Full EpisodeJungle Animal Hospital

Deep in the Guatemalan jungle, there’s an organization whose staff works around the clock to try to save and care for injured, orphaned and endangered animals brought to its facility from all over the country. This rescue center, known as ARCAS, is at full capacity with over seven hundred boarders of all shapes and sizes, chiefly victims of the illegal pet trade. However, the team still tries to accommodate additional rescued animals arriving daily. The program centers on the work and challenges faced by jungle veterinarian Alejandro Morales, his zoologist girlfriend Anna Bryant, and their group of dedicated staff and volunteers, as they try to rehabilitate and prepare all types of wildlife for a return to the wild.

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NARRATOR: A dedicated team is heading deep into the Central American rainforest.

Their cargo is precious -- a troop of orphaned spider monkeys.

Their mission, simple -- to return the monkeys to where they belong.

It's all in a day's work for the staff at the Jungle Animal Hospital in Guatemala.

Here, the wards are full of rescued animals, all hoping for a chance at freedom.

MORALES: Takes a lot of time and effort to do it, but that's what we're here for.

Because that one little animal needs help.

NARRATOR: This is animal rehab, jungle style, a daily battle to save lives in Guatemala's busiest rescue center.

♪♪ NARRATOR: There's a special delivery for the vets at ARCAS Rescue Center.

Animals find their way here from all over Guatemala, most of them victims of the illegal pet trade.

With over 700 animals of all shapes and sizes, the Center is already at full capacity.

But they try to turn no one away.

MORALES: Will you give me a hand?


NARRATOR: The latest arrival is just one month old.

MORALES: [ Chuckles ] Come on, sweetie.

We got a baby spider monkey here, given up to the authorities in Guatemala City.

They sent her up to us.

[ Monkey screeches ] People keeping monkeys as pets is certainly quite common.

The only way to get a baby monkey like her is to kill the mother and then keep this little baby orphan in a human environment.

NARRATOR: Alejandro Morales has dedicated his life to saving animals and trained as a vet so that he could make a difference.

MORALES: All right, yep, bring him in.

NARRATOR: His girlfriend, Anna Bryant, is a zoologist from New Zealand and takes care of all the young orphaned animals that come through the door.

BRYANT: That is a very traumatic time for them.

They've been ripped away from their mother, and they've been stuck in a box or in a car for God knows how long, so it's for the best that she's here now.

NARRATOR: The baby monkey is now at the start of a five-year journey through the Rescue Center that will culminate with her release back into the wild.

After a period in quarantine, she will join up with other rescued spider monkeys to form their own troop.

Here, she will hopefully find a mate and go on to rear her own young.

Eventually, her troop will be moved into a much larger enclosure within the forest.

This will be the final stage of their rehabilitation.

This troop has been living here for over a year and is due for release in just three months' time.

Anna is carrying out a final study to see if they're ready to go back to the wild.

There's one monkey that Anna is most worried about -- an adult male called Bruce.

BRYANT: He separates himself away from the group and doesn't interact as well as the other ones do.

Unfortunately, he's the underdog of the group, really, which does make you feel a bit more attached to him, in some respect, 'cause he is such a distinctive looking monkey, as well as we've obviously had a lot of focus on him.

NARRATOR: Bruce is now 7 years old, and this is his only chance for release, but he must learn to socialize more if he is to survive in the wild.

Over the coming weeks, Anna will be keeping a close eye on his progress.

The jungles of Central America are among the most important in the world.

Once the center of a grand civilization, this tract of wilderness is known as the Maya Forest, stretching from Guatemala, through Belize, into Mexico.

It's home to a vast diversity of life, including some of the jungle's most celebrated animals.

♪♪ MORALES: It's one of the largest tropical rainforests that are left in the world.

When you get on top of the canopy, it's just this green carpet that extends for kilometers and kilometers, and there's nothing around you but forest.

It's immense, but it's also so frail and so threatened.

NARRATOR: In the last 30 years, huge areas of land across Central and South America have been cleared for agriculture.

As a result, some of the region's most precious wildlife is now under threat.

That includes the iconic scarlet macaw.

♪♪ These magnificent birds were once a common sight, but now the subspecies found here in Guatemala is rapidly disappearing.

Scientists believe there are fewer than 300 individuals left in the wild.

