Not Your Typical Day’s Work

For more than ten years, certified veterinary technician, Sarah Hurley of Champagne, Ill. has been volunteering to participate in research projects for Earth watch, 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?

Earth watch, 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 projectsinvolving leatherback sea turtles, black bears, and wildcat species(jaguar, mountain lion, etc.) over the past 10 years. Their URL is

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 intervals what they were doing and how high off the ground they were doing it. Ifthey were eating, we identified what the food was andwhether they wereactually chewing it, or storing it in their cheekpouches. 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 othertroops, we attempted to identify the individuals involved in theconfrontation, the resource being contested, and which groupprevailed.

On one day, we took physiological data from one troop of macaques that had been trapped for that purpose. We had to workvery 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 thenanesthetized with Ketamine, identified with a toe tag and sent overto us. The vet students were concentrating on collecting parasitespecimens, Dr. Dittus would pull blood samples and take precisemeasurements of the length and breadth of dozens of body parts,others would weigh the animal, check for breast milk, look forscars and injuries, pull hair samples for DNA analysis, tattoo theinner thigh, record data, and administer fluids. My role was toconcentrate on obtaining vaginal swabs for a pheromone study, andto do TPRs at specified intervals on each monkey. The TPRs werepart of a new study on the effects of anesthesia.

The big challenge was counting heartbeats and respirations asothers were flipping the monkeys around and calling outmeasurements to others recording the data. The toe tags wereinvaluable ID, since I was often working 3-4 monkeyssimultaneously. I was able to detect a heart murmur in one youngmonkey in the process. As a storm unexpectedly blew up, and werushed to finish, I also helped look for parasites and evaluatewounds.

3. How many people were in your group? Were there any other vettechs?

There were no other vet techs, but there were two Sri Lankan vetstudents who were working on a study about parasites in the monkeysand who helped with processing the lab specimens from the trappedmonkeys. Veterinary medicine in Sri Lanka is focused on foodanimals. It is a very poor country. Stray, intact dogs and catswere everywhere. About 80% of the dogs in Polonaruwa had severemange and were underweight. The dogs were all what dogs would looklike without any selective breeding: 30-35 lbs, erect ears, longlegs, short coats.

4. How long did the flight take?

Total flight time, including a 2-3 hour layover in Europe wasabout 24 hours.

5.How long were you there?

I was in the country for one month. I spent three weeks on theproject 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 typefoods were available. Sri Lankan food is primarily vegetarian orfish. Typically they eat rice and curry. There is a large bowl ofwhite rice and three to five different dishes of curried vegetablesor fish to choose from. The curry is a blend of cinnamon, curryleaf, cardamom, ginger, saffron, and nutmeg. Vegetables includedbreadfruit (a melon sized fruit that when cut and cooked resemblespotatoes), tomatoes, green beans, dhal (lentil), eggplant, onions,snake gourd and lotus root, among others. Sambol, a concoction ofdry coconut and chilies is added to increase the spiciness asdesired. Most dishes served to westerners were not very spicy(think Taco Bell mild taco sauce), and since I like my food veryhot, I usually ate with the Sri Lankans and added heaps of Sambolto boot.

Most of their food has coconut incorporated into it, though youwouldn’t know it if they didn’t tell you. A flat bread, roti, ismade from coconut flour, as was a delicious crispy crepe-like thingcalled a hopper. The hoppers were bowl-shaped and either used likea taco shell or held a fried egg (egg hoppers). String hoppers looklike angel hair pasta shaped into a disk or bowl and were analternative to rice. There was also fruit at every meal: papaya,mango, pineapple, mangosteen, plantain, jackfruit, and rambutanwere some. Mangosteen looks like a purple apple. When broken open,it reveals large fleshy white seeds, which taste something like across between a strawberry and a grape. Rambutan had a similar seedinside a bright red spiky husk.

A fruit I would have liked to encounter, but did not, is thedurian. It is supposed to be delicious, but smells on the outsidelike sewage. Most hotels don’t even let you bring it inside.

Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) is known for its tea. I also drankthe water from the King Coconut. It is an orange colored coconutwith little meat, used primarily for drinking. I initially tried itbecause I had a bit of traveler’s diarrhea and had becomedehydrated. The water from the coconut is a natural electrolytereplacement. I felt rehydrated within 20 minutes of drinking it,something that sipping water constantly for hours had failed toachieve. I later found out that during wars when LRS wasunavailable, they actually ran this stuff IV because it is sterileinside the coconut.

