Wild birds can be beautiful and their songs divine, but keeping them as pets is a nothing but a crime.
That’s the message approximately 30 fourth graders from San José’s Buenaventura Corrales Elementary School took home from a recent performance by the Cucaramácara puppet theater group at the nearby National Culture Center (CENAC).
Their visit was part of a project being carried out by the nonprofit Association for the Preservation of Wild Flora and Fauna (APREFLOFAS) to educate citizens against keeping wild animals as pets.
“The project was born from a very real problem,” said APREFLOFAS biologist Gino Biamonte. Keeping certain wild animals as pets – particularly birds and monkeys – is a part of Costa Rican culture, he said.Many of these species are endangered, and they suffer during the process of being captured, trafficked and held as pets.
“You see a lot of wild birds in cages, especially in towns along the northern border with Nicaragua, because there is very little control on both sides of the border,” Biamonte said.
Though keeping wild animals as pets is illegal in Costa Rica, lax enforcement of the laws has kept this tradition alive and well, he said.
People often keep parrots and other wild birds in their homes because these birds instinctively respond to stimulus and repeat sounds.
“They learn the names of everyone in the house and soon become a part of the family,”
However, these pets are usually not as happy as their singing makes them seem.
Well-intentioned but uneducated people often give them inappropriate food and keep them in an unsuitable environment, Biamonte said. Additionally, many have had their wings clipped, making it impossible for them to satisfy their urge to fly.
Perico de los Palotes
These facts are conveyed through Cucaramácara’s puppet show, “Aventuras y Desventuras de Perico de los Palotes” (“Adventures and Misfortunes of the Parakeet of the Banana Trees”). The star of the show, a wise parakeet named Perico de los Palotes, narrates a variation of the classic Hansel and Gretel fairytale in which Hansel gets captured and encaged by a witch who has always wanted a little boy as a pet.
At the recent CENAC performance, masked puppeteers Anselmo Navarro and Berny Abarca used brightly colored puppets, music and a steady stream of humor to keep young eyes peeled. The stage came alive as Hansel’s fate unfolded and the witch eventually released him.
Meanwhile, Gretel caught a wild bird for a pet and then decided to set it free. In the end, the witch, Hansel and Gretel reached the universal conclusion that trapping wild animals (and little boys) for pets is unnecessary because “In freedom, we can have as many friends as we want.”
After the show, student Isaac Ramírez, 10, said that although he has three dogs at home, he would never want a wild parrot as a pet. “They get sad being in a cage,” he said. A group of Ramírez’s classmates concurred with a resounding “no!” when asked if wild animals make good pets.
Reaching Adults through Kids
The idea for the puppet show came from a survey APREFLOFAS conducted of 900 homes in northern border towns to gauge the public’s perception of keeping wild animals as pets, Biamonte said.
The survey found that though many people know that having wild animals as pets is illegal, they keep them anyway because they perceive no threat of being penalized. Also, the law is often misunderstood, the study found – many people think it is the national parks’ job to enforce the law when, in fact, this is the responsibility of the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), Biamonte said.
Based on these findings, APREFLOFAS decided to launch an educational campaign targeting schoolchildren.
To carry out the project, the association called upon the creativity of Cucaramácara, a group founded in 1983 that uses puppets to entertain kids and adults and sometimes educate them on social issues, such as protecting the environment.
The group, based in Costa Rica, has toured Europe and Latin America with 23 puppet shows.
“The idea is to educate adults through kids,” Biamonte explained. “If children aren’t interested in having wild animals as pets, adults won’t buy them, and the practice will become outdated.”
Cucaramácara will be traveling around the Northern Zone to 20 schools and community centers during the next two months performing the puppet show and giving talks against animal trafficking.
Additionally, APREFLOFAS has designed posters to be put up around these communities to reiterate the fact that keeping wild animals as pets is illegal. Using photos of a despondent monkey and birds in cages, the posters convey such messages as “Never have wild animals in captivation as pets. The law prohibits it. Adopt domestic animals like dogs and cats.”
The U.N. Development Programme and the Inter-American Development Bank (BID) are funding the project. Biamonte said APREFLOFAS is looking for additional funding to continue the project in Nicaragua, Panama and other countries.