article by E.J. Brunton
In 1994 I volunteered at a wild animal refuge in Mazan, Ecuador, just on the outskirts of the Cajas nature reserve about twenty minutes from Cuenca.
The road to Mazan wound up and up the mountainside through groves of shaggy eucalyptus and spiny penco cactus. Tiny white adobe houses with red tile roofs replaced the cinder-block citified houses. Early morning smoke from a twig fire curled out from under their eaves. I pictured the farmers eating their first meal of the day, probably rice and sweet black coffee. The marvelously adaptable cows that dotted the hillsides didn’t seem to mind that it was over 3,000 meters high.
The rutted dirt path to the refuge angled sharply from the highway and tilted steeply down to a stream bed. My Nissan was squeezed between the lush vegetation that tickled its roof and the rocks that scraped its poor bottom. It forded the shallow stream, only slipping a bit on the glacier-rounded rocks.
The road turned to sand and climbed higher once more. At the top was the rambling old hacienda that Steve, the man in charge, had described. Two large dogs came bounding out and launched themselves at the car, peering at me menacingly.
Alerted by their barking, Steve lumbered out with shouts and reassurances. He was a gentle giant of an Englishman with a ready smile and, I was soon to find out, some great stories. Dodging the effervescent dogs I followed him into the dark, cool of the hacienda. Its three-foot thick walls and small windows kept it well insulated from extremes of heat or cold.
As we sat at the rough plank table in the kitchen, enjoying a cup of tea from “over home”, he told me about his employers, a couple who produced BBC documentaries on endangered species. They lugged their young children all over the world with them. Right now Ecuador was their home base and Steve was their general dog’s body. He could do anything from fixing vehicles, building cages, chauffeuring, repairing leaky roofs as well as caring for the animals.
Many and varied jobs had given him this vast experience: London bus driver, zoo keeper for a Saudi Arabian prince, Carnival worker in the US and insect expert at the London zoo. Through this job he had been asked to handle the insects in the first Indiana Jones film, “The Temple of Doom”. He actually had to place all those cockroaches and stick insects on Harrison in one of the scenes.
"We're funded by various wildlife agencies but it’s never enough so I can't pay you but I can give you lunch," Steve apologized. I agreed to show up tomorrow to learn my duties.
I was so excited that I could hardly sleep. Morning found me once more outside the hacienda. Steve was already getting the food ready for the animals. He negotiated with the vendors in huge open air markets such as Arenal in Cuenca to sell him fruit and vegetables cheaply at the end of the day.
He showed me around the large property with its capacious cages complete with trees and other vegetation. The first one housed garishly colored parrots which had been given to the refuge when their owners tired of them. “Usually they come in bald or tailless. Parrots are social animals and when they get bored they pull all their feathers out,” he told me pointing to a large naked macaw.
The pair of kinkajou, being nocturnal animals, didn’t appreciate being woken at this absurd hour. Their black button eyes blinked out at me from their wooden house, as they whined peevishly. Other animals like song birds, parrots, wooly monkeys, tiny jungle squirrels and coatimundis (long-nosed cousin to our raccoons) were confiscated from street vendors. They had been ripped from their natural habitats and were paraded heartlessly about the city to be bought by people who didn't know what they were getting into. They ended up shivering, possibly starving or at the least being fed an improper diet of rice or bread as prisoners on the end of chains in a forgotten corner of the garden. "They bite, they stink, they are dirty," the people would say in defence of treating them like this.
A young falcon, whose wing had been damaged by a bullet, was making some tentative flapping motions unsure about how far the healing wing would take him. He settled back to tear at the mouse Steve proffered. At least mice were plentiful and free in this part of the world.
Most curious was a cage with a long glass aquarium sunk into the hilly ground. One side was exposed and the tank was lavishly planted with fresh-water greenery. An aerator kept the water rushing for the glittering trout.
