Pereira is an animal at M’Bopicuá Nature Park that made history, but the journey to get there wasn’t easy for her species: It includes escapes from cages, confinement in a cell, and even a painful encounter that ended with a visit to the hospital.
Many events had to take place for Pereira to make history in Uruguay. Countless things are said about her: that she sleeps a lot, that she’s lazy, that she smells bad, that she had a long tongue, that her arms are surprisingly muscular, that she has a famous cousin, that she’s an escape artist, that she’s more dangerous than she seems, that she’s odd. All are true, and none is a cause for shame.
Pereira is a southern tamandua, or lesser anteater (Tamandua tetradactyla), a threatened species critical to conservation in Uruguay whose friendly appearance and slow gait can be misleading. Let’s turn the rumors about the tamandua into facts: It can sleep up to sixteen hours a day, it has anal glands capable of releasing an unpleasant scent, its older cousin is the famous anteater, its claws have enabled it to escape from more than one cage, its limbs are capable of gripping its predators in an embrace that is impossible to loosen, and its presence in Uruguay, although somewhat more common in recent times, is unusual.
This is why, among other reasons, Montes del Plata’s M’Bopicuá Nature Park had a particular interest in reintroducing it in the country. But to do that first required a breeding stock of at least two males and two females, all of which came to the nature park with very different histories and origins, almost as if they were actors on some TV show full of charismatic characters.
It was quite a challenge. Juan Villalba, the head of the nature park, knew from the start that keeping tamanduas in captivity involved a range of difficulties, because no zoo or breeding station in Uruguay had managed to keep them for long (with one exception).
And since tamanduas are no walk in the park, he had to wait until 2011 for the first individual to arrive at the nature park. It was a female that had appeared inside a log at a sawmill and been taken to a private animal collection. Sometime later, they contacted Villalba to turn her over since getting the food tamanduas need to grow healthy in captivity is not an easy task.
It wasn’t easy to give her adequate nourishment in the nature park at first either. The tamandua eats better at M’Bopicuá than a guest at a hotel with a continental breakfast. The food they’re given has, besides a ration used for kittens, Nestum 5 Cereals, honey, orange juice, bananas, and lactose-free milk. Everything is blended together, and vitamin K is added to prevent stomach bleeding, an illness that haunts these animals every so often.
The problem is that the tamandua had spent little time in captivity, so it was used to eating ants and termites for breakfast, not a blended soup. Since the animal rejected this preparation at first, Villalba used another technique that must have been a most entertaining spectacle for the casual observer. He put a harness on the tamandua, as if she were a dog, and took her for a walk in the nature park every day to look for ants.
Fortunately for Juan, who had no plans to become a full-time “anteater walker,” the tamandua gradually got used to life at the nature park and started eating the vitamin smoothie that was prepared for her in addition to the ants it found on its walks. The walks were cut back, and the lesser anteater adapted to her diet, although she was given an anthill once a week as a way to help out with her “environmental enrichment.”
The female was alone at the time, but not for long. That same year, a zoo in Cerro Largo politely donated a male upon learning of the nature park’s intentions.
Pereira wasn’t in sight yet, but her story was already being drafted thanks to a series of fortunate events, just like the life of any being on this planet.
In 2012, another two tamanduas completed the “breeding stock”: one from Artigas and the other from Cerro Chato. The latter appeared in the town and apparently liked it a lot because it decided to stay. It hung around for a week and refused to leave, so a few inhabitants decided to do something before a dog attacked it or someone hunted it. After capturing it, they called Juan, knowing that he was looking for tamanduas for his reintroduction project. There, Villalba was able to verify from experience something that he already knew and that he would later confirm in a very painful way: the strength of the tamandua’s claws and the muscular power of its limbs, which are capable of an embrace like that of Mike Tyson in the middle of a fight. Not in vain do they easily manage to open logs and anthills in search of food. The tamandua in question had been temporarily put in a cage designed for animals less talented at escaping. It was a matter of time before it was destroyed, a situation that forced the homeowners to put it in a room.
The story of the other tamandua, found in the village of Sequeira, is even more surprising. One Saturday night, Juan got a call from the Department of Wildlife, which notified him that the Sequeira superintendent has a special prisoner in one of his cells.
It was an anteater that had ventured into the village and been taken to the police station, not because it had stolen honey from a store or was involved in incidents under the influence of alcohol but for its own safety, in the absence of a better alternative.
When Juan called him, the superintendent told him it was still there, adding, “You better come as soon as possible, because it’s Carnival, and the animal is in one of the two cells.” It was a math problem: If there was a drunken fight, you would have to put the participants in the same cell or ask one of them to share the space with the tamandua. And to be clear, nothing good can come from a small cell containing a drunk person and an animal with such powerful claws.
