

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USOARing to Argentina

If you have read my other posts, I have mentioned a grant I applied for at NIU, called USOAR. This grant can provide students with up to $2,500 of funding for a research or artistry project! What a great deal. I applied for USOAR, and found out about a month ago that I RECEIVED THE GRANT! That means I now have $2,500 for my trip to Argentina this summer, thanks to NIU. Unfortunately, this does not cover all of the cost, so if anyone would like to fund my trip, or knows of other means for funding, I would greatly appreciate any input! 🙂

In case you don’t remember why I am going to Argentina. Here is a quick summary: I will be spending six weeks in Argentina, volunteering at the country’s only primate rehabilitation center. I’ll be doing everything from cleaning and repairing enclosures, to feeding baby monkeys. Yes, I will get to bottle-feed monkeys! I’ll also be conducting a research project while I’m there. The project is attempting to record and document the facial expressions of the Black Howler monkeys, which are the predominant species at the rehabilitation center.

No running water or electricity is a small price to pay for having the opportunity to improve my Spanish, and help animals. I can’t wait!

Sophomore Year, Second (And Third) Project

Participating in Research Rookies freshman year has gotten me hooked. Now, I can’t get enough of research.  I have always loved learning about various topics and in multiple ways, so I guess it’s no real surprise that I love research. As the title of this post implies, I am working on some new projects this year! One of which I am doing through the Research Rookies program, and the other I am doing due to the inspiration and help that the Research Rookies program and its team provided.

As I said, I like to learn about many topics in different ways. So, for this year, I decided to get into a more typical lab setting. But, since I apparently don’t do anything by the book, I decided to get involved in a lab in the Psychology Department. Yes, I am a Biology major working in a Psychology lab. However, there is some method to the madness. I want to learn about as many aspects of animal research as possible, and the lab I am working  in now works with rats! Oh they  are so cute! They really are a lot of fun, and I’ve already learned a ton this year. In these first few months, I have run some trials with the rats all by myself,  I have gathered and analyzed data, made graphs from the data, made a poster for a presentation, assisted with minor surgeries, created microscope slides from tissue, analyzed the tissue samples, learn about histology, and much more! I am so excited to be working in this lab, because the amount of things I can  learn seems endless! If I  have learned this much in a few months,  just imagine what I will learn throughout the rest of the year! The lab also lets me be very involved, and helps me every step of the way. I am a part of a team, and I might even be running my own study next semester! Overall, I’ve already had an amazing experience, and I am looking forward to what it yet to come!

The office that runs the Research Rookies program also oversees a program called USOAR – Undergraduate Special Opportunities in Artistry and Research. Essentially, this is a grant program that will allocate a student up to $2,500 for a project!

Once again, I came up with a crazy idea. Long story short, I found the only primate rehabilitation center in Argentina was looking for volunteers, and decided that I would like to work with monkeys and improve my Spanish. So, I applied to volunteer in Argentina for six weeks over this coming summer. Because it is just a volunteer trip, I have to fund the trip myself. This is where I was able to incorporate USOAR, and make my goal of volunteering in Argentina more of a reality. I once again addressed a professor, (this time from Anthropology) to see if she would be willing to be my faculty support for my Argentina research. She too, was a little skeptical at first, but was incredibly helpful from the start. I came up with the  idea to analyze facial expressions in the monkeys, and compare them to the already documented expressions of other types of monkeys and apes. Now that I had the support of a faculty member and a research idea, I was able to submit a proposal for a USOAR grant. I haven’t heard back yet, but I’ll keep you all updated as I find out more.

All of these incredible experiences that I have had this year are all in part because of the Research Rookies program. It helped give me the confidence to approach professors and pursue my crazy ideas. No we’ll just have to wait and see what happens! 🙂

Thanks for reading!