From a young age, Pía Martín knew she wanted to work with wild animals. While her colleagues in veterinary school in Costa Rica at the National University in Heredia, north of the capital, pursued lucrative careers caring for house pets, Martín, 26, volunteered and wrote her thesis about the animals that inhabit Costa Rica’s jungles and rain forests.
“That was my dream,” Martín says. “I always loved wild animals.” Now, Martín is living her dream in the jungle around Manuel Antonio, on the central Pacific coast. Earlier this year, she became the first veterinarian to join the animal rehabilitation center and clinic run by Kids Saving the Rainforest (KSTR), the Manuel Antonio-based nonprofit devoted to educating and empowering youths interested in environmental conservation.
Right now, the center houses three sloths, three raccoons, two monkeys and a porcupine, nursing them back to health with the eventual aim of releasing them back into the wild.
“We’re not a zoo,” Martín explains. “We get animals that are injured or orphaned, we rehabilitate them and then they are released.” Unfortunately, not all the animals are fit to return to the wild. The center then tries to find a zoo to provide a good home, but in some cases must resort to euthanasia.
Benji, for example, is a male three-toed sloth that burned his paws and fractured his arm after he was electrocuted while climbing on a power line. Martín says the center will wait and see if Benji’s claws grow back before deciding his fate.
“He wouldn’t be a sloth” if the claws don’t return, she says. “He couldn’t hang from a tree. That’s not a good life.”
According to Martín, electrocution is the primary cause of injury for most of the animals the center receives.
“That’s what we see the most,” she says. “The sloths use electric wires to go from tree to tree, so they get shocked.”
The center also takes in orphaned animals, as well as victims of poachers and injuries caused by cars on the busy road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio. The Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) brings in many of the injured animals and acts as an informal partner with KSTR on the rehab center, though it does not provide any funding.
KSTR also has collaborated with the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) to erect more than 110 monkey bridges above the roads of Manuel Antonio.
Jam, a young, male squirrel monkey scurrying about his cage on a Friday afternoon, was orphaned after poachers killed his mother. MINAET officials found him for sale on the black market. Jam had been taught tricks to win food, and Martín fears he may not be able to behave correctly if returned to the wild. (The clinic is closed to the public and limits the amount of human contact the animals receive, to avoid domesticating them.)
“He has suffered some neurological problems,” Martín says of Jam. “He suffered trauma. We don’t know if we are going to be able to release him.”
Even when the animals are cleared for release, doing so is not as simple as opening a cage and letting the creature scamper off into the jungle. The center’s latest addition, for instance, is a male white-faced capuchin monkey orphaned after his mother was electrocuted.
After giving him several days to recover, Martín says the center will have to locate his troop and release him quickly.
“We have to get him to the same place where we found him,” she explains. “He has to call and his troop has to call back. If we release him to another troop, they wont accept him.”
Before January, when the center hired Martín and opened its own clinic on its fouracre plot in the rain forest, the animals were taken to a veterinarian in Quepos.
“It’s a small clinic,” Martín says, of KSTR’s new clinic, “but it has the basics.
KSTR hopes to raise money for an Xray machine for the clinic and has applied for permission to eventually expand and relocate to a yet-to-be-constructed, 1,500-hectare wildlife sanctuary, educational center and volunteer hub eight miles northeast of Quepos.
“We’ve got this huge property we’re allowed to use, and we’re building cages and everything out there,” says KSTR President Jennifer Rice, whose daughter, Janine Licare, co-founded KSTR in 1999, when she was 9 years old (TT, Sept. 17, 1999).
“We’re working on that so the animals that can’t be released from anywhere in the country can have a sanctuary there. But also, the government asks that you use sanctuary animals as ambassadors to teach people about the rain forest and its destruction, so it’s going to be an educational center.”
The organization has been in touch with CornellUniversity and zoos in the United States to provide research opportunities for the study of Costa Rican wildlife.
“They can learn a ton of information from our animals,” Rice says. “So that’s what feels really good about this, is that we’re going to be helping not just the country, but the planet. It’s expanding by the minute, which is really cool, and all for the good.”
For more information on KSTR, visit www.kidssavingtherainforest.org