This year, the team at the Rescue Center is planning to make history -- by releasing a group of their own captive-bred macaws to boost the wild population.

♪♪ [ Birds squawk ] With these birds in such danger, each new chick is precious.

[ Bird squawking ] MORALES: We're looking at a two-day -- two-, three-day baby scarlet macaw.

It's this little, beautiful thing.

And it's got a full crop, so that means the parents are feeding him.

It looks very, very healthy, three-day-old baby.

There's no words to describe how important each one of these animals is.

And this is how it all begins.

NARRATOR: Once it's fledged, this chick will eventually join those waiting to be released into the forest.

At the Mammal Quarantine Department, the Center's newest spider monkey is settling in well.

She's just starting to feed from a bottle.

Anna needs to form a bond so she can care for her, but she also has to be careful not to get too attached.

BRYANT: We obviously want them to trust us enough for us to be able to feed them and for us to help them develop and for them to gain weight and to not be too stressed, but we also don't want them to be too used to us.

If she was with her mother, she would have a lot more contact.

Her mother would carry her constantly with her.

If we were to do that, we probably wouldn't be able to release her in the long run.

So that's a -- It's a fine line that we have to tread, but those are very, very heartwarming moments when they do look at you like that.

It's very cool.

NARRATOR: The baby monkey has been given a teddy bear to hug, as a sort of surrogate mother.

She will remain in quarantine for the next three months.

♪♪ [ Birds squawk ] With so many mouths to feed, the work at the Center goes on seven days a week, all year 'round.

Most of the feeding and cleaning is done by local staff and volunteers from all over the world, while the vets deal with the emergencies in the clinic.

It's a never-ending conveyor belt of rescued animals of all shapes and sizes, revealing the richness of the Guatemalan jungle but also the shocking extent of the pet trade.

The animals are treated by the vets, then nursed back to full health by Anna and her team.

These prehistoric-looking creatures are baby toucans who've fallen out of their nest.

Once all the patients have been given a clean bill of health, hopefully, they can be released back into the jungle.

♪♪ MAN: [ Speaks foreign language ] NARRATOR: The Center also attracts wild visitors from all over the forest, drawn in by the prospect of a free meal.

A flock of black vultures are regular diners at the crocodile pool, risking life and limb for a piece of fresh chicken.

♪♪ [ Vulture screeches ] Even the ants are on the take, making sure nothing goes to waste.

[ Monkeys howling ] Occasionally, some of these wild animals come to the vets' attention.

[ Howling continues ] A family of howler monkeys visits the Center every day, helping themselves to leftovers.

Alejandro has noticed the baby has a large growth on its neck, which could become serious unless treated.

He wouldn't normally interfere, but it's impossible for him to ignore it.

MORALES: It's a good thing that we caught him at the time that we did, 'cause the bigger the injury gets, more of a threat it is to him.

He could get a big infection.

He could get, like, a big mass in his neck, and that can put some pressure on his spine and on his nerves, and you don't want a monkey with problems with their nerves, 'cause they could fall down from the tree.

NARRATOR: This is a botfly larva.

They're fairly common in wild monkeys but could be fatal for a baby.

MORALES: They become very, very dangerous 'cause they're very, very big, so that's where we intervene.

We usually don't intervene in these kind of things.

[ Monkey screeching ] I'm gonna make sure that the wound is cleansed so that he can go back out and that there is no secondary infection.

All right. All right.

[ Monkey screeching ] [ Conversing in foreign language ] NARRATOR: The baby howler monkey is finally reunited with his mother and should make a speedy recovery.

♪♪ The spider-monkey troop has just six weeks left before their planned release.

♪♪ It's breakfast time, a raucous occasion which brings them all together.

All except Bruce.

Bruce is still not mixing with the rest of the troop, but that's not the only problem.

He's also spending too much time on the ground, picking up any food that falls from above.

And more worrying still, having spent his early life as a pet, Bruce has never developed a fear of humans.

BRYANT: He's very used to people.

He'll come close to the fence, he'll sit beside us.

He doesn't want to be afraid of us, and so it's very, very difficult to be able to try and get him to understand that he needs to be.

He also has taken to sleeping on the ground, under the bushes.

