Babysitting a Giant Anteater: What Could Go Wrong?

The Llanos, home to jaguars, mountain lions, ocelots, howler monkeys, manakins, storks and of course giant anteaters. Photo by Paula Saravia

Living and growing up in Colombia, one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, played a major role in what I wanted to do when I grew up. Getting lost chasing birds and exploring the woods behind my house was a daily routine. So, when the time came to choose a career, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else but becoming a biologist and started college at the CES University in Medellin.

At my university, students are required to do an internship in the last semester. I always had a passion for field biology, and I chose to do the internship at a nature reserve in the Llanos region of Colombia. This region is home to jaguars, mountain lions, giant anteaters, ocelots, howler monkeys, manakins, storks, you name it, it has it all. Being the bio nerd I am, I had read extensively about the region, however, I had never been there before, I didn’t know any of the birds and I’d never seen most of the animals that inhabit this ecosystem. I was stoked!

The nature reserve was located in the small town of Casanare and as an intern, I had a wide range of tasks, everything from office hours to field work.

When I started, there was an ongoing rehabilitation process for a baby Giant Anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla). She had been appropriately named María Palmita (María: A very common name in Spanish; Palmita: in reference to the species palm-like tail) and had been found by local environmental authorities as a very young animal. Sadly, they believed, as is common, that her mother had been run over by a vehicle leaving her orphaned. In fact, vehicular accidents are a major threat for this species now categorized as Vulnerable by the IUCN red list. I had never seen a Giant Anteater before, María Palmita was the first giant anteater I ever saw and until this day the only one I have ever seen.

The nature reserve had set up a plan to raise, rehabilitate, monitor, and ultimately release María Palmita back into the wild. An enclosure had been built for her, it was a big space to simulate her natural habitat, where she would be monitored and fed until she was ready to be released. The enclosure was also as far away from human contact as possible, so the main method of transportation to get there was on horseback. I was in charge of taking care of María Palmita.

María Palmita. Photo by Paula Saravia

Everything about my task seemed pretty straight forward. Horseback ride to enclosure. Replace food and water. Replace SD cards and batteries for camera traps. Sit. Observe. Horseback ride back. Repeat. What could go wrong? It was only a harmless baby anteater after all.

After prepping the food, I would take a horse ride for about 20 minutes to the enclosure. She was always ready for me, having sniffed me and the horse from far away.

To make it easier to feed and observe María Palmita, a small shack was built where she was called in and temporarily held so you could go inside the enclosure to replace the food and check camera traps. After replacing her food, I would let her out to the enclosure and quietly observe her chow down her food or more like, lick down the food with her long sticky tongue. It all went without a hitch for several days.

María Palmita, licking the food I would bring to her. The food was given to her in bottles so she could learn how to use her tongue. Photo by Paula Saravia
The all essential nap after the meal. Photo by Paula Saravia

One day, I called for her at the shack as I usually did, she came to me, but she wouldn’t go inside. I called for her for about 20 minutes on the other side begging her to go in, but still nothing. I was taking longer than usual to get this done so I decided I would leave her with some water to distract her while I went in and out of the enclosure without caging her. Surely nothing would happen. She had to be used to seeing me every day by now. I opened the gate and went in, I looked up and she was still gulping down the water. I had to be quick so that she wouldn’t notice me in there, so I ran up to where her food bottle was and I replaced it with a new one. Once I finished, I looked up and she was gone. I had closed the gate behind me, so I knew she was inside the enclosure somewhere, I just didn’t know where.

I start moving slowly towards the exit and out of nowhere I see a shadow running up and jumping out from the grass heading straight towards me. And that’s when I ran. I really didn’t know where to go or what to do but go in circles and try to confuse her, but as I did this I thought about all the snakes I could step on. I was especially worried about the Mapaná or Lanceheads, which were regularly seen in the reserve, later I discovered out there are another 9 venomous snakes that could do some real damage. All the while I’m tripping and falling all over the place, intensifying my fear of stepping in one of these snakes.

This whole time she was still right behind me, going in circles, and by this point she was in a standing pose swinging her giant claws towards me while making a loud hissing sound. And if you thought an anteater was too slow and harmless to do any real damage, you thought wrong. If an adult can take on a jaguar, I’m certain a 9-month-old can take me down.

I couldn’t really see an end to this running around in circles, so I headed to a set of trees and bushes where she couldn’t reach me, and I could make a run towards the exit. I finally got to the exit and closed the gate behind me, she was right there, barely missing me and just as out of breath as I was.

I stayed there for a couple of minutes feeling relieved of not having been ripped to shreds by a 9-month-old baby animal and being chased in circles for who knows how long looking pretty ridiculous from a bystander’s point of view.

It was alright in the end, after that I appreciated the uneventfulness task of babysitting a giant anteater.

The author with María Palmita. Photo by Laura Sánchez.

Paula Saravia is a wildlife biologist from Colombia. She has worked on birds and mammals in Colombia and the United States and is an aspiring graduate student. Paula is also a wonderful photographer and you can follow her on instagram at @paulasaraviar.

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