I’d be a terrible predator. When I see a baby animal, the last thing I want to do is chase it down and tear into its flesh. I see a baby monkey or sloth and I get gooey, telling it in a baby voice how I wanna cuddle and nurture it.

I completely lack hunting instincts. Good thing I went vegetarian.

This week we saw an array of magnificent wild Amazonian animals. We haven’t been able to go deeply into the jungle, unfortunately, because of our work schedules. But we spent the weekend visiting animals close by.

First, we visited a manatee sanctuary, where baby turtles and crocodiles are hatched and raised, and where baby manatees sold on the black pet market are rescued, rehabilitated, and eventually released into the wild.

Don’t purchase baby manatees as pets, people.

Manatees are also hunted and eaten around some of these here parts, so that sucks. I don’t know how smart manatees are, but they sure are sweet. They were confined to a tiled tank the size of a hotel swimming pool and not very deep at all, and the three of them crowded toward us as we fed them greens.

Their mouths are something out of this world, snouts covered with spiky white hairs, and they have muscular lips on the sides of their mouths that act as fingers to push food into their shallow, pale pink mouths.

Manatees pull food into their mouths using side lips reminiscent of fingers.
Manatees pull food into their mouths using side lips reminiscent of fingers.

Their skin felt like rubber and I tried to figure out their sweet spot – I petted them under their heads, where the skin was softer. The manatees put their flippers on my hand when I rubbed their undersides. I don’t know if that meant, “Oh yeah, that feels good, right there,” or, “Get off of me, human.”

We visited the zoo afterwards, which was very depressing as these gorgeous, wild, often endangered animals paced anxiously back and forth in their tiny, filthy cages.

Jaguars that roam thousands of miles in their lifetimes were cooped up in a 600 square foot enclosure. Ocelots and other smaller cats had even smaller, roofed cages that stunk of their urine.

Monkeys would never swing from pliant tree limbs again, but unyielding bamboo, ropes, and chain link fences. A pink river dolphin would swim the same 30 feet again and again, alone.

It was very interesting, and very sad.

We suck because we supported such a place with our money. It was also eye-opening to see these otherworldly life forms that would be hidden in the jungle’s dark folds.

Consider the sheer richness of variety that life produces.

Amazing.

The next day we visited a butterfly farm. I never quite got why a European lady moved to the Peruvian jungle because she saw a need to breed butterflies. But she did, and it grew into an animal sanctuary that nurses animals that were rescued from the black market – often babies whose mothers were killed so they could be pets.

Don’t purchase exotic animals on the black pet market, people.

The animal sanctuary was worlds away from the zoo – a lush jungle environment enclosed by nets for the butterflies to eat nectar to their hearts’ content.

Aaron had a blue morpho butterfly in his pocket.
Aaron had a blue morpho butterfly in his pocket.

Do butterflies have hearts? I’m not sure, but I can tell you a little something about their interesting life cycles.

A butterfly starts as a caterpillar that hatches from a tiny egg on a leaf. It eats constantly for six or seven months, shedding its skin every so often as it grows. One day it decides to become a butterfly

It curls up and it forms a chrysalis around its body. It seals off its mouth and anus to close its orifices, and it cuts off its own head and feet. Then it dissolves into a primordial genetic soup, and reforms into a butterfly.

Once it has formed, it breaks out of its chrysalis and hangs out for a while drying its wings. Some butterflies eat fruit nectar, while others don’t eat at all. Most butterflies live only for a few weeks to mate, and then they die.

Each of these stages are handled gingerly by the workers and volunteers. They find eggs in the butterfly sanctuary and bring them to the nursery, where they are scraped into little jars. When they’ve hatched they’re moved onto the plant that caterpillar eats. Once the chrysalis has formed, its hung on the wall; once the butterfly emerges, it’s freed into the sanctuary. To make sweet butterfly love.

At some point, this German woman got a jaguar on her doorstep. It was a refugee from the black market. She managed to raise money to construct a cage, and now the sanctuary has a jaguar and a whole lot of other rescued critters that they feed.

They pay thousands of dollars each year for red meat for the jaguar.

A red uakari monkey thrashed about overhead as we visited sloths, an ocelot, and a tapir. There were capuchin monkeys in an enclosure. These monkeys are as intelligent as 8-year-olds, apparently. They used to roam free, the volunteer explained, but one had been trained as a pickpocket and she had taught the other monkeys to pick pockets. They were causing a lot of problems.

An uakari monkey followed us on our tour, and at one point, pulled my hair.
An uakari monkey followed us on our tour, and at one point, pulled my hair.

Aaron fell in love with the sleek and beautiful ocelot, which gazed at us with its mysterious eyes.

Aaron and I were captivated by the ocelot's grace.
Aaron and I were captivated by the ocelot’s grace.

I love sloths, who remind me of little Buddhists, moving slowly, mindfully, and unhurriedly. I read somewhere that sloths represent spiritual sight, because some can move their heads around about 270 degrees.

This sloth chills so hard.
This sloth chills so hard.

The tapir was friendly, allowing us to pet him as his distinctly penis-shaped nose wiggled about to smell us – until a volunteer arrived with a corn slop. Then the tapir lost interest.

We walked back to our thatch-covered long boat through a humble but tidy village, stopping on the way to enjoy the thick, rich yellow juice of the aguaje, which is sold on corners all over Iquitos. 

A woman hangs out with an aguaje juice vendor, who also sold succulent mangos.
A woman hangs out with an aguaje juice vendor, who also sold succulent mangos.

The tiny port was in a crowded marketplace. The most interesting thing that we saw there was vendors selling grub skewers. A woman came by and felt up a grub skewer to test for their plumpness.

It’s one thing to be shopping for grub skewers. But this lady came by and felt up a grub skewer and then walked away, for the next grub skewer shopper to purchase and eat a grub skewer that she felt up with her dirty hands.

How are you just going to feel up how plump these grub skewers are, and then walk away, lady?
How are you just going to feel up how plump these grub skewers are, and then walk away, lady?

I don’t know. Shaking my head on many levels here.

Since I’m incapable of tearing into animal flesh or eating grub skewers, I kept exploring the fruit. Unsurprising, an Amazon jungle rich with wildlife is also rich with tasty fruit.

Acai is abundant and our gracious Airbnb hosts often blend it with coconut for delicious sour and creamy smoothies. They are revved up to export camu-camu, a fruit that yields a bright pink juice which, unsweetened, is as sour as oxalis and has enough ascorbic acid to give a woman a miscarriage. Tasteless jokes.

Colorful fruit shops selling smoothies and sandwiches dot the corners around a city park.
Colorful fruit shops selling smoothies and sandwiches dot the corners around a city park.

There is chirimoya, a sweet custard-like fruit, and pepino dulce, which tastes exactly like honeydew melon.

Pepino dulce tastes just like honeydew melon.
Pepino dulce tastes just like honeydew melon.

I’m trying to get in all the mangos and papayas and pineapples I can before we head to the mountains, and head out of the tropics, on Saturday.

Aaron says that it’ll be potato chips as far as the eye can see. I may be heading to heaven. I just hope our hikes in the mountains will offset the chips I’m going to eat. My vegetarian diet and the oppressive heat have helped me lose some weight.

Thank you for coming by and sharing our adventures with us. See you next week, in the mountains of Bolivia!

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Written by Ada Kase (Kulesza)

Ada Kase is a freelance journalist and photographer from Philadelphia. AJKTravels is her personal travel blog documenting her adventures with her husband, journalist Aaron Kase.

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