I do feel a little bit sorry for him because he's come so far and he's been given this chance to be able to go back into the wild, and so it's very, very difficult to see a monkey that's almost there, that's got the chance to almost be free, to not being able to exhibit the right behavior.

♪♪ NARRATOR: Out in the wild, spider monkeys have to watch out for a wide range of predators, so they are naturally very cautious.

They spend over 90% of their life in the canopy and rarely go down to the forest floor.

If they do, it's for the shortest possible time.

♪♪ One of their greatest enemies is the jaguar, the jungle's top predator.

[ Monkeys chittering ] To survive in the wild, spider monkeys need to be on their guard at all times.

Bruce must spend more time up in the trees if he's to stand any chance of being released.

Having tried everything to help him, Anna is now taking extreme measures.

♪♪ [ Firecracker pops ] She's using firecrackers to scare Bruce off the ground.

BRYANT: It's a very loud noise, a very sharp noise, and they get scared, and they will therefore associate being on the ground with bad things, with negative things.

[ Firecracker pops ] [ Monkey chitters ] We want to give them the best possible chance, and in order to do that, they need to be up in the trees for the majority of their time.

NARRATOR: Bruce won't be set free with the rest of the troop unless he can change his behavior.

♪♪ At the clinic, an unusual patient has been brought in with a nasty fracture.

MORALES: We received a baby northern potoo, which is a very, very rare bird.

NARRATOR: Potoos are secretive, nocturnal birds, closely related to nightjars.

This is the only one they've ever seen in the clinic.

MORALES: He has a broken leg, so we're going to anesthetize him and see if we can repair his leg.

NARRATOR: With so many different-shaped animals to treat, the vets often have to improvise on the spot.

MORALES: No one makes standard gas masks for baby northern potoos.

We have a makeshift one that we use with recycled materials.

He's quite young.

This species don't really do well in captivity, so we'll do as little intervention in as little time with us as possible.

And we'll push in, push in, push.

NARRATOR: The potoo will not survive in the wild with a broken leg, as he can't forage for his own food.

His only chance is immediate surgery.

This is the first time Alejandro has ever had to operate on a potoo, and it will require all his skill as a vet.

♪♪ MORALES: This is very, very painful.

NARRATOR: Once the potoo is safely asleep, Alejandro's first job is to try to straighten the broken bone.


Right now, it's aligned, and it's in a good position.

Keep the leg at that height.

♪♪ Can you turn off the light, please?


And a piece of gauze?

NARRATOR: The operation has worked.

-MORALES: Yeah, hold him. -NARRATOR: But the potoo can't be released until he's fully healed.

MORALES: It's not the most stable of fractures, but it will -- it will hold. It will hold.

And now all we need to do is find out what we're meant to feed him.

NARRATOR: Alejandro is mixing up a cocktail of fruit and flies to tempt the potoo into eating.

MORALES: If you touch their beak, they open.

Have a very, very big mouth.

Up to now, I don't think that he's liking what we're feeding him, because he's not swallowing completely.

So we're gonna keep trying because there's really not much we can do but try.

We need to make him eat.

He has to eat, 'cause if he doesn't eat, he's not gonna get better from his fracture, and we're not gonna be able to release him.

NARRATOR: The next 24 hours will be critical for the potoo chick.

And it's also a very important day for the scarlet macaws.

They're taking a major step closer to freedom.

[ Conversing in foreign language ] Today, nine of these birds are being selected for release.

[ Birds squawking ] The vets need to take a good look at each individual, but they have to catch them first.

[ squawking continues ] ♪♪ It's a stressful time for both staff and macaws, but it's unavoidable if they're to move on to the next phase.

MORALES: It is our job to catch them right now in order to get a good health assessment and to get everything that we need in order for this process to actually move forward.

NARRATOR: To avoid any risk to the wild population, the birds must first be screened for diseases.

As each individual is so precious, they must be handled with extreme care.

MORALES: They're actually quite dangerous animals.

We need to be very careful, especially about the beak, because these guys break nuts for a living.

They can break a nut about the size of our fist, so he has to restrained with enough technique to make sure that the animal is not injured and you don't get injured, as well.

NARRATOR: The driving force behind the macaw project is senior vet Fernando Martinez, director of the Rescue Center.

For Fernando, the release is the fulfillment of his lifetime's ambition.

