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May 12, 2011

Latin American Vets Get Hands-On with Wildlife

Training for the establishment of a wildlife temporary care facility in El Salvador

Humane Society International

  • Spider monkey at ARCAS Rescue Center in Guatemala. Tracy O'Toole/HSI

  • Dr. Mario Alfaro of El Salvador meets one of his patients at ARCAS. Mike Skuja/HSI

  • Dr. Mario Alfaro checks the temperature of a spider monkey at ARCAS. Mike Skuja/HSI

  • A spider monkey waits at ARCAS. Jennifer Felt/HSI

by Mike Skuja

The spider monkey’s scream was blood-curdling. Though only about one-third as tall as a human, these animals are amazingly strong and have prehensile tails as thick as your wrist that can wrap around faces, arms, or legs when they are being restrained.

The reason the veterinary team had come into such close contact with the primates was to give 11 of them anti-parasite treatments and to take blood samples for tuberculosis testing. Without a thorough knowledge of the animals’ health, chances for successful release into the wild are slim.

While I was tasked with restraining the animals’ legs, the veterinary staff was in charge of the much more difficult tasks of tranquilizing the monkeys and finding their veins to take blood samples. Though staff designed the process to be as minimally stressful to the animal as possible, any contact with such wildlife can be a harried and risky endeavor.

Building local capacity

I had arrived in the Petén region of northern Guatemala just a day earlier to attend a week-long training on wildlife rescue center work, including animal handling and medical procedures, at ARCAS in Guatemala, a leading Latin American model rescue center which has long been supported by HSI. The goal of this training was to build the knowledge base of other vets from Latin America on the subject of wildlife veterinary medicine.

HSI provided funds to help a veterinarian from Amazon Shelter in Peru attend the training, as well as encouraging the attendance of a veterinarian from El Salvador who will be the lead medical staff member in a new wildlife temporary care facility HSI (along with the Salvadoran agricultural and environmental ministries) is helping to build. This facility, once completed, will be the only such place in El Salvador, and will be located along a major illegal wildlife trafficking route between El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. With it, HSI and partners hope to provide much-needed support for victims of the illegal wildlife trade at one of its epicenters in Central America.

Providing experience and connections

Dr. Mario Alfaro, the Salvadoran vet pictured above, received extensive training in wildlife biology, behavior, and anatomy at ARCAS, and also had the opportunity to work with animals as diverse as boas, crocodiles, and spider monkeys. The spider monkey handling is part of ARCAS’ hands-on training, which always seeks to institute knowledge beyond books. Indeed, although Dr. Alfaro has 30 years of experience in veterinary medicine, he has primarily worked with domestic animals.

The challenges of working with wildlife can be daunting, which is why HSI believes so passionately in strengthening a network of Latin American veterinarians dedicated to training each other from one end of the region to another. HSI sees this as the first step in not only training new veterinarians, but in forging life-long friendships among Latin American vets that can serve as a means for exchanging lessons learned in handling of wildlife. Indeed, any scar obtained has a story to tell and a reason for its existence: improving the lives of wild animals.