Travelers hoping to sleep a few feet from some of Costa Rica’s most exotic and colorful species can find that opportunity at the Toucan Rescue Ranch, a private wildlife rescue facility and charming bed-and-breakfast just three kilometers from Braulio Carrillo National Park in San Josecito de San Isidro de Heredia, north of the capital. The rescue center receives, evaluates and treats confiscated, sick and injured wildlife. Animals that cannot be rehabilitated and released into the wild find a loving home on the ranch.
Since opening in 2004, the two-acre farm has become a permanent residence for more than 100 birds of over 20 species, including toucans, parrots, owls and pheasants. Over the years, the center was expanded to take in mammals, including two-toed sloths, a spider monkey, a Mexican tree porcupine and the newest addition, a baby kinkajou.
Born in the United States, Toucan Rescue Ranch founder Leslie Howle spent most of her childhood in Costa Rica. Howle’s father, Alan Hutchinson, was one of the first property developers on the Pacific coast, and a promoter of ecotourism long before it came into vogue. From age 7 to 15, Howle lived with her family in the beach town of Nosara, in the northwest province of Guanacaste.
After a successful career in the United States as an occupational therapist and outdoor adventure ropes course entrepreneur, Howle took off for the jungles of Peru to study wild macaws. She then decided to return to Costa Rica to pursue her lifelong dream of operating a wildlife refuge center for parrots and toucans. She relocated to San Isidro de Heredia with 10 pet rescued birds and three dogs in tow.
After working with the Costa Rican organization Amigos de las Aves (Friends of the Birds, now The Ara Project), Howle realized that not all species were protected equally.
“Macaws were well represented by rescue and conservation organizations,” Howle said, rattling off a list of macaw breeding and rehabilitation organizations, “but nobody really cared about the toucans.” This led Howle to try to fill the void by founding one of the country’s first Environment Ministry-licensed rescue facilities focusing on the long-beaked, colorful birds.
Like many rain-forest species, toucans are vulnerable to habitat loss and poaching for the illegal pet trade. The keel-billed toucan is listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which means that although it is not necessarily threatened with extinction, it may become so unless trade is subject to strict regulation. The Toucan Rescue Ranch is the first facility in Costa Rica to successfully breed toucans in captivity.
Together with her Costa Rican husband, Jorge Murillo, Howle launched Toucan Rescue Ranch with the motto “Rescue, Rehabilitate, Love, Liberate.” As word of mouth spread about their work, the couple began receiving calls from people and government agencies requesting their help with animals in need. Although the center is licensed by the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET), it receives no government funding.
For several years the private ranch ran solely on personal income and income from Murillo’s career as a licensed real estate agent. When the real estate market took a downturn with the onset of the global recession, Howle and Murillo faced a turning point for the ranch.
“We either had to open up [to the public] or shut down,” Howle said.
So, the Toucan Rescue Ranch opened to visitors in January 2010. Now, the center relies on donations, its adopt-an-animal sponsorship program and income from the B-and-B and tours to keep the facility running.
To share the ranch with visitors, Howle developed a two-hour Spanish or English walking tour explaining the histories of the animals and their dramatic tales of rescue and rehabilitation. At each enclosure, it is evident that Howle puts her occupational therapy background to use with her charges, which often demand round-the-clock feeding schedules, surgery, amputations, physical therapy and even psychological rehabilitation. Howle has treated botfly-infested toucans, taught an owl amputee to hop down a ladder for food, healed a traumatized, abused and neglected spider monkey, and served as surrogate mother to baby sloths.
Howle and Murillo also opened their cozy bungalow as a bed-and-breakfast on the ranch, where guests can enjoy the small coffee and banana plantation as well as butterfly- and bird-friendly plants throughout the property. The bungalow, furnished with a queen-size bed and either bunk beds or a twin bed, can accommodate a maximum of five guests. Amenities include a private bathroom, fully equipped kitchen, fresh eggs from the ranch’s hens, and the opportunity to order in dinner with the sloths at feeding time. Just a year after opening, the B-and-B reached No. 1 for Heredia Specialty Lodging on the popular travel rating website TripAdvisor.
One of the ranch’s most important facets is education. Since opening to the public, the center has offered programs for schools and universities, welcoming Costa Rican and international students of all ages to learn about the animals and the threats they face. They also offer nature and bird-watching tours at their sister farm in Sarapiquí on the Caribbean slope, where they have released three sloths, one curassow bird, one oropendola bird and several owls and kites. They have also released dozens of confiscated songbirds to their native habitats.
Through its Internet blog, the ranch has drawn support from all over the world for its adopt-an-animal sponsorship program. Many of the ranch’s supporters are children, including a classroom of students in China who are selling tote bags to raise funds for the center.
The Toucan Rescue Ranch is in need of corporate sponsors and volunteers to help prepare food for the animals. They are fundraising to build a large enclosure for spider monkey Isadora and another enclosure for the sloths. For visitors who want to donate their time, the center accepts volunteers for a minimum of two weeks, and can arrange homestays with local families.
From San José, take Highway 32 toward Guápiles to the San Isidro de Heredia entrance. Turn left after Las Orquídeas restaurant and go 800 meters west and 200 m north. Pass two small bridges and follow the road down a steep hill. At the bottom of the hill, continue 100 meters and turn right. At the toucan totem pole, take a right and follow the narrow paved road until it ends at the gate of the Toucan Rescue Ranch property.
Bed-and-breakfast rates are $85 per couple per night, plus $15 for each additional person (five people maximum). The two-hour Toucan Rescue Ranch tour (by appointment only) costs $10 per person and $5 for kids under 5; student and group rates are offered. Nature and bird-watching tours at the ranch’s sister farm in Sarapiquí cost $45 per person for a full-day guided tour.