[ Birds squawking ] The nine chosen macaws are now going to live in a much larger enclosure.

Their new home is 130 feet long and will give them space to fly.

This is the macaws' final cage before they're set free.

♪♪ BRYANT: It's really cool to be able to see them fly out and be in a cage that has trees in it.

It's really, really important for them at this stage to build up their muscle development.

MORALES: We need to give them power of flight.

They know how to fly, but we need to give them that capacity to fly long distances, having their wings completely spread out, and being able to just have that exercise.

NARRATOR: If all goes well, in a matter of weeks, these will be the first captive-bred scarlet macaws ever to be released into the Guatemalan rainforest.

♪♪ It's 6:00 A.M. on a Sunday morning, and Alejandro is worried about the potoo, so he's heading into the clinic.

MORALES: Today's my day off, but the potoo needs to be fed, and he's very weak, so I'm not having anyone else feed him, so I'm coming in in the morning and the afternoon to feed him.

NARRATOR: Even after 10 years' experience and hundreds of patients, Alejandro finds some animals hit a soft spot.

He started having dreams about the potoo.

MORALES: There's those.

Early this morning, I dreamt about him being dead.

So first thing I did was just grab my bicycle, and I rode to work to make sure that he was okay.

'Cause it was quite a hideous dream.

I actually haven't had that for a while.

[ Clicks tongue ] NARRATOR: As the hours pass, Alejandro stays in the clinic by the potoo's side to keep watch.

♪♪ The potoo still hasn't gained any weight, and Alejandro is taking it personally.

MORALES: Right now, it's just getting some fluids and I... And I hope that he can actually have a bit of fight in him and I can give him a hand and get him back to full strength, the way he was a few days ago.

♪♪ You can just see him fade, little by little, and some animals do get to you for the most unexpected reasons.

And it was -- it was just heartbreaking.

♪♪ NARRATOR: Despite all Alejandro's efforts, the little potoo doesn't make it.

♪♪ Life in the forest is fragile, and fresh casualties arrive every day.

The staff here fights for every life, but the battle against the illegal pet trade is never-ending.

Wildlife trafficking often takes place under the cover of darkness.

One of the most common methods for smuggling animals out of the forest is by public transport.

The vets from the Rescue Center are trying to combat the trade by working with the authorities at checkpoints on the main route out of the jungle.

♪♪ MORALES: It is breeding season for all the parrots and some of the mammals, as well.

So there is a very high chance that a lot of little baby orphans that have been taken away from their mothers who are away from their nests are gonna be found in one of these vehicles tonight.

NARRATOR: As the operation goes on, the officers find more and more baby parrots.

This batch were hidden in the hold of the bus.

A young couple is apprehended and taken into custody.

MORALES: This kind of scenario is quite common for someone to get a bird into their bag and try to transport it in a bus, because that's easy money for them -- illegal easy money.

It's our job to protect the animal.

The animal now becomes evidence, and that evidence is under our care.

NARRATOR: These baby parrots are the lucky ones.

They will be given the best possible chance to be free again.

Whenever new patients arrive at the Rescue Center, the first job is to get them checked in.

[ Conversing in foreign language ] NARRATOR: The priority for now is to rehydrate and feed these baby parrots after their traumatic journey out of the jungle.

MORALES: As long as we can undo their malnutrition, we will have a very good chance of success with these guys.

We can still teach them how to be proper parrots and not have to depend on humans.

NARRATOR: In one month alone, the Center can receive more than 100 baby parrots.

BRYANT: We do tend to get a lot of baby parrots in.

It's the season when they start hatching, and that's the time when it's very easy for people to grab them.

It's really, really sad, and it's unfortunately quite common.

NARRATOR: Most baby parrots never make it to market.

The vast majority die en route.

MORALES: The way that people carry these animals is completely inhumane.

They're wrapped up in plastic bags.

They usually can't breathe, and that is why there's a lot of fatalities.

Up to 70%, 80% of the animals die in transit in order for people to please themselves, and that is... That's just -- It just makes you angry.

NARRATOR: If all goes well, in two years' time, these baby parrots will be returned to the forest.

[ Birds squawking ] ♪♪ Anna's Mammal Quarantine Department is filling up quickly.

Her latest patient is a baby gray fox, found alone in the jungle.

