This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Tale of Two Zoos

I should first start out by saying that these are not "zoos" per say, I just thought it made for a better blog post title. The first place is an animal rehabilitation center, Amazoonico, while the second, Ecoturismo Comunitario, is a place that teaches a bit about indigenous life in the jungle. Both are near Tena, Ecuador, both have animal species native to the Amazonian jungle in cages with a few wandering around freely and both can be visited by tourists. Mika and I went to them within a couple days of each other. So now I am going to compare them head-to-head - a tale of the tape - to see who comes out the winner. 

Access from Tena and Entrance Fee

Amazoonico (AZ): A two hour ($2) bus ride farther into the jungle and stop at Puerto Barantilla pier and then a six minute canoe ride ( $10 return). There is also a sign there saying that you can walk 1.7 km, but the trail from the road through the jungle is not marked. We are told that it is very dangerous because an aggressive monkey is attacking people. The entrance fee is $3.50 for foreigners.

Ecotourismo Comunitario (EC): About a half hour ride from Tena. We arrive by other means, but it probably costs less than $1. Entrance fee is $2.

Winner: Ecoturismo Comunitario - Closer and cheaper. The canoe to Amazoonico is highway (river way) robbery.
 A jungle road traffic jam

AZ: An animal rescue center that accepts animals from captivity and rehabilitates them and releases them into the wild when possible. They own over 1,000 hectares of jungle with guardians from the community that watches over the wildlife. Many animals, however, cannot be released because they are too accustomed to human contact and have lost their instincts to survive in the wild. Many of the animals are former pets that arrive very stressed, like parrots missing feathers or monkeys completely crazy. The animals that cannot be released are kept in cages and are treated as well as possible with limited human contact. Money from visitors helps support the organization. They also have a gift shop and run a fancy lodge.
EC: I am not quite sure if Ecoturismo Comunitario is the real name, but I will stick with this because it is on their sign. They are an indigenous community organization who has set up a museum which teaches about indigenous life and the local flora and fauna. Their proximity to the towns of Tena and Mishualli makes them a good stop for people on guided tours so some of the tourism dollars flows into the local communities. They have a small gift shop selling herbal medicines made from jungle plants and are in the process of building a restaurant.

Winner: Tie - Both are set up with good intentions. Both have animals in cages and receive money from people to look at them.

Cultural Education

AZ: Nothing really. Many guides are foreign volunteers. We do learn a little about the trafficking of animals in Ecuador.

EC: We learn about medicinal plants found in the jungle. We see miniatures of traps used to catch all types of animals.

Winner: Ecoturismo Comunitario - They have created a museum to teach us specifically about indigenous life.
A blow gun used to kill monkeys and birds
Guided Tour

AZ: We are guided in English by a young German volunteer who gives us some information about the characteristics of each animal while providing us with a lot of information about the backgrounds of the specific animals (ie. how they arrived at the center) and the work of their organization.

EC: We are guided in Spanish by a young Ecuadorian guy. He offers us some info about plants and traps, but little about the animals except how delicious each one tastes on a plate.

Winner: Amazoonico - The workers seem passionate about their cause and care for the animals.

A free roaming coatl
Animal Interaction Philosophy

AZ: Most of their animals' problems are due to contact with humans, so it is forbidden to talk to them or bother them. Photos without flash are okay.

E.C.: Can animals really have psychological problems? Feel free to pet, feed, converse and take photos with our critters.

Winner: Amazoonico - EC is probably more family fun, but animal welfare should be a priority.


AZ: Capybara is the world's largest rodent and native to only South America. They are hunted for their meat, but the population is not endangered and breed quite easily. I read about a farm in western Arkansas that breeds capybaras. Some people keep them as pets. They are semiaquatic and have strange webbed feet. Amazoonico has two of them in a nice area with a pond.

EC: Has one Capybara in a very large pen with a pond and some other animals. We do not see him move far from his food bowl of rice and corn though we are able to coax him over to us with a few fresh grasses which is his natural food source. Our guide assures us that capybara are quite tasty.

Winner: Tie - Sure AZ is probably better, but hand feeding the world's largest rodent at EC has gotten the better of my sensibilities.
Hey, I did not see a "don't feed the animals sign."

AZ: Ocelots are a cat that lives in the trees of the jungle. They are endangered and protected species. Sure as kittens they probably make cute pets, but apparently people do not want a wild cat in their house when they reach maturity of up to 35 lbs and the male starts slinging diarrhea around to mark his territory. Amazoonico has three ocelots in a large cage with lots of trees. They were all well-hidden when we arrived.

EC: They have one well-seen ocelot in a small cage with nowhere to hide. 

Winner: Amazooico - Not seeing any animal is better than one in a depressing box
Big cat, small cage, no trees

AZ: They have so many parrots, red ones, blue and yellow macaws, and two species of green ones. Most are former pets from hotels whose job it was to take photos with the guests for $1. This is a very stressful job for a parrot. A couple of their parrots have had their wing muscles clipped. The parrots that could be released to fly around the area unfortunately cannot be set free because the organization fears that they will be hunted and sold. Animal trafficking is illegal, but a parrot goes for $3,000 on the black market. In the past several have been stolen from Amazoonico. We pass one filled cage which becomes a complete cacophony of squawks, caws, laughs (they can imitate human laughter) and one "hola bonita, hola bonita" repeated incessantly. We are watching an aviary insane asylum. Maybe it is time to let some of them out and take their chances in the wild?

EC: They have five birds. One red one to take photos with tourists. A blue and yellow macaw who looks very sickly. A pair of green ones that say "hola" and laugh, and a different green one that flies on command. All of the birds are out of cages.

Winner: Tie - EC's birds probably suffer from too much human contact and AZ's will be in a cage for eternity. I do not know what is best.
His Spanish vocabulary is better than many foreign tourists

As We're Leaving

AZ: We catch the anaconda being fed a dead baby chicken on a stick.

EC: We get to see a dog and monkey playful wrestling.

Winner: Tie - Both are strange and slightly unnatural.
Does the anaconda ever think "ugh, chicken again!"
Dog and monkey wrestling
And the Winner Is...

Amazoonico by technical knock out. The technicality being of course that my perspective is of a gringo tourist who would like to see the animals of the Amazon jungle be able to remain free in their natural habitat. Amazoonico is genuinely concerned about the welfare of animals.

I am sure that there are many Ecuadorian tourists would decide that Ecoturismo Comunitario is winner by being a much more fun place to visit. Conditions of cages are not all ideal here, but not completely horrific. They live by the philosophy that it is perfectly alright for wild animals to be household pets and/or served for lunch. This has been their tradition for centuries so who am I to tell them any differently.
A toucan who would probably prefer freedom to being at either of these places
For more info about Amazoonico click the link to their website.

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