Not Your Typical Day's Work
A Conversation with Sarah Hurley, CVT
For more than ten years, certified veterinary technician, Sarah Hurley of Champagne, Ill. has been volunteering to participate in research projects for Earthwatch, an organization that promotes conservation through partnerships between scientists, educators and the general public. Recently, she traveled to Sri Lanka to take part in a project studying the evolution of social behavior in toque macaque monkeys.
Here are Sarah's experiences and reactions in her own words.
1. What organization did you volunteer for?
Earthwatch, which funds field research projects through the donations of the volunteers who also provide needed labor. The projects include archeological, sociological, and geological studies as well as those that focus on animal species and ecosystems. The length of time volunteers commit varies with the project, as do the team members' tasks, and the location of the study and living conditions. I have participated in projects involving leatherback sea turtles, black bears, and wildcat species (jaguar, mountain lion, etc.) over the past 10 years. Their URL is www.earthwatch.org.
2. What is the purpose of the monkey project? What was your role? What did you do during a day on the monkey project?
This project was started over 30 years ago and is still run by Dr. Wolfgang Dittus. Basically, he is studying the evolution of social behavior in toque macaque monkeys. Over the years, the project has had a number of different focuses. A current focus is to understand the long-term genetic consequences of major social events such as the splitting or fusion of troops of monkeys. Along with two other volunteers, I spent about seven to eight hours a day observing one troop of about 30 monkeys.
Specifically, we recorded data on two individuals, Osaka, a female with an infant, and Oso, a 30-year-old post reproductive female. Though the monkeys were tattooed, we learned to identify individuals based on facial features and "hair-style." We would follow our group around through the forest, noting at one-minute intervalswhat they were doing and how high off the ground they were doing it. Ifthey were eating, we identified what the food was and whether they wereactually chewing it, or storing it in their cheek pouches. We also mapped the movements of the group, noting the amount of time spent in each area, the species of trees used for resting or foraging. When our troop encountered one of the other troops, we attempted to identify the individuals involved in the confrontation, the resource being contested, and which group prevailed.
On one day, we took physiological data from one troop of macaques that had been trapped for that purpose. We had to work very efficiently in order to get the monkeys anesthetized, recovered and back with their troop in one day. This was especially important since the infants are infrequently carried by their mothers, and are often separated from their mothers during the trapping process. Several of the field staff actually did the trapping, which involved baiting a box trap with a small amount of rice and hiding in the bushes until the monkey went into the trap, then cutting a rope to close the trap. The monkeys were then anesthetized with Ketamine, identified with a toe tag and sent over to us. The vet students were concentrating on collecting parasite specimens, Dr. Dittus would pull blood samples and take precise measurements of the length and breadth of dozens of body parts, others would weigh the animal, check for breast milk, look for scars and injuries, pull hair samples for DNA analysis, tattoo the inner thigh, record data, and administer fluids. My role was to concentrate on obtaining vaginal swabs for a pheromone study, and to do TPRs at specified intervals on each monkey. The TPRs were part of a new study on the effects of anesthesia.
The big challenge was counting heartbeats and respirations as others were flipping the monkeys around and calling out measurements to others recording the data. The toe tags were invaluable ID, since I was often working 3-4 monkeys simultaneously. I was able to detect a heart murmur in one young monkey in the process. As a storm unexpectedly blew up, and we rushed to finish, I also helped look for parasites and evaluate wounds.
3. How many people were in your group? Were there any other vet techs?
There were no other vet techs, but there were two Sri Lankan vet students who were working on a study about parasites in the monkeys and who helped with processing the lab specimens from the trapped monkeys. Veterinary medicine in Sri Lanka is focused on food animals. It is a very poor country. Stray, intact dogs and cats were everywhere. About 80% of the dogs in Polonaruwa had severe mange and were underweight. The dogs were all what dogs would look like without any selective breeding: 30-35 lbs, erect ears, long legs, short coats.
4. How long did the flight take?
Total flight time, including a 2-3 hour layover in Europe was about 24 hours.
5.How long were you there?
I was in the country for one month. I spent three weeks on the project and a week traveling around Sri Lanka.
6. What kind of food did you get to eat?
Mostly, I ate Sri Lankan food, though in the hotels western type foods were available. Sri Lankan food is primarily vegetarian or fish. Typically they eat rice and curry. There is a large bowl of white rice and three to five different dishes of curried vegetables or fish to choose from. The curry is a blend of cinnamon, curry leaf, cardamom, ginger, saffron, and nutmeg. Vegetables included breadfruit (a melon sized fruit that when cut and cooked resembles potatoes), tomatoes, green beans, dhal (lentil), eggplant, onions, snake gourd and lotus root, among others. Sambol, a concoction of dry coconut and chilies is added to increase the spiciness as desired. Most dishes served to westerners were not very spicy (think Taco Bell mild taco sauce), and since I like my food very hot, I usually ate with the Sri Lankans and added heaps of Sambol to boot.
Most of their food has coconut incorporated into it, though you wouldn't know it if they didn't tell you. A flat bread, roti, is made from coconut flour, as was a delicious crispy crepe-like thing called a hopper. The hoppers were bowl-shaped and either used like a taco shell or held a fried egg (egg hoppers). String hoppers look like angel hair pasta shaped into a disk or bowl and were an alternative to rice. There was also fruit at every meal: papaya, mango, pineapple, mangosteen, plantain, jackfruit, and rambutan were some. Mangosteen looks like a purple apple. When broken open, it reveals large fleshy white seeds, which taste something like a cross between a strawberry and a grape. Rambutan had a similar seed inside a bright red spiky husk.