7. What were your sleeping accommodations?

For this project, six of us stayed in a bungalow and the othersin small cabins. There were two people to a bedroom with mosquitonets for each bed. The bathrooms had cold showers and regulartoilets. We had a green frog that lived in our toilet, jumping upto hide under the seat at auspicious moments. Though hotels hadwestern style bathrooms as well, most places in Sri Lanka usedsquat toilets. These were pits in a cement-floored outhouse withfootprint 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 UScampgrounds. Rooms were cooled by ceiling fans, except when therewas a power outage. Power outages were scheduled daily, as thecountry depends upon hydroelectric power and the monsoons hadn’tcome yet. Water outages were also common, since it takes power topump the water.

One other unusual thing about the accommodations was that we hadto be careful to take precautions to keep monkeys out of the house.When people complain about raccoons in the garbage here, I willtell them about monkey proofing. All the windows were covered with3X3 wire mesh to keep the monkeys out. Except one of the squares ofwire had to be cut to allow one to insert their hand through toopen and close the windows. The monkeys learned to send in a babythrough that small opening and the baby would then hand stuff outthe window. They will steal and tear apart anything that is edibleor smells edible –cosmetics, shampoo, etc. So we had to close upthe windows when we left during the day. The monkeys also chew theelectric wires outside, forcing homeowners to run the wires throughPVC piping.

8. Were you in any danger in the jungle? What precautions didyou take?

The ecosystem there isn’t what most people would think of whenthey think of a jungle. It is more like a forest here –withdeciduous trees and a lot of 5-8 foot bushes. The area we were inwas only a mile from a village and was actually a substantialvillage (and the capital of a kingdom) in the 10th century.

Archeological ruins share the space with the macaques. It is asmall peninsula of forest, which is connected to a much largerforested area on the other side of a reservoir. There are poisonoussnakes about, but unfortunately, I didn’t get to see any. These arenot too much of a danger, since usually the monkeys will spot themand give an alarm call. Some large scorpions came out after itrained one day. We found several at the research station. Wildelephants visit the area and we did not study one group of monkeysin order to avoid an accidental encounter with an elephant that wasin their home range.

Probably the biggest danger, as is often the case, comes fromthe smallest creature. Malaria is present in Sri Lanka, though rarein Polonaruwa. Many volunteers chose to take preventative. I didget attacked by a leech, but that was walking through the botanicalgarden in one of the cities. I didn’t even know it until I realizedmy pant leg was soaked through with blood. I continued to bleed foranother eight hours! Amazing anti-coagulant.

9. What did you see while you were traveling around thecountry?

After I finished up my stint with the project, I traveled aroundthe country and attended the Perahera in Kandy. Kandy is the secondlargest city and the site of the Temple of the Tooth. The tooth isBuddah’s and is the most sacred of relics in this largely Buddistcountry. The Perahera is the largest festival in Sri Lanka. For 10days leading up to the full moon in August, a nightly parade ofdressed up elephants, traditional dancers and musicians, firejugglers, and whip-crackers proceeds slowly from the temple.

Each night the parade becomes more elaborate and elephantsarrive from all over the country, so that there are over 50elephants participating in the final parade. It was the mostfabulous spectacle that I have ever witnessed. The fire from thetorches, the constant primitive melodies and drumming, the whirlingdancers (who never stopped during the entire course of the parade)and the stately elephants in their bejeweled garb weremesmerizing.

10. Anything else you may want to throw in?

There’s probably too much already, but here’s more. The wildlifewas amazing. I saw wild elephants, buffalo, and boars, as well asflying foxes, crocodiles, land monitor lizards and a water monitorthat had to be 90 pounds. Grey langurs, purple langurs, and lorisare other primates that share the forest with the macaques. Weregularly 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 abusy city street.

Many people were aware that while I was there, the airport wasattacked by terrorists and half of Air Lanka’s planes weredestroyed. I was not near the airport when the attack occurred, butmy departure from Sri Lanka was delayed by 24 hours, since theywere unable to accommodate all the ticket holders, even 10 dayslater. Despite the problem at the airport, and the StateDepartment’s subsequent warning, I would recommend Sri Lanka toanyone thinking of making the trip. It is a fascinating place, andI never felt remotely in danger.

They have a political situation that is not unlike the onein Ireland. There are armed checkpoints on the roads, but theterrorism has been mostly aimed at government targets and 95% ormore of Sri Lankans of all cultures and faiths get alongbeautifully. I didn’t feel any tension or threat and would nothesitate to go again.


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