Laura Dochtermann - 2015 Program Participant

Feeding Chichico monkeys at YanaCocha in Ecuador

Feeding the Chichico monkeys at YanaCocha

Why did you decide to apply for an international program?

I chose to apply for an international program to do something outside of my comfort zone. I went into this experience knowing I had to challenge myself to have an open mind, not be afraid of my surroundings, and to try new things, but I never imagined this experience would have changed my life so much. Being able to see a different part of the world, engaging in a different culture, forcing myself to meet new people (who soon turned into your friends), learning a new language, and learning new skills were things I did everyday. The struggles that I faced made me realize a new aspect on how to handle situations and learn from them.

Why did you choose United Planet?

I chose the wildlife conservation quest with United Planet because I wanted to help improve the lives of animals and become a part of the solution. I believe in working with others to make the world safe and more humane for all living creatures, and spreading the message of responsible pet ownership and animal protection.

What was your placement like?

I worked in Yanacocha Animal Rescue Centre, a nonprofit organization founded with the aim to provide care of the Amazon wildlife population that has been sold or is victim of trafficking. 

YanaCocha hosts solely Amazonian wildlife, helping a variety of animals including eight species of primates, two species of cats, three species of rodents, and a diverse array of birds, reptiles, and other small mammals. The program gave me the opportunity to work with exotic animals. Locally, I volunteered at a wildlife rescue in Burnaby, where they house primarily birds and small mammals, including squirrels, skunks, and raccoons.

Why did you choose Ecuador?

Going abroad for a month and working there is always a challenge for oneself. I had never traveled to South America when I decided to spend three weeks in the town of Puyo, Ecuador. I chose Ecuador, particularly outside of Quito because I wanted to interact with the culture, try out new food, new languages, and meet new people. I was able to meet and spend time with both locals and people from around the world who I met through YanaCocha and my rainforest excursion. I felt like I was able to immerse myself in the culture so much more because I was not relying on other Canadians who would have made me feel more comfortable.

Cabañas at YanaCocha in Ecuador

The cabañas at YanaCocha

What was your favorite part about the location of your placement?

The cabañas we stayed at onsite at YanaCocha were located in the heart of the rescue centre. My favourite part about the location was the mornings, and I am not a morning person. In the mornings I would wake up to the beautiful sounds of macaws, parrots, monkeys, and other animals of the centre. Since coming back home I knew mornings were not going to be the same. I had to change the alarm on my phone to monkey’s howling, so I could get slowly accustomed to living in the city again.

What characteristics of your program made it unique? 

The wildlife conservation program was unique in that during your time at YanaCocha, you really get to know the animals. I became very involved in the animal's’ daily routine. The enclosures are very spacious, well-kept, and I've never been in a program where you can be so close to the animals; the chichico monkeys even use you as a stepping stone to get to the food platforms!

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

When I arrived at YanaCocha mid-afternoon, I was welcomed by one of the centre’s volunteer coordinators and the owner from Sweden, and then escorted to the cabaña that I shared with five other volunteers. The local staff was accommodating in every way, including but not limited to: preparing vegetarian and vegan meals, allowing professionals in the fields of science to assist the veterinarian with animal care, and assisting with directions and calling cabs.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I wish I had explored more local places in Ecuador. I didn’t feel too comfortable at first going out into the city until the middle of the program. I knew I would be spending some time up north in the Amazon Rainforest, but I had the opportunity to be more productive with my time and see more during my evenings and the one weekend that I didn’t go away. There was a fair amount of Ecuador I got to see but I felt that I could have dedicated more time into planning to see more.

Horseback Riding in Baños, Ecuador

Horseback Riding in Baños

Describe a day in the life of your program.

At YanaCocha I would begin my day by waking up at 6:30 a.m. Breakfast would be from 7:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. Volunteers would help themselves to an array of breakfast items. During breakfast one of the volunteer coordinators would assign the tasks out for the day. Volunteers are assigned to either rounds or extra work from 8 a.m. to noon, alternating every day. Rounds would consist of small round and tidying the kitchen, big round non-monkey, and big round monkey. For rounds, the main tasks of volunteers are food preparation, assist with animal feeding and care, animal observation, and enclosure cleaning and maintenance. During extra work we would assist with park maintenance and making new paths, construction of new enclosures, and researching and building enrichment for the enclosures.

After rounds or extra work there is time to rest in the hammocks, interacting with other volunteers, taking a nap, reading, etc. Lunch would start at 1 p.m. and be prepared by staff members. After lunch we would continue with either the afternoon rounds or extra work, whichever we had been assigned to in the morning until 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m. Additional tasks include cleaning toilets, preparing egg round, sugar cane round, cookies, crickets, and baby food, finding leaves for monkeys, and additional tasks under things to do: fishing, grocery shopping for dinner, additional cleaning, etc.

After 5 p.m., volunteers would have free time until dinner at 6:30 p.m. On Tuesdays it was “you-choose Tuesdays,” and the volunteers would shop and prepare dinner with a budget for the volunteers and staff. After dinner we were free to spend our evenings however we pleased. Some activities included watching a movie and preparing popcorn, watching the sunset, or spending a night out on the town.

What did you enjoy doing on your free time?

We helped the centre from Monday to Friday, choosing to help either Saturday or Sunday morning until the morning feedings were done. After the feedings we were free to explore or stay at the centre and relax. My favourite activity outside the normal day-to-day schedule was traveling on the weekends with the volunteers. One weekend I toured Baños with three ladies. There we shopped, found the beautiful Church of the Virgin of the Holy Water (Nuestra Senora del Agua Santa) and explored the courtyard, went horseback riding, whitewater rafting, and savoured the local cuisine.

Can you tell us more about your accommodation? What did you like best about it?

The volunteers are housed in one of three cabañas with a bathroom and shower cabin in between. The cabañas had electricity and in some there were either single beds or bunk beds, with mosquito nets, sheets, mattresses, blankets, and pillows for the volunteers.

The part I liked the most about the accommodations was that I shared the cabaña with five other women. We were all from different parts of the world and I learned a lot from each of them. Everyone varied in age, experience, and nationality.

In the cabaña you would have volunteers who had been there for weeks or a couple days. When it was my last week at YanaCocha, another couple of volunteers would join us, and it was a great opportunity to pass onto them everything you had asked questions about on your first day.

A caiman at sunset in the Amazon Rainforest

A caiman at sunset in the Amazon Rainforest

Now that you're home, how would you say volunteering abroad has impacted your life?

It's hard to put into words exactly how volunteering abroad changes your life, but it does. Looking back on my experience, I can absolutely say that it was transformative. I met so many wonderful people, and had a very fulfilling volunteer experience. Deciding to go on this quest alone was probably the best decision I made, because it forced me outside of my comfort zone. I was able to learn more Spanish and do a lot of fun activities, like a four day excursion through the Amazon Rainforest and a weekend in Baños. I thought I was going to Ecuador to change the lives of animals, but in fact they changed me! I’m more appreciative and caught the travel bug. I cannot wait to travel with an international program again.

The program helped me with not only a new lease on life, but also a new understanding and appreciation for my own. It’s very easy to get caught up in daily stresses like work, friends, family, and health, but the one thing that volunteering in struggling communities can do is lend perspective. I have experienced personal growth in ways that I’ve become more concerned and aware of problems we face in the world. I’ve become more adaptable, adventurous, confident, and want to continue pushing myself outside my comfort zone.