Upon her arrival at her internship in an unfamiliar jungle located in a foreign country, Rachel Narasimhan, as one might expect, felt a bit homesick. However, she received comfort from an unlikely source, in the form a baby howler monkey named Stevie. After that moment, she never looked back.
This summer, the Waynesburg University senior biology major spent a month as an intern at Aloutta Sanctuary, a rehabilitation and research center located on the Chiriqui Peninsula of Panama, observing and working with monkeys like Stevie. During her time at the sanctuary, she was able to work with many different types of monkeys, including two capuchins, two Geoffrey’s Tamarins and two baby howlers.
While there, Narasimhan was provided with many opportunities to interact with and observe these monkeys, taking on responsibilities such as providing enrichment for them and watching and recording any behaviors they might exhibit that are typical to monkeys in captivity. Each day, she spent nearly an hour documenting howler behavior in order to compile an ethogram, an inventory of every behavior exhibited by the howlers during the period of time in question. It was through observations such as these that she learned how to read and interpret their facial expressions and body language, so as to improve her interactions with the monkeys.
“It is one thing to see them in photographs and to learn about their behavior in a textbook, but nothing compares to seeing it in person,” Narasimhan said.
She was also able to bond with these animals through activities such as grooming sessions and cuddling with the babies. To prevent the monkeys from becoming bored, the interns often rearranged the branches in their enclosure or hid food in interesting places for them to find, tasks fun for both the monkeys and the staff.
In addition to working with the monkeys, Narasimhan spent time studying the effects of teak harvesting in a local teak plantation on the animals that live there. Despite being profitable, teak plantations are often devastating to local mammal populations. However, she found that through collecting the teak in a way that leaves the understory rather than completely removing it, the plantation will be more sustainable.
“Conservation and sustainability are the reason for all of our work at Aloutta, and I [enjoyed] learning about how to make the world a better place, one step at a time,” Narasimhan said.
Narasimhan feels as though she was truly blessed to have had the opportunity to spend part of her summer at the Aloutta Sanctuary. The experience has showed her how much she enjoys working with animals. Upon graduation from Waynesburg University with a major in biology and a minor in psychology, she hopes to be able to continue doing the type of work she experienced during her time in Panama.