He'll now stay under Anna's care for the next six months, until he's old enough to fend for himself.

BRYANT: He's eating incredibly well, which is great.

I just gave him a little bit of a run-around.

Obviously, he needs a bit of exercise, as well.

But the less handling that we do of him, the better.

And he's still quite aggressive and still a little bit scared, so it looks good for him being able to be released in the future.

NARRATOR: Working with baby spider monkeys brings its own challenges.

They're highly social animals in constant need of attention.

BRYANT: The cages are quite close together, and she's wanting to grab, and so what spider monkeys do is, when they can't reach with their hands, they'll use their tail, which is what she's doing quite well.

NARRATOR: No matter how hard Anna tries not to get attached, the spider monkeys sometimes prove impossible to ignore.

The troop of spider monkeys due for release is now on the final countdown to freedom.

Bruce has started to mend his ways.

He's spending more time up in the trees interacting with the rest of the troop.

Today, his fate will be decided.

BRYANT: Over the last month or so, he's definitely showing some improvements -- interacting with the young babies as well as with the males.

It's still unsure as to whether or not he will be able to be released.

Luckily, it's not my decision.

But we'll see how it goes, and we'll be able to hopefully release him.

NARRATOR: The only alternative for Bruce is to spend the rest of his life alone in captivity.

So after much deliberation, the vets finally give Bruce the go-ahead for release.

The next challenge is to capture the whole troop and attach radio collars so they can be tracked in the wild.

Now that they have been trained to avoid people, this won't be easy.

Alejandro needs to set a trap.

MORALES: [ Speaking foreign language ] They're gonna have some food inside, and, ideally, that will lure them in.

And when they try to get out, they're gonna pull this rope, and that rope will close the door.

The last thing that they'll remember from people is that, if people feed them, they get trapped.

That is the last image of people that they will have, and it's a good thing, because they're meant to stay away from us.

[ Monkey chittering ] NARRATOR: The spider monkeys seem to know something is not quite right.

But the food is irresistible.

The alpha male is the first to try it.

He gets away scot-free.

Now the others follow his lead.

♪♪ This time, the trap works, and the first two monkeys are captured.

Alejandro now has to enter the cage to administer a sedative.

This is something no one on the team enjoys, but it has to be done so the monkeys can be given a full health check before release.

MORALES: The final captures are tough, psychologically, on them and on us, because as much as we know that it's the right thing to do, it's very stressful for them.

And you can see the suffering and the fear in their eyes.

The toughest bit is for them to not understand how much we love them.

♪♪ NARRATOR: As the remaining members of the troop get caught, there is one monkey who is refusing to cooperate.


Having finally learned to stay up in the trees, away from people, he's now in no rush to come down.

But eventually, Bruce also succumbs to temptation.

♪♪ The troop is leaving the enclosure for the last time.

After their health check, the monkeys are fitted with radio collars so they can be monitored post-release.

The decision to let Bruce go was a difficult one, as there are still doubts over whether he's ready.

MORALES: He has been interacting with the juveniles and doing a lot of positive things, but there's still a slight concern.

We do everything we can to give them a fighting shot, but it's entirely up to them once those cages are no more in their life.

♪♪ NARRATOR: It's D-day for Bruce and the rest of the troop.

Though they don't yet know it, they're on their way back to the wild.

♪♪ They're heading into Rio Azul National Park, as far away from people as possible.

But it's a 15-hour drive through challenging terrain.

[ Engines revving ] ♪♪ Across their range, spider monkeys have declined by over 50% in the last 45 years.

This is now the eighth troop to be released by the Rescue Center to help boost the wild population.

BRYANT: It's been a very -- a very long journey with them, with various ups and downs.

These are monkeys that have had an awful start to life.

They've been ripped away from their mothers, from their families, and now here they all are.

So you couldn't ask for anything really better.

They don't know what's going on.

They're just looking through what they can see through the cages.

But it's finally sinking in now that we're only minutes away from letting them out.

It's the last minutes that they're gonna be in a cage for the rest of their life.

MORALES: We've done pretty much everything we can, and this is -- this is the culmination of it.

And there's not much more than Godspeed and good luck, monkeys.

♪♪ [ Monkey chittering ] [ Monkeys chittering ] ♪♪ NARRATOR: As the troop starts to explore their new world, there's one monkey who is refusing to come out.


