Agroup of baby and adolescent howler monkeys swing around the jungle canopy with an easy agility that would make even the most accomplished trapeze artist shuffle his feet and feel envious enough to consider hanging up his cape. For the monkeys, the acrobatics are no more than part of their recreation, a game of tag in which they hang from their tails and playfully chomp at each other’s tender bits.
These monkeys are all orphans, and have been lucky enough to find a home at the Jaguar Rescue Center, in the leafy paradise of Playa Chiquita on the southern Caribbean coast. The few hours they spend in the forest each day are known as “Monkey School” and are part of the wildlife rescue center’s program to gradually reintroduce the energetic animals into their natural habitat.
When the monkeys aren’t in the forest learning to live in the wild, they spend their time eating, pulling on each other’s ears and dozing, all in the comfort and safety of a spacious cage back at the center. They have neighbors, too. The Jaguar Rescue Center is home to a variety of animals in various stages of health. There are birds with clipped wings, squinty-eyed possums nursing machete wounds, a mischievous coati and a baby deer named Xai that follows its caretakers and licks the backs of their legs, happy to find anything salty. There are terrariums full of vipers, and a baby porcupine whose quills make his inquisitive, friendly tendencies pointed indeed.
The owners are the husband-and-wife team of Sandro Alviani, an Italian herpetologist, and Encar García, a Spanish primatologist, who live onsite. They run the center with indispensable help from several full-time employees – most of them locals, all of them animal lovers – and an ever-shifting slew of eager volunteers from all over the globe.
Tired of working in the commercial world of European zoos, the couple found themselves spending more and more time in Costa Rica, and seven years ago they relocated permanently. As their neighbors in Playa Chiquita got to know them, they took note of Alviani and García’s specialized skills and started bringing them animals that needed expert care. Over the course of their first four years in the country, Alviani and García had amassed so many injured, sick and orphaned animals that in 2008 they decided to make their pastime official and open the Jaguar Rescue Center, complete with guided tours for the intrigued public.
“I think the Jaguar Rescue Center was born from this community’s need for a place to take injured animals,” García says.
Electric cables, dogs and cars pose a severe threat to the region’s wildlife, as do people who want to keep wild animals as pets – animals kept as pets are often diseased and malnourished – or illegally sell them to international collectors. García says Costa Rica’s laws regarding wildlife are adequate and that the police are willing to enforce them but lack the proper training and equipment to do so. The authorities in the area regularly confiscate captive animals, and they call on Alviani and García’s expertise when doing so.
The only way the police can know that animals are being kept illegally is for concerned citizens to call and report their neighbors. García notes that people are often hesitant to call, worried that their neighbors will receive harsh punishment or be angry with them for reporting them to the police.
“In reality, it’s not a big deal. You don’t even have to say your name or anything, only that your neighbor has an animal in inhumane conditions,” she says.
For a first offense, the lawbreaker doesn’t even receive a citation, but repeat offenders risk a sentence of up to three years in jail, García adds.
García tells the story of one white-faced capuchin monkey that was kept for four years in a tiny cage in a mechanic’s shop in the nearby town of Bribrí.
“[The monkey] was going crazy because of all the noise, pulling his own hair out,” she says.
His captors never once cleaned his cage, and by the time Alviani and García went with the police to retrieve the monkey, he was highly aggressive. The couple worked with the monkey for months and nursed him back to health. The monkey was finally accepted by a group of wild capuchins.
This is one success story out of more than 400 in which Alviani and García have played a crucial role over the past seven years. They have accomplished much, including the reintroduction of a one-armed kinkajou and the adoption of a baby howler monkey by a reintroduced female that was not its birth mother – a feat formerly unheard of in the world of wildlife rescue centers, García says.
The primatologist knows that psychology plays a major role in successful reintroduction, and that each animal has individual fears based on the unique traumas it has experienced.
“The reintroduction process is different for every species, but also for every individual,” she says. “You’d think that once you find the formula to reintroduce toucans, for example, that all toucans will be the same, but no. You run into surprises, and this is what is so marvelous. Every toucan has its own personality.”
Life at the Jaguar Rescue Center is hectic, and the needs of the animals demand a full schedule with little time for vacations or rest. Just when García and Alviani are dressed, for once, in clothes that aren’t covered in monkey urine and are ready to leave and meet friends for dinner, someone will call to inform the couple that a sloth has been hit by a car or a boa constrictor is winding through their kitchen.
“Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t open a restaurant like everybody else,” García says. “But I think I am very lucky because I get to do what I like to do, so for me it really isn’t a huge sacrifice.”
The Costa Rican government provides no subsidization for the rescue center. All of the money the center needs for animal housing structures, expensive surgeries and medications, and the costs of day-to-day operations comes from tourist entrance fees and private donations. This means that, in addition to contact with the volunteers and workers who look after them, the animals are around tourists every day.
Although it is easy to rationalize that the Jaguar Rescue Center provides a good simulation of animals’ life in nature – they eat as they would or better than they would in the wild and get to climb around in the trees – the truth is that it is not nature at all. Some of the most damaged animals will never be able to return to the wild. Even for the animals that will someday be healthy enough to reclaim their lives in the forest, living for so long surrounded by humans affects them in a profound way.
Perhaps the most difficult part of Alviani and García’s job is finding the balance between humans and animals to provide for the animals’ greatest good. Although some wildlife biologists oppose any and all human interaction with animals, the owners of the Jaguar Rescue Center belong to the opposite camp. García compares baby animals to human babies.
“Contact isn’t a bad thing. Every animal, like every child, needs a different level of affection,” she says.
According to García, a monkey that has had someone to pay attention to it and hold it, like its mother would have done in the wild, will be happy and self-confident, and ultimately more easily reintroduced.
The Jaguar Rescue Center is in Playa Chiquita, about 6 km south of the beach town of Puerto Viejo on the southern Caribbean coast. Tours are given Monday through Saturday at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m., and cost $15 per person.
For those interested in volunteering, the center requires a minimum commitment of three weeks. Those who aren’t afraid to get dirt, and other gross stuff, under their fingernails can apply for a volunteer position via the center’s website.
Donations may also be made through the center’s website; eager donors can “adopt” any number of cute baby animals that need help. For more information, go to www.jaguarrescue.com or call 2750-0710.