That first Monday I was to start my volunteering project at the Aquarium. I was to be in for 9am, and had planned to get up at 7:30am, but by 6am realised that the battle for more sleep was lost and got to it. In the ample time I had I reviewed my notes on the project, including the directions for getting there, and drilled some Spanish vocab. Normally I was to take the bus, but Dora was heading that way about that time anyway and offered to run me in.
When I arrived in front of the Aquarium entrance I immediately realised that I had either forgotten a key step in my directions or that such a step was lacking. According to what I remembered, I had to “go through the door to the left of the entrance and report yourself to the security desk. Ask for Rodolfo, the veterinarian”. So I turned left at the gate and started walking. No likely candidate for a side entrance revealed itself. I spotted a woman in a shirt with Acuario Mazatlán and decided to bite the bullet. “Hi, excuse me, I’m looking for the vet, Rodolfo?” She looked confused. “I’m a volunteer”, I continued, “I start here today.” She asked me something. Not a word registered. Noting the helpless look on my face she pointed to the main gate. I guess I had no choice but to abandon the directions and head on in.
Once within the gate however, the directions immediately made sense; there was the entrance, and there next to it must be the side door. What a difference one’s interpretation of the word “entrance” can make. I reported to the security desk and gave my line, I’m a new volunteer here to see Rodolfo. When the Security guy requested more information (about what I again had no idea), I made it clear through the art of repetition that he would get nothing more than was already given. He called for Rodolfo, who promptly appeared.
When he spoke I realised that he was the easiest to understand of the three I had met thus far at the Aquarium. Which said almost nothing at all. He started me off on a tour. We went first to the animal hospital, where I was to do most of my volunteering. It was basically a small outdoor area with about thirteen cages of varying sizes, as well as a kitchen and a surgery/office (both air-conditioned, thank god). About seven small cats roamed about the area while in the cages were two coyotes, some baby crocodiles, a number of macaws and parakeets, and one great fat pig named Lula.
Animals can be here for a number of reasons. The obvious one is if they need treatment. City residents who find injured animals bring them here and the Rodo will release them once they are ready. Any endangered animals or animals which are illegal to own as pets also are brought here. Often, for example with iguanas, Rodo will release them almost immediately. If however they are dangerous, such as with the coyotes, the hospital has to wait for the government to sign off on the release, which they will do eventually, but it can take a while.
I was introduced to Alfonso and David, two young lads who are often in the hospital kitchen helping prepare the food for the various animals, who they also go out and feed. “So James”, said Rodolfo, “why are you here?”
Time to shine. “I am here to improve my Spanish, I study Spanish and this is my third year and I am here to improve my speaking.”
“Ah, OK, but why here? Why did you volunteer to work here, in the hospital?”
Good question, I thought. I had no illusions about the kind of work I would be doing, but looking at my workspace for the next four months I had to take a moment to recover my rational.
“Because… it is completely different to anything I could do where I am from. And I love animals.”
“No animals in the UK?” he teased.
“Well yes, but nothing like these!” I pointed to the Macaws, whose screeches were incredible for their size, and they aren’t small birds at all. This answer seemed to make sense to Rodolfo. At this point another member of the team emerged, and he introduced me to Reina, a young veterinary student here doing work experience. “I’ll let her show you the ropes and then I’ll give you a tour of the aquarium, sound good?”
Fine by me. Off he went, and Reina started to tell me about what we’ll be doing. Oh dear. Her accent was the strongest yet, and it seemed like every key word was being annihilated by a well-timed screech from the Macaws. For some reason, instead of owning up to having understood nothing, I nodded along and hoped that I would piece it all together. I did not. When it finally came to the point when we were about to begin, I still had no idea what the task was. “Since its my first day, I think I’ll just watch.” Not an unreasonable save, I thought, and Reina seemed fine with it. The morning task was to clean the cages and food dishes, simple enough tasks that I was able to join in despite having failed with the spoken instructions. After maybe an hour, Rodo returned to show me the rest of the place.
The Acuario Mazatlán is actually only partially an aquarium; it is also something of a mini zoo, with deer, sea lions, an albino raccoon, a great aviary with birds pelicans, Mexican ducks, a tucan, etc. Oh, and they have a freaking TIGER.
Rodolfo introduced me to the other workers, including the sea lion trainers and eagle trainers. He then took me backstage to meet the tiger up close. The normal enclosure for the tiger has a couple of feet between the fence and the railing, so spectators can’t stick fingers in. Among other reasons. Backstage, where he was kept while they cleaned out the enclosure, I could see him up close through the bars. I noticed that Reina, who had joined us on the tour, was standing half in and half out the doorway, but nothing about that particularly registered. I was too wrapped up in the awe of the moment.
Here was this majestic creature, whose species is endangered and that I had no expectation of seeing so close in my life, and it was right there in front of me. My wonder filled moment was quickly extinguished however, as the tiger turned (Reina ducking out the door) and blasted me full on with its scent (if you don’t know what that means, a quick youtube search should fill you in). I heard squeals behind me as some of the Mexicans also caught some splash, but only what escaped my silhouette. I washed up in the sink and we made to leave, only to be doused a second time as we headed for the exit.
Looking back I’m not particularly surprised that I can’t remember how the rest of the day went, as getting scent blasted by a tiger twice in 3 minutes can be a bit of a show stealer. I imagine, since there wasn’t too much more to do on the morning shift and I was only there until 1pm, that it was mostly chatting. But I’m glad really, to have something so ridiculous firmly associated with day one at the aquarium. As you may well imagine, it certainly gave the folks at home a good laugh.