In mid-July, three Amador Valley High School students, Marisa Riordan, Rachel Lortz and Megan Bantz, along with other Bay Area teens, embarked on a 17-day trip to the Central American country with the unusual focus of helping rehabilitate animals at the ARCAS Rescue Center, which is supported by the Oakland Zoo.
The group began its journey in Antigua, where the teens stayed with host families for a few days and explored the city. From there, they traveled into the jungle, where they worked for a week at the ARCAS rehabilitation center.
At the rescue center, they had the opportunity to work with exotic animals, including spider monkeys, scarlet macaws and toucans.
"We worked in the cages with the animals, and we would spend time with them, feeding them and cleaning their cages," said Riordan. "We weren't really allowed to interact with them because we were trying to rehabilitate them and release them back into the wild."
Most animals at the center had been confiscated from homes where people illegally held them as pets. Though the teens' duties were mainly feeding animals and cleaning cages, Lortz was able to work with a couple of birds doing physical therapy, helping them to do wing exercises.
"Most of the animals that we were working with were endangered, so it helps to rehabilitate them so they can go back into the wild and be a part of the ecosystem and bring the numbers of animals back up," said Bantz.
After their week at the rehabilitation center, the group traveled across Guatemala to a beach called Hawaii, where they worked at a turtle rescue center. By day, they performed simple chores like painting. At night, they walked several miles along the beaches with flashlights, searching for turtle eggs to bring back to the center so they could hatch and the babies could be released into the wild.
"It's legal for Guatemalan people to take the eggs as long as they donate 20% of the nest to the government," Riordan explained. "We try to claim the eggs so we can repopulate the sea turtles because they're on the verge of extinction."
The teens weren't just learning about animals; they stayed with Guatemalans during most parts of their trip, so they discovered a new culture as well.
"It was really interesting seeing how they lived and being able to be them for a couple of days, actually living how they live," said Bantz. "They don't have all the amenities we have; they have to do a lot of stuff themselves, and it was just interesting seeing what they do during the day and how different it is compared to us."
The 14 teens also grew close during the long trip. Both Lortz and Bantz pointed to dealing with a five-and-a-half hour layover in the middle of the night on the way to Guatemala as the beginning of their new friendships.
All three girls spoke highly of the "once in a lifetime" experience, saying it has influenced their worldview and career plans.
"I think the biggest thing for me is that this confirmed my wanting to work with animals, especially exotic animals," said Lortz. "This was a firsthand experience to see how badly animals have been affected by human development."
Lortz plans to study animal sciences in college and eventually become a veterinarian for exotic animals. Though this course of work will likely lead her to a zoo, she is also open to traveling to other countries to work with animals at rehabilitation centers like the one she visited.
"For me, it was good to be away from technology and be more in touch with nature, and I think it's important to protect the environment we have," Riordan said. "There was a lot of deforestation going on, and animals are poorly treated, so we need to protect what we have."
To learn more about teen programs offered through the Oakland Zoo, visit www.oaklandzoo.org.