By Jessica Lovell
It may be a problem unique to Guelph, but when wildlife biology student Amanda Tawde decided she wanted to get some volunteer experience working with animals, she had trouble finding an organization that could use her.
“It was a little disheartening,” says Tawde, who is now in her final semester of studies at the University of Guelph. She plans to head to veterinary school in Australia in February.
“I’ve found that the organizations in Guelph are very difficult to get into,” she says, noting she tried vet’s offices, humane societies in Guelph and Kitchener, as well as organizations like the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada.
A lot of her fellow students had the same trouble. It seems that when it comes to working with animals, there are more than enough volunteers to go around in Guelph, explains Tawde.
But the problem turned into an opportunity for Tawde. She has spent the last few months working with lemurs, macaques, monkeys and baboons.
She had to look a little further afield than Guelph – actually quite a bit further afield – but in her search she stumbled across Story Book Farm in Sunderland, Ont.
“It’s really fascinating work,” says Tawde. “You get to know the animals on a different level.”
She hopes her experience will inspire other students like her to volunteer their time to a unique animal charity – maybe even Story Book Farm.
The farm is one of few primate sanctuaries in Canada, and it is even more rare because it is still accepting new residents – animals that were from research labs, former house pets, or those that may have been rescued from the pet trade, says Tawde.
She volunteers Tuesdays and Sundays, a feat she can manage both because she has a car and because she lives part-time with her parents in Oshawa, much closer to the sanctuary than Guelph is.
The sanctuary’s president and founder, Sherri Delaney, didn’t accept Tawde based on her education or her background working with other animal organizations (outside of Guelph). It was ultimately up to the monkeys.
“Apparently the monkeys like me,” she laughs. “If the monkeys don’t like you, it’s very difficult to work there,” she adds.
The farm is home to about two dozen primate residents, as well as dogs, a cat and a lame billy goat.
“Sherri just has a hard time saying no to people,” says Tawde, explaining how a billy goat came to be living among the primates. The goat might have been put down, but Delaney was asked if she would take him in, and his charming personality won her over, says Tawde.
Not all of the primates have such winning personalities.
“A lot of the animals have behavioural issues” because of past mistreatment, says Tawde. “It’s doubly important to be respectful of boundaries.”
That means the job is not exactly touchy-feely work, in that Tawde is not allowed to interact with the primates as she would with a cat or dog.
Instead, a typical day starts with a trip to the barn, where the animals are housed. Tawde arrives and checks to make sure everyone is OK, then lets them outside if it’s a nice day.
Then she gets to work cleaning their enclosures and freshening their water.
The animals get enrichment activities, such as toys to keep them busy and happy, Tawde says.
Then there’s meal preparation. “The reorganization of the fridge is a daily thing,” she says.
Feeding the animals involves a fine balance. “If one day by accident I give them too many vegetables and not enough fruit, they will hold it against me,” she laughs.
Other days, Tawde also gets to help with things like taking animals to the vet, experience that should serve her well when she starts in a wildlife veterinary medicine program in Australia.
Her ultimate goal is to eventually open a sanctuary of her own.
“I think it’s important to make life for the animal as comfortable as you can,” she says, noting that even when animals must be used for research or learning, they should be treated with dignity.
As for Tawde’s experience at Story Book Farm, it’s had the effect of strengthening her goals and ambitions, she says.
“It’s a potentially great experience for people like me,” looking for volunteer opportunities with animals in this volunteer-rich city, she says.
And it helps to bring her academic life as a biology student into focus, she says. “It reminds you of what is important and why you are doing this.”