Monkey Do's and Monkey Don'ts
Fifteen days into the job, a colleague and I found ourselves in an uncomfortable and heartbreaking situation. We were closing down the Howler monkeys (Alouatta) rehabilitation center, Alouatta Sanctuary. Like past interns, I arrived in Panama eager to learn, contribute and advance scientific research. There was also the joy of working closely with Howler monkeys that either lost their surrogate parents or were in the illegal pet trade and needed rehabilitation back into their environment. I was working for one of the few organizations in Panama that had a reputable reputation according to the Panama Ministry of the Environment. However, the negative situation unfolded as it became apparent that she and I were on our own, with the help of four local Panamanians, for the duration of our stay and we needed to act fast.
With the founders of the sanctuary in California for personal reasons, we were told that they had no funding, no interns, no intention of legalizing employee contracts and no future plans. The process of turning the sanctuary into a non-profit was going to take a year to two years, and they had no plans of returning to manage the sanctuary. Just like a cannonball, the news came crashing down on us through the little means of communication we had in the tropical forest. Our first concern and question was, what to do with the monkeys? All other questions proceeded, followed by a slew of unfortunate information about the operations of the sanctuary from mishandling of finances to undocumented legal paperwork. Together we began working through various options with the question becoming, what would be best for the monkeys? After dialogue with several parties (i.e. founders, landowner and past interns) this question dug a little bit further from what would be best to what is legal.
The founders were writing us to not hand over the monkeys to the Ministry of Environment due to their personal perception that the government was going to place the monkeys in a “bad home”. They were in the process of coordinating to move the monkeys to another rehabilitation center in Costa Rica. Although the center in Costa Rica may have offered better care for the monkeys, the dilemma came when we were told no legal paperwork had been processed to transfer the monkeys from one country to another. Does a line exist between what would be best for the animals and what is illegal? I would say this line does exist for some and not for others. Strong emotions and personal values come into play on one’s belief of best care, treatment and future for the animals. My colleague and I expressed how we were not going to be involved with illegal trafficking of animals.
The situation turned dire once the founders informed us that they had made arrangements for a veterinarian to come to the sanctuary to transport the monkeys across the border. At this time, the Ministry of Environment was informed and they arrived immediatly at the sanctuary to transport the monkeys down to Panama City. All emotions surfaced from worry, frustration to sadness as we said our goodbyes to the monkeys in our care.
Although the founders had every good intention of starting a wildlife sanctuary in Panama, it became apparent to us after our experience some of the Do’s and Don’ts of running a rehabilitation center.
Obey the law, legal considerations
Go through a thorough process of registering as a non-profit organization
Obtain an insurance policy that cover liability and other needs
Create a five year business and/or research plan
Organize finances efficiently and incorporate a five year funding plan
Keep records of everything from employee payments, food cost, gas cost, medical visits, etc.
Invest in professional talent
Research, research, research
Connect with other organizations, universities, NGO’s
Ensure protocols are in place, manager on site, team of veterinarians available
Bypass any laws
Underestimate the research and paperwork to starting a non-profit
Make arrangements or payments without contracts
Leave a sanctuary without appropriate staff in place