A fruit I would have liked to encounter, but did not, is the durian. It is supposed to be delicious, but smells on the outside like sewage. Most hotels don't even let you bring it inside.
Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) is known for its tea. I also drank the water from the King Coconut. It is an orange colored coconut with little meat, used primarily for drinking. I initially tried it because I had a bit of traveler's diarrhea and had become dehydrated. The water from the coconut is a natural electrolyte replacement. I felt rehydrated within 20 minutes of drinking it, something that sipping water constantly for hours had failed to achieve. I later found out that during wars when LRS was unavailable, they actually ran this stuff IV because it is sterile inside the coconut.
7. What were your sleeping accommodations?
For this project, six of us stayed in a bungalow and the others in small cabins. There were two people to a bedroom with mosquito nets for each bed. The bathrooms had cold showers and regular toilets. We had a green frog that lived in our toilet, jumping up to hide under the seat at auspicious moments. Though hotels had western style bathrooms as well, most places in Sri Lanka used squat toilets. These were pits in a cement-floored outhouse with footprint shaped pads on either side. The pit was ceramic lined, and usually there was a faucet and a bucket right there to "flush" with. These were far less smelly than the outhouses typical in US campgrounds. Rooms were cooled by ceiling fans, except when there was a power outage. Power outages were scheduled daily, as the country depends upon hydroelectric power and the monsoons hadn't come yet. Water outages were also common, since it takes power to pump the water.
One other unusual thing about the accommodations was that we had to be careful to take precautions to keep monkeys out of the house. When people complain about raccoons in the garbage here, I will tell them about monkey proofing. All the windows were covered with 3X3 wire mesh to keep the monkeys out. Except one of the squares of wire had to be cut to allow one to insert their hand through to open and close the windows. The monkeys learned to send in a baby through that small opening and the baby would then hand stuff out the window. They will steal and tear apart anything that is edible or smells edible --cosmetics, shampoo, etc. So we had to close up the windows when we left during the day. The monkeys also chew the electric wires outside, forcing homeowners to run the wires through PVC piping.
8. Were you in any danger in the jungle? What precautions did you take?
The ecosystem there isn't what most people would think of when they think of a jungle. It is more like a forest here --with deciduous trees and a lot of 5-8 foot bushes. The area we were in was only a mile from a village and was actually a substantial village (and the capital of a kingdom) in the 10th century.
Archeological ruins share the space with the macaques. It is a small peninsula of forest, which is connected to a much larger forested area on the other side of a reservoir. There are poisonous snakes about, but unfortunately, I didn't get to see any. These are not too much of a danger, since usually the monkeys will spot them and give an alarm call. Some large scorpions came out after it rained one day. We found several at the research station. Wild elephants visit the area and we did not study one group of monkeys in order to avoid an accidental encounter with an elephant that was in their home range.
Probably the biggest danger, as is often the case, comes from the smallest creature. Malaria is present in Sri Lanka, though rare in Polonaruwa. Many volunteers chose to take preventative. I did get attacked by a leech, but that was walking through the botanical garden in one of the cities. I didn't even know it until I realized my pant leg was soaked through with blood. I continued to bleed for another eight hours! Amazing anti-coagulant.
9. What did you see while you were traveling around the country?
After I finished up my stint with the project, I traveled around the country and attended the Perahera in Kandy. Kandy is the second largest city and the site of the Temple of the Tooth. The tooth is Buddah's and is the most sacred of relics in this largely Buddist country. The Perahera is the largest festival in Sri Lanka. For 10 days leading up to the full moon in August, a nightly parade of dressed up elephants, traditional dancers and musicians, fire jugglers, and whip-crackers proceeds slowly from the temple.
Each night the parade becomes more elaborate and elephants arrive from all over the country, so that there are over 50 elephants participating in the final parade. It was the most fabulous spectacle that I have ever witnessed. The fire from the torches, the constant primitive melodies and drumming, the whirling dancers (who never stopped during the entire course of the parade) and the stately elephants in their bejeweled garb were mesmerizing.
10. Anything else you may want to throw in?
There's probably too much already, but here's more. The wildlife was amazing. I saw wild elephants, buffalo, and boars, as well as flying foxes, crocodiles, land monitor lizards and a water monitor that had to be 90 pounds. Grey langurs, purple langurs, and loris are other primates that share the forest with the macaques. We regularly saw a species of squirrel the size of a housecat, hare, raptors and large water birds, colorful kingfishers and beeeaters, and deer. It is very cool to see people riding elephants down a busy city street.
Many people were aware that while I was there, the airport was attacked by terrorists and half of Air Lanka's planes were destroyed. I was not near the airport when the attack occurred, but my departure from Sri Lanka was delayed by 24 hours, since they were unable to accommodate all the ticket holders, even 10 days later. Despite the problem at the airport, and the State Department's subsequent warning, I would recommend Sri Lanka to anyone thinking of making the trip. It is a fascinating place, and I never felt remotely in danger.
They have a political situation that is not unlike the one in Ireland. There are armed checkpoints on the roads, but the terrorism has been mostly aimed at government targets and 95% or more of Sri Lankans of all cultures and faiths get along beautifully. I didn't feel any tension or threat and would not hesitate to go again.
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