ANIMALS IN MOTION AND DANGER – an article about Tree of Life Wildlife Rehabiltation Center in Costa Rica

                                          ANIMALS IN MOTION AND DANGER

                                                Copyright 2013 Paul Belz

Wild animals thrive on motion, even if they move slowly. Sloths don’t usually spend time in towns, but this one clung to the midsection of a tree in Cahuita, Costa Rica. It seemed uninterested in the tourists who gathered to take photos and to stare. Sloths generally only leave their trees to defecate; it’s not clear where this one would do so in this community on the southern Caribbean coast. But it was taking its time.


I know from experience how much wild creatures need to move.

I teach science and natural history for the Lindsay Wildlife Museum, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Walnut Creek, California. The animal care staff makes sure that injured animals are stimulated.. They take the raptors outside for fresh air, and allow the mobile ones to fly while a tether ensures they can’t escape. Our gray fox delights guests with his antics on his climbing structure. I often allow our classroom gopher snake climb the serpent’s slalom, a vertical board with a series of ascending pegs, to children’s delight. My young students and I sometimes wrap treats the caretakers give us in complicated packages, and watch while opossums, ground squirrels and others rip the packages open.


Patricia Vermuelen and Todd Scotland, who opened Tree of Life wildlife Sanctuary, near Cahuita, also know that wild creatures need stimulation and exercise. Tree of Life shelters injured animals and others who have lost habitat. Others were kept as pets by people who could not care for them properly. Some owners brought these animals to Tree of Life when they became impossible to manage. Others were seized by the government.  Patricia and Todd have applied for non-profit status; in the meantime, their funds come from guests and supporters. They work hard to make sure their animals can climb, jump, and lives that are as natural as possible.


Many travelers see Costa Rica as a tropical paradise. It has been a model for alternatives to soil depleting deforestation. About 25% of the country consists of parks and other preserves, where hunting has been banned for years. Small ecotourism projects, particularly locally based rural community tourism projects connect travelers with the country’s wonders and offer local residents alternatives to underpaid and degrading work.


But the situation is far from perfect. Agricultural development, ranching, and mega resorts lead to frightening deforestation outside of the preserves. Costa Rica banned export of timber from sixty protected trees in the 1970s, but some loggers cut them illegally and bring them to port cities at night. This habitat loss impacts mightily on wildlife.

 Hunters sometimes sneak into the parks. When they hunt on the park’s borders, their dogs sometimes enter the preserves and kill protected animals. The legislature passed a bill banning hunting in January of 2013, but it will not be enforced for a year. Other animals, particularly primates and parrots, suffer from the pet trade. Merchants in this field sometimes kill mother animals and take their babies to sell.


                                          THE REGION

Reggae flowed from cafes that lined Cahuita’s unpaved main street. A gap toothed woman in a flowery dress told Kate and me, “Welcome. Where are you from?”


“Oh! Enjoy Cahuita! Enjoy California!” She and her smile were a recurring theme in this Limon Province town of seafood restaurants, hotels, and machete carrying workers with bunches of bananas on their shoulders. Workers were brought from the Caribbean islands to work on the Banana plantations early in the 20th century, their descendants make up much of the town’s population of 4,000.


Cahuita National Park follows the coast here; its beauty and high biodiversity show why Costa Rica’s forests need to be protected. The slippery, puddle covered trail takes walkers between the rumbling Caribbean and the coastal forest built from all shades of green. Trees are so thick their tangled roots resemble Gordonian knots; their leaves are infinite variations on ovals, semicircles and heart shapes. Five petaled flowers have irregular shapes, like variable stars. Black and white club fungi grow from tree trunks like salt and pepper patches.


Boat billed herons, covered with gray feathers wander ponds in the forest. Constant bird songs – tweets, peeps, and trills, accompanied by cicadas’ rattles, are so thick they slow walkers’ progress. Red and white postmen butterflies and hand sized blue morphos dart everywhere, avoiding predatory birds. The beach is covered with driftwood where multicolored snails thrive; deep thunder echoes the ocean, and the howler monkeys surprise you with their screams.                                                             


                                                GARDENS AND WILDLIFE

My travel buddy Kate and I took a taxi from Cahuita to Tree of Life on a rainy July day. Patricia, who worked with Chimpanzees in Sierra Leone and with Costa Rican wildlife, met us at the entrance. We began our tour with a look at Todd’s native plant garden. We felt soft, fuzzy seeds from teddy bear palms, and landmark palms whose east-west orientation has long been a direction marker for travelers. Helconias were plentiful; their waxy bracts protected small flowers, whose bright colors attracted hummingbirds. Lobster plants produced flowers that resemble red lobsters in mating season; puckered, red flowers on lipstick plants looked ready for a kiss. We focused on bromeliads, the cuplike plants that grow on trees in rainforests. They gather rain, where monkeys and other animals can find a drink, and where some tropical tadpoles swim as they develop into frogs.