He's not quite ready to head into the wild and needs a bit of encouragement to leave the safety of his cage.

♪♪ [ Monkeys chittering ] BRYANT: Seeing them up there, it's where they're meant to be.

So it couldn't -- it couldn't be a nicer feeling, to be honest.

It's one of those things that you kind of dream about that never actually think is gonna happen, and it's... It's really happening.

It doesn't look like it's happening.

It's -- it's just incredible.

It's -- I can't stop smiling.

MORALES: [ Sighs ] NARRATOR: Over the next few months, some of the team will stay in the forest to follow the monkeys' progress.

After that, they're on their own.

[ Monkeys chittering ] ♪♪ Back at the Rescue Center, the baby spider monkey is starting on the first stage of her training -- learning how to climb.

BRYANT: It's very, very important that she learns her coordination and learns how to hold on to trees.

She doesn't quite know what to do with all her arms and legs and that she has a tail to use.

But she'll develop, and in no time, she'll be playing on this all the time, and it'll be a lot more difficult to get her off it.

♪♪ NARRATOR: Six weeks after the spider-monkey release, the radio-tracking team brings the first reports back from the forest with news of the monkeys' progress.

MORALES: We got good news, and we got bad news.

Good news is that 11 monkeys actually have made it.

It's over a month now, and they're doing fantastically well.

Sadly, two collars were retrieved next to two dead monkeys.

NARRATOR: One of the monkeys that didn't make it was Bruce.

BRYANT: They're not sure how he died.

They just found him on the floor, dead.

It could've just been another monkey group attacked him and he didn't have the protection of the rest of the group.

At least he did have those several weeks of freedom and he did have the chance to be wild and to do what he was meant to do, and, unfortunately, he just couldn't adapt as well as we'd hoped.

♪♪ NARRATOR: There's better news from the macaw breeding enclosure.

The chick that was born three months ago has finally fledged.

With her brand-new plumage, she is now scarlet macaw number 91.

In two years' time, she will be ready for release.

MORALES: It's a fantastic sight.

This little thing that you saw when they were born, coming out of the nest fully feathered and flying, it just draws a big smile on your face.

It gives you hope.

NARRATOR: The scarlet macaws' flight enclosure is empty.

The birds are being prepared for their journey to the forest.

Five of them are having satellite collars fitted so they can be tracked in the wild.

It's time for them to head upriver and into the jungle.

♪♪ The location has been specifically selected because there have been several sightings of wild scarlet macaws here at this time of year.

♪♪ This is the culmination of 20 years' work for Fernando, the Center's director.

It's one of the most important days of his life.

♪♪ [ Birds squawking ] From the riverbank, it's roughly a three-mile hike to the release site, mostly uphill.

♪♪ This is the last time these macaws will ever see the bars of a cage.

The macaws are being released from the top of a hill, overlooking the forest canopy, with plenty of fruiting trees.

The hope is that they'll find food straightaway and soon encounter members of the wild population.

[ Birds squawking ] ♪♪ The team is making history.

This is the first time in Guatemala that captive-bred scarlet macaws have been released into the wild.

♪♪ With these new individuals, the wild population has just increased by around 5%. ♪♪ BRYANT: They don't need to be in cages to be able to see them.

[ Laughter ] NARRATOR: And this is just the beginning.

The plan is to release 40 individuals over the next five years and gradually bring these majestic birds back from the edge of extinction.

♪♪ At the Rescue Center, life goes on as before.

The next batch of macaws have started on their path to freedom.

And there's good news for the baby spider monkey.

After four months on her own, she has a new friend.

He's a little male, also rescued from the pet trade.

Together, these two will form a new troop.

Over time, others will join them, and when they're ready, they'll be returned to the jungle.

MORALES: Illegal trafficking is still happening, and animals are still coming in.

We will still be here, fighting the battle for the animals.

What keeps you going is making sure that you win small battles every time.

There is hope at the end, and we are part of the hope.

NARRATOR: Something mysterious is moving through North America.

MAN: Stop, stop, stop. There he is, there he is.

Going -- see him?

MAN: Most wildlife doesn't do well in the presence of people, and here we have one that is thriving.

MAN: The exciting part of this story is yet to come.