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b2ap3_thumbnail_IMG_0675_20150717-154747_1.JPGLike most 18-year-olds trying to decide what it was that I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I was confused, lost and arguably disoriented. As I heard classmates speak of their future plans, neatly organized into a college major and future profession, I felt the panic start to sink in. 

Though I had already committed to Waynesburg University for the fall of 2012 and had declared my major as accounting, I was far from certain that I would spend the rest of my life crunching numbers. Nonetheless, in August of 2012, I embarked on my journey at Waynesburg University. 

In my first semester as a business major, I did exceedingly well, earning a 4.0 and ending the semester with good rapport with my professors whom ensured me that I held promise in my pursuit of a career in accounting. I regarded my successes as a good sign, and thought that maybe I wasn’t as lost as I had thought.

I continued on in the program, taking another accounting class in which I continued to excel, but deep down, I knew that I was lacking a passion for my studies. At times, it took a great deal of effort to bring myself to study my business textbooks. 

On the other hand, the College Composition course that I enrolled in during my second semester commanded my attention. I loved that it allowed me to write persuasively and develop compelling, fact-based arguments about hard issues facing our society. In other words, I was hooked and wanted to know where this new- found passion could lead.  

I decided to email my professor, Mrs. Nofsinger, and ask to meet with her to discuss my fascination with her course and my desire to learn more about career options. As a freshman, I was not yet aware of the relationship-centered culture of Waynesburg University, but I was about to discover what the university that I enrolled in was all about. 

My professor invited me to join her for lunch to discuss what was on my mind. We talked for an hour and she suggested I take a journalism course, promised me books for further exploration and recommended that I visit the counseling center for more vocational guidance. She also informed me that if I ever needed anything, to just let her know.

I was blown away by her kindness, but after meeting with several other professors and faculty members to discuss my options and smooth out the details of changing majors, I quickly discovered that this kindness was simply the Waynesburg way. Flash-forward to my senior year as a student in the Department of Communication, and I now know that my professors are not just teachers; they are mentors and personal resources there to encourage and offer advice to students when possible. 

Though unsure of the path I had chosen upon graduating high school, I could not be happier with my decision to come to Waynesburg University. While initially lost, I found my way in the loving atmosphere that is Waynesburg University. 

 

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b2ap3_thumbnail_5-28-Narasimhan.jpgBack at the sanctuary, things are getting busy. Everyday, tons of data is being collected, whether it be behavioral data from our baby howlers or population estimates from transects. When we perform transects, we are walking along set pathways through the jungle and recording every mammal that we see, and precisely where we see them. 

The pathways are through two different ecosystems: the primary forest corridor and then through the teak plantation. The corridors connect fragmented forests and allow animals to move between them, preventing isolation. The teak areas are being harvested and have been cut in a way that can sometimes prevent animals from using them.

Using this data, we can see what animals are using the two different environments and how often. Because teak plantations can be devastating to local populations, this teak plantation was cut in a way that left the understory, and it can still be used by animals. In addition to simply comparing the two environments, we are also using this data to compare to other teak plantations where the understory has been completely removed.

The hypothesis is that the plantation where we are collecting data will demonstrate more biodiversity and will prove to be more sustainable than other teak plantations. Conservation and sustainability are the reason for all of our work at Aloutta, and I’m enjoying learning about how to make the world a better place, one step at a time.

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Today we visited the indigenous village of Ngöbe and the people there. To get there, we took a two-hour truck ride up the mountain. We got to tour an organic coffee farm run by the local people. Sustainability is beginning to trend in businesses all throughout Panama, even in the remotest of villages. 

The members of this village live a simple life, but it is far from boring. The women wear a beautifully colored traditional dress called the Ngwä. For lunch, we ate a traditional meal of a salad with a homemade dressing, rice and plantains. It was delicious. While we ate, there were several children playing and chattering in the local language nearby. 