Todd, who has lived in Cahuita since 1973, has focused his collection on plants that are useful to humans. Lemon grass has a strong scent that makes it useful as an insect repellant in Mexico. Patricia challenged us to identify bowls of spices – cinnamon and pepper have been imported to Costa Rica as useful crops.


The wildlife sanctuary is organized among meandering paths, like a maze. I wondered if this structure insured the animals’ privacy. Sloths, who are well cared for at a nearby sloth refuge, were the one local animal we didn’t find. The variety of other creatures astonished us.


 We met kinkajous first. These tree dwelling mammals resemble monkeys, but they are related to raccoons, ringtails, and coatis. One was older, a blind female with cataracts. She came here after dogs attacked and injured her. “She is twenty years old, and might live to be twenty six. She’ll have a comfortable old age with us,” Patricia said. A younger kinkajou climbed around her cage and watched us curiously. “Paris Hilton kept one as a pet; after that, everyone had to get one,” Patricia complained.


We next came to an island that was home to three white faced cappucine monkeys. Trees and climbing structures gave them opportunities to climb, swing, and behave as they would in natural surroundings. Many people think cappucines are cute and lovable when they are babies; these owners get a surprise when the monkeys reach puberty at age five, and become aggressive.


Lola, Suzy and Jojo lived together on the island, with trees and climbing structures.   Jojo who had lived in a cage could only jump up and down when she came to Tree of Life. She gradually regained more natural movements. Lola had been kept on a chain near a banana plantation. Suzy lived in a bar where she was expected to dance for customers. She began dance like motions when she saw us. “Funny, but sad,” Patricia said.


Lucy, a fourth cappucine lived in an enclosure separate from the others. “This one is a troublemaker,” Patricia grinned, but she hopes to let her live on the island with the others eventually. Lucy hissed as Patricia touched my shoulder while describing her. “She’s jealous of you,” Patricia told me. “These monkeys are intelligent. They can read your body language, and guess what you are going to do.’ She then told the monkey, “It’s ok, he’s a friend.”  To my surprise, Lucy calmed down.


Goldy the howler monkey who was also kept as a pet until she developed stomach worms. These gentle creatures make thunderous calls to define their territory; unlike cappucines, they only eat plants. Patricia hoped to release Goldy to join a troupe that lives in the area. Howlers don’t live in family groups; females separate from their kin to join other groups. This strategy prevents inbreeding. “If the males in the troupes accept this monkey, she’ll be fine,” Patricia said. Tree of Life recently freed Bruno, a male howler monkey who had been attacked by a dog. He is frequently seen in the area.


                                                       HELP FOR MORE ANIMALS

Volunteers from Costa Rican and other countries help prepare food for the animals, and feed them. Other helpers clear brush, repair roads, and maintain the website. Guests from other countries are welcome if they are comfortable with Costa Rica’s culture and climate.


“Is that a weasel?” I asked when we came to the long, slender jaguarmundi.

“I can see why you’d ask that,” Patricia said. “Look at it closely.” This predator had a distinct kitty-cat like face. Little Shakira was found in a construction site, along with her dead siblings when a bulldozer turned up their  den. These relatives of jaguars are rarely seen; Tree of Life is lucky to give this one a home.


Costa Rica’s white tailed deer are smaller than their North American relatives.

“The northern ones are bigger as a strategy for keeping heat in their bodies in winter. Tropical deer don’t need to do that,” Patricia said. Stella and Bella originally lived in a San Jose park. They came to Tree of Life when their herd’s population grew too big. They would be hunted if they couldn’t find shelter here.


Peccaries are also kept for pets, but their razor sharp teeth and are hard to domesticate. They   also produce a bad smelling musk  they use to define their territory.  Gumba who lives here was kept as a pet  by people who took good care of him until they his couldn’t stand his smell


We came to the butterfly garden, which Patricia and Todd maintain for its beauty. Hand sized, iridescent blue morphos came here on their own. They feast on fermenting juice from mangos and other tropical fruit. “Some people say they’re drunk because they fly so erratically,” Patricia laughed. “Really, it’s a good way to get away from predators.”


Tent making bats also came independently. These little creatures chew on palm leaves, forcing them bend downward to make a tent like shelter. A small flock of them darted away as we approached.


A toucan , a peacock, and a crested guam lived in a special bird enclosure. All were kept as pets. The ground dwelling guam, who is a relative of turkeys, squawked and expanded its brown chest as we admired the toucan. “Yes, you’re a pretty bird, too!” we laughed.


Patricia and Todd know Costa Rica works hard  to care for its environment and animals, but not all are lucky. “Someone once tried to sell me a turtle egg for a dollar when I was in the mountains,”  Patricia mourned.  But she and Todd are heroic – they’re saving animals!


About pelicanguy6

I'm an environmental educator and writer currently based in Oakland, California. I plan to include a hiking/nature journal on this blog, along with articles on environmental education, travel articles, poetry, and spontaneous thoughts. I am a passionate hiker and camper and a world traveler. I really enjoy cooking vegetarian feasts, and specialize in veggie German meals for Oktoberfest.
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