Fortunately, there was no need to go to such extremes. Sunday morning, Villalba went to pick up the anteater, and the nature park completed its breeding team, with two males and two females. Now, one would think, it was only a matter of putting them in marital cages and waiting for the babies to be born. No, because as we have already explained in this series, captive breeding is a complex matter, in which the animals must be not only in the best possible conditions but also in circumstances that most resemble those of their natural habitat. It was obvious that they needed to go through an adaptation process.
Two years passed without any news, and by then, Villalba was getting nervous, wondering whether he had done something wrong this time, since the reproduction of a species is the best indicator of its conditions.
Our story now jumps to the morning of September 10, 2014, when Juan was on a bus. The reason for this is that he, along with the rest of his colleagues, was on the way to the inauguration of the industrial plant in Punta Pereira. While he was talking, his phone rang. It was one of his employees, who told him, “Look at your phone. I just sent you a picture.” What he saw, to his great joy, was a tiny anteater riding on its mother’s back. The nature park’s first tamandua had been born, just when its human “godfather” was a few kilometers away.
The event was more important than that. It was the first tamandua born in captivity in Uruguay, a light of hope for the plans to reintroduce the species.
When Juan met the manager at the inauguration, he told him the good news and showed him the photo. The manager suggested, “Since we’re dedicating the plant, why don’t you call it Pereira?” And such was the name that stuck for the first tamandua born in captivity, although it certainly wasn’t the last.
Its arrival seemed to awaken reproductive stagnation. In 2015, the second arrived, followed by the third a few months later, and the good news just kept coming until they reached the current stock of fourteen anteaters, placed in different enclosures as if they were at a high-quality youth hostel (spaces for couples of families, common areas, etc.). Juan can tell them all apart, although it must be said that he particularly remembers the third tamandua born in the nature park.
Clawing to the Top
When this animal was three or four months old, one of the employees told Juan that he didn’t look well, that he seemed slow and sleepy (the tamandua, not Juan, who is extremely vivacious).
Worried, Villalba decided to take him to the veterinarian in Fray Bentos. When they arrived and the tamandua was put on the exam table, he smelled a dog (his archenemy, as we will see later) and panicked, as he expressed by sinking his claws deeper and deeper into Juan’s hand. The two veterinarians who were there tried to separate the tamandua’s limbs and pull him off of the naturalist, but every time they tried, the anteater tightened his embrace and dug his claws in even more.
All attempts were futile—one juvenile tamandua was stronger than three adult men. Villalba recalls that it was “dreadful pain,” the worst he had received from an animal. And this is coming from someone who fractured his jaw from being kicked by a zebra and got a head injury from playing with a tiger.
After three minutes of agony, the veterinarians had to give the animal anesthesia because he had buried his claws deep into Juan’s flesh. It took them so long that Juan’s wife came in to see what was going on and asked the veterinarian, “Is the little anteater not doing well?” “No, your husband’s not doing well,” the man replied. The result? The “little” anteater ended up taking a long, peaceful nap and the naturalist ended up in the hospital.
The tamandua’s powerful claws and muscles have helped it survive one of its main threats on several occasions: the presence of dogs. The pervasiveness of dogs in Uruguay represents a challenge for many species—and for tamanduas, a real problem when moving around on the ground, away from the safety of the trees. The other huge obstacle they face is being run over on the roads. Juan has received more than a few calls reporting the death of an anteater on its nighttime walk.
Pereira remains in good health and has even given birth herself. She’s already a little old to be released into the wild, but at least she made her contribution to the species’ reintroduction.
The first tamanduas from M’Bopicuá to venture into the wild will be a male and a female of about three years old, the first emissaries of this reintroduction plan. They will be fitted with telemetry collars (which have already been purchased in cooperation with the National Directorate of Environment) so that their development in the wild can be monitored. After this experiment, if everything goes well, more tamanduas will be released.
M’Bopicuá Nature Park continues to receive frequent calls about tamandua sightings or appearances in urban areas. However, once the objective of forming a breeding stock has been met, what he recommends is to make sure the animals aren’t harmed and are released in the mountains, away from populated areas.
There’s hope for the future of the tamandua in Uruguay. Juan is very optimistic that they will easily reintegrate into the wild and thus increase the population of the species in the country. “I think it’ll be the easiest species to reintroduce out of all the ones we work with because they have an instinctive reaction to anthills, and they’ll find enough food to sustain themselves,” he says. It’s good news for Juan too, since he won’t have to run after them in the wild with their continental breakfast smoothie or walk them on a harness through the densest mountains in the country in search of termites.