We asked to play soccer with them, but they were extremely shy. It seemed they don’t receive many visitors from outside the village, and didn’t know how to respond. All the same, the people were very welcoming and smiled patiently when we spoke our broken Spanish. I loved learning about and seeing their culture. It is uninterrupted by technology and the outside world, but full of life and meaning. 

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b2ap3_thumbnail_5-21-Narasimhan-2_20150522-144111_1.jpgThis internship keeps getting cooler. Today, we had a troop of wild howlers hanging around the sanctuary, and our babies actually got into the trees and interacted with them! We call this troop R2D2, and all of their names have something to do with Star Wars. The dominant male’s name is Yoda, and the other male is Vader. 

It’s interesting because no matter where a howler troop is, you will almost always find the dominant male in the center of the group. Stevie, our blind howler, was playing with Mace, a baby in the troop. It was adorable. Rugby is still a little shy with other howlers, but she is getting there. Watching the wild howlers and capuchins is unlike anything I have ever seen. It’s one thing to see them in photographs and to learn about their behavior in a textbook, but nothing compares to seeing it in person. I really enjoy just sitting peacefully and watching. 

Another cool thing we are doing is documenting howler behavior. The species has been neglected in this area, and so the research we are doing is extremely important. Every day we do several behavioral follows, either focusing on one baby or both. For about forty-five minutes, we document their every behavior, which can be anything from a vocalization to foraging. This is called an ethogram, and it takes a while to get the hang of. We are also identifying all of the individuals in each troop to try to get a population count. As of right now, it is not known how many howlers live in Panama, further adding to the importance of our research.

My favorite part of the internship so far has been interacting with the monkeys. The babies are frustrating at times, and it sometimes feels like babysitting spoiled toddlers. We try to keep them in the trees and off the ground as much as possible, to mimic a normal upbringing and get them used to a typical howler lifestyle (wild howlers spend almost no time on the ground). Sometimes, however, the babies do not want to get into a tree and just want to cuddle. Sometimes they will bite and run away, resulting in a wild monkey chase. However, watching them in the trees and playing with them is so rewarding, and they have the ability to make anyone’s heart melt, no matter how hard they bite.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_5-19-Narasimhan-1.jpgI’ve been at the sanctuary for a few days now, and I am already immersed in the several projects going on here. I am learning so much. While the babies are adorable and fun to play with, I am falling in love with the capuchins. 

Their intelligence is so obvious when you spend even a small amount of time with them. Every time I enter their enclosure, they embrace me quickly and then search my pockets for hidden almonds I may have brought for them. After that, we settle down for a grooming session. I usually groom Angie while Ace sits on my shoulder and grooms me. It is easy to forget, however, that these are wild animals and not pets.

I’ve been trained in how to read their body language and facial expressions. For example, when upset, caps will bare their teeth in a way that almost looks like they are smiling. This is similar to their play face, so when working with them, you have to always be aware of how they are feeling and behaving.

Because they have to live in an enclosure while they are being rehabilitated, it is easy for these intelligent creatures to become bored. We try to provide as much enrichment for them as possible, and part of everyday is dedicated to that. We often rearrange their enclosure, so branches are in different positions than they were before and new ones are added. We also hide their food in interesting places and design fun toys for them. Some favorites of theirs are colored paper or egg cartons with yummy peanut butter.

We also have to watch for stereotypic behaviors they might exhibit. These are behaviors that are common in animals in captivity, and are usually a sign of distress or boredom. Lately Ace has been doing a quick head roll, almost like a twitch. This is a common behavior in capuchins in captivity, but it isn’t clear what it means or how to prevent it.

Another cool thing with capuchins is their territorial behavior. When trying to ward off enemies or demonstrating dominance, caps will break and shake branches. It’s actually quite terrifying to be on the receiving end of one of these encounters. We try to keep the wild caps away from the ones in our care, as they take their food and make Angie nervous, so part of the job is breaking and shaking branches at them in return. I’ve had a couple showdowns with some wild caps, and they are extremely intimidating.

I’m learning so much about animal behavior and husbandry, and loving every second of it!

 

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