Since I have graduated, I can certainly testify that my view of myself has evolved gradually since then. Looking back, as a high schooler I was only really aware of what I could accomplish on paper. And while I think it’s paramount that young people can hone their critical-thinking and thesis-developing skills, I wasn’t sure of what much else I could do.
My gap year experience thus far has revealed a side of me with a different type of resilience and a newfound sense of confidence. I know now that whether I’m dealing with an unpleasant customer, or handling a troop of howler monkeys, I am an individual that can get any difficult task done with the right attitude and mental (sometimes physical) fortitude.
December was a month in which all of the anticipations of my trip to Costa Rica were palpable. I had worked really hard and raised extra money to get to where I am right now. Not to mention the interpersonal and customer service skills I earned while working a full-time hospitality job have also contributed to this confidence.
In January I began volunteering at the Jaguar Rescue Center, a wildlife sanctuary dedicated to the rehabilitation and release of animals. There, I worked from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30, sometimes 4:30 p.m., cleaning enclosures, painting new habitats, planting trees, feeding the animals, and being a “surrogate mom” to young howler monkeys. Allow me to explain the howler monkey part. When we receive abandoned (by their mothers and troops) and injured baby howler monkeys, to properly aid in their rehabilitation while in the Center, we must provide the baby howler monkeys with “surrogate moms” (the more experienced or long-term volunteers), until they reach sexual maturity in around year two of their lives. Monkeys are able to smell a women’s pheromones and men’s higher testosterone levels, therefore, baby monkeys are usually only comfortable being around women. In the absence of their own mothers, we’re the closest beings able to give the babies a source of comfort as they grow within the Center, both to ensure that they don’t stress out and to study their development. No, this does not mean that the volunteers get to play with the baby monkeys. That’s actually highly discouraged by the leading experts in primatology the Center is run by (shout out to Encar, the founder, and Paulo, who’s about to receive his masters in primatology).
As a surrogate mom, I was trusted in making sure the baby monkeys ate and in observing their behavior for three and a half hours to make sure none of them had diarrhea or was visibly upset for a long period of time. In the meantime, a baby monkey would crawl up to my lap and sleep, or other times, when they were feeling playful, one would climb onto my head or arm as a prop for reaching higher ropes or branches in the enclosure and tussle with other baby monkeys. Note: we were not allowed to pet them, we could only be physically present (donning our JRC nursery coats and face masks) as a way to comfort them.
While working here, one of the baby monkeys that grew very dear to my heart was Ntao. She was such a sweet girl to work with and it made my day seeing how happy she would become when I and another surrogate mom would spend time in their enclosure or take her and the other monkeys (with our suits and rainboots) into the forest, where they have a tree playground built. I will name the other baby monkeys I had the pleasure of working with: Marti, Blas, Nigiri, Rafi, Rico, Leo, Harvey, Unaki, Lucca, and Sansa (the only baby spider monkey.) Along with caring for other wildlife, like Chanchita the peccary (a species of pig), Morgana the toucan, Ola the yellow-naped parrot, and Shy the common white-tailed dear I have to say, caring for these animals really put the world into perspective for me. Seeing how intelligent and endearing these animals are have helped my efforts in becoming a vegetarian.
It’s the countless memories, experiences, and obstacles I faced working at the Center that makes me so happy to have taken this gap year.