It all started when a lorry driver brought them a monkey he’d run over. The owners of Sende Verde agreed to keep it, and now they have over four hundred animals, some rescued from illegal trafficking, some abandoned pets – all rescued from lives of misery.
Visitors can see black spider, orange howler and capuchin monkeys at close quarters. Dangling from thin branches, bodies elongated, swinging hand over hand, snapping twigs, catapulting, somersaulting, scratching; the original bungy jumpers. Guests are discouraged from touching. ‘We try to minimise contact with humans. ‘Monkey parents’ (human surrogates) get to touch, we don’t’, explained Jenny, a volunteer from Greece. Some monkeys are free to roam, others are caged, some tethered – depending on their psychological state. Watching two baby black spider monkeys play we can see why people find them cute. People keep them as pets, dress them up in clothes.
Trouble hits when monkeys reach sexual maturity, around one year of age. They become aggressive, wreak havoc, and are abandoned. One monkey fought with the girlfriend of his owner, and she stabbed it in the eye. Another was kept on a chain for twenty years by a man in La Paz. We are told there’s a market in the city, where orders can be placed for an exotic pet – macaws, parrots, turtles, and monkeys. The wings of birds have been clipped, so they can no longer fly. This causes them to exhibit signs of stress. A little parrot, Mr Bean, – green, blue and red, will perch on the shoulder of any handy volunteer, nuzzling into her neck. But she has bald patches where her grey skin peeps through her plumage. She pecks and pulls out her feathers. ‘It’s just like us biting our nails’, Jenny said.
Some monkeys were trained to be pick-pockets, and will rifle through your pockets with lightening agility. They can un-zip zips. ‘They broke into the dorm, and shredded notes of one hundred BOB and left twenties’, Freddy, a German volunteer, said, ‘they took an Apple smart phone and left my crappy Chilean mobile’. Right on cue, a little cream and brown Capuchin reached his long hairy fingers into Jenny’s pocket and stole the twenty BOB she’d been given that morning. He ran up into a tree, and proceeded to shred it, the pieces fluttering down like confetti, and resting at our feet.
People can be capable of unbelievable cruelty, whether through ignorance, inconsideration, or sheer bloody-mindedness. There’s a caiman here that was kept in a water tank as an attraction outside a restaurant in the city; turtles with cracked and brittle shells, because people think they like to be in water all the time; and dogs rescued from the city streets. All of these animals now have a better life. But they will never be set free. According to Freddy, it’s illegal to release captured animals back into the wild in Bolivia. The volunteers, all young, girls heavily outweighing boys, are caring, well-intentioned, and obviously animal-lovers.
But there are some anomalies here. Many of the volunteers stay for two weeks only. Hardly any of them know anything about exotic animals before they arrive. ‘I just had a dog in Germany’, Freddy told me, ‘but you pick it up as you go along’. Even the vets are volunteers, two Spaniards, volunteering for six months. ‘But before that there was a Bolivian, and there’s a vet in La Paz who will come if we need him’. Management is strangely absent. Volunteers even train other volunteers. And that idea about not touching the animals? An illusion. Volunteers constantly petted and played with monkeys, and one guest sat with a baby howler on her lap for over an hour. Are these wild animals that are being rehabilitated as far as is possible – or pets, offering tourists and volunteers good photo ops?
Girls care for the turtles and birds, and boys for the monkeys – ‘because some of them can get jealous of the women and become aggressive when trying to impress the male monkeys’, Jenny said. But she showed us two puncture marks and a purple bruise where a monkey had bitten her leg. Freddy admitted he was very wary of one monkey, which ‘if he bites, will go for the face’. Capuchin’s have teeth like carnivores, and will bite and rip. Marcello (the owner) has a large scar on his chest’, Freddy continued. The volunteers themselves seem to think nothing of this, regarding it as part of the ‘job’. Nor do they seem to mind that they pay to volunteer here, although Jenny was cagey when I asked her about this. ‘We just pay for food and board, and all the money goes for the upkeep of the animals’. In fact volunteers pay BOB 1100 per week, with the amount decreasing the longer they stay. When we visited there were twenty volunteers working at the refuge.
Needs must? Irresponsible? A little of both maybe. Volunteers know what they are letting themselves in for. ‘I just wanted to work with animals’, Jenny told me. ‘I worked in a kindergarten in Chile, and am on my way to teach diving in the Caribbean’. ‘I’m travelling alone for the first time in my life, I wanted to do something different’, another young American woman told me. The animals get cared for, and tourists get up close and personal to animals they’d otherwise never see. Not ideal, but this is Bolivia after all.
Sendaverde is located at the end of Death Road, a couple of hours outside La Paz in the Bolivian Yungas.