Steve explained, “We filmed an episode about Ecuador’s fishing mouse. It was too difficult to do on location so a few of the mice and their favorite diet, trout, were brought from Cajas and put into the cage and aquarium. The mice dove in and caught the trout and we caught them on film." (Note: When looking for a picture for this article I found that they exists only in three locations in Cajas and are endangered. For more information see the link at the end of this post.)
They had succeeded in making the cages as close to the natural setting as they could. The wild guinea pig’s enclosure was planted with shrubs and various grasses to emulate the pampas - the setting for another film. Wild guinea pigs were rare now Guinea pigs are usually encountered scurrying around the walls of some farmer’s hut. Guinea pig is a delicacy in this area of Ecuador and is quite delicious when roasted whole over hot coals. We had a flock of about 200 guinea pigs for sale and personal use on our own farm when I lived there.
But my reverie was interrupted as we came upon the stars of the show, the spectacled bears. The two largest bears Jubal and Palmira had, until the flood in 1992, lived in a cement-floored cage at a tourist resort. I had often seen them there and my heart had gone out to them. They paced ceaselessly to the end of their short cage, and threw their heads back in a repetitious and abnormal pattern before taking the few short paces back again. Their coats were sparse and dull largely because of an unimaginative and inappropriate diet of rice and leftovers from the restaurant.
The spectacled bear gets its name from the white or cream colored ring of fur around its eyes. They are seriously endangered now due to the loss of habitat and relentless hunting. It was a passion of the owners at Mazan Wildlife Refuge to rescue and rehabilitate these creatures for eventual release into the wild again. Tours of the refuge were discouraged. They just didn’t want the animals to get any more used to human beings than was absolutely necessary.
Just prior to the flood Steve’s boss had borrowed the bears for a film shoot. He built a large enclosure on a mountain top where he released Jubal and Palmira. They must have rejoiced in their new found semi-freedom. “You see, this way we could get shots of them behaving as they would in their world without traipsing all over looking for the few remaining wild ones,” said Steve.
Luckily for Jubal and Palmira the tourist resort suffered a lot of flood damage so they remained at the refuge. “We used the wire and poles from the mountain top enclosure to build the large cages on the property,” he told me. The bear enclosure was complete with cement swimming pool and water fall. The fresh running water quenched their thirst and they had all the leaves, fruit and berries they could eat.
A second cage held two very undernourished bears that were abandoned by a traveling circus. The third inhabitant was Boogie who had been a pet until he got too strong and unruly. He still had a collar on which was constricting his throat as he grew. He would have to be anaesthetized in order to get it off.
“Here’s your state of the art equipment,” said Steve handing me the broom, dustpan and bucket. He gave me instructions on how to clean out the bear dung. I was never to enter the cage with Jubal and Palmira unless I lured them first into a smaller enclosure. They were just too big and dangerous after being teased by humans for years.
I could enter the other cage directly, keeping a watchful eye on the playful Boogie who loved to take a playful swipe at my bare leg. A loud “Hey you!” and a wave of the broom usually did the trick but I must admit I was nervous as he retreated and circled me. The dung smelled of oranges and fruit so it wasn’t too unpleasant.
When it came time for the big bears mischievous Jubal scooped up a nice little patty of mud and pee and threw it right in my face as I tried to lure him into the smaller interior enclosure. But we soon got used to one another.
I made friends with other volunteers during my several month’s tenure at Mazan and got a glimpse of how nature films are made. I hiked the nearby hills with Steve and marveled at the tiny mountain parrots and toucans so unexpected in this colder climate. I saw Jubal and Palmira become proud parents of two bouncing black cubs. I lamented with Steve over the difficulty of finding a release spot for the smaller bears and rejoiced at the falcon’s first flight and his final release.
This refuge for wild animals had become my refuge as well.
Note: I had forgotten the name of the refuge and the film makers but today I discovered this link:
And for a learned dissertation on the fishing mouse link here: