In January 2017 I spent 10 days volunteering at Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center (recently changed to Costa Rica Animal Wildlife Center). I had the best time and learnt about some amazing animals. I wanted to write this blog to give people an idea of what it is like to be a volunteer at the center. Maybe you are interested in volunteering yourself? Or perhaps you are just here for some cute animal pictures and to see what I got up to !
3 important things to consider before you go:
-Volunteer because your priority is helping the animals. DO NOT volunteer just because you’d like to get photos with Sloths and Monkeys.*
-Be prepared for early mornings, hard work and unglamorous living conditions. You will be sleeping in 12 person dorms and sharing bathroom facilities.
-Volunteer for at least a week. Anything less and you will only just be getting used to things by the time you leave!
*When appropriate it is okay to get photos of and with certain animals but always make sure this is not distracting you from caring for them – and never purposely pick up or hold an animal for a photo.
Where is it?
There are a number of animal centers and charities in Costa Rica. Just to be clear, I am talking about the animal wildlife center based in the Alajuela province. You can check out their website here. It’s a 30 minute drive from San Jose airport (see the map below).
You can arrange a pickup from the airport or your hotel for $30* (quite pricey but works out cheaper if you can split the cost with other volunteers). The wildlife center will send one of their trusted drivers and it certainly takes the stress out of making your own way. The center is a little off the beaten path but not impossible to access via public transport. You can take a public bus from San Jose to Alajuela town then there is another bus from there that goes past the center. To avoid the hassle and to save time I went for the pick up so I’m afraid I do not know the bus schedule! However, one helpful reader has posted in the comments below some info about the bus.
*Pick up after 9:30pm is $45
Why I chose to volunteer at Costa Rica Animal Wildlife Center
To put it simply- I love animals!
But a great thing about this wildlife center is that anyone can volunteer. It doesn’t matter what age you are, how much volunteering experience you have or if you have worked with animals in the past. You just need to be passionate about caring for animals and willing to get stuck in. You do not have to be a vet but if you are- then great! Having extra help from those with training (such as vets, biologists etc.) is extremely beneficial for the center. There is a trained vet who works on site and you will be able to help out with some of the animals who need extra care. Please note: to be a volunteer on the vet team you need to stay for a minumum of 4 weeks.
In comparison to other volunteering projects this one is relatively inexpensive too. Food and accommodation is included in the price you pay. Since the center gets no financial help from the government they rely on volunteers and donations.
How much is it?
$35 US Dollars per day but this includes accommodation and 3 meals per day.
Here’s a 60 second video I made to give you an insight into a day at the center:
A Typical Day for a Volunteer
Your group tasks will be slightly different each day. There is a 7 day rota so you don’t end up doing the same thing all the time. If you only have a few people in your group the tasks will take much longer so it depends how many volunteers are at the center at the time. I always had at least an hour free before lunch-often more.
7am: Breakfast (Things like pancakes and eggs with rice and beans were common)
8am: Morning meeting
8:15am: Start morning group tasks. This will usually be cleaning, giving water and food to the animals. Each animal enclosure needs raking/sweeping and scrubbing with water and disinfectant . You also need to remove the used food bowls and replace the water. You will not have do every animal enclosure instead you have a list of the animals you need to care for each day. Other morning tasks include food preparation, watering the garden and collecting and moving the compost. Sometimes you will need to do a water check around 11am to make sure none of the animals have spilt their water and need more.
Free time for projects
12pm: Lunch (Lots of rice, beans, potato, chayote and occaisonally lentils with vegetables and sometimes meat such as chicken, fish and beef. There was always a vegetarian option. Sometimes we had pasta with tomato sauce too and once there was burgers and veggie burgers)
Free time for projects
1:30pm: Afternoon meeting
1:45pm: Start afternoon tasks. You will sometimes need to check the water in the enclosures and help prepare food for dinner.
4pm: Feeding time for some of the animals.
5pm: It will be one teams job to sort tree branches and place them into baskets for each animal that needs them (usually Monkeys and Sloths). Then you go to the enclosures and place the branches around for the animals to eat/play with.
6pm: Dinner (similar food to lunch)
Some of the animals were kept illegally as pets and treated so badly by humans it will break your heart. Others were injured by cars or electric wires. I think it is important to understand the animal’s history – some will behave differently around humans depending on their past. You can read about the animal’s stories here. Volunteers are not able to enter the Spider or Capuchin monkey enclosures as they may become aggressive toward strangers. But do not fear! you will get a chance to observe these monkeys from a safe distance and it will be possible to enter the Howler monkey enclosure.
Costa Rica Animal Wildlife Center’s main goal is to ensure the welfare of the animals and help them recover from both, physical and psychological wounds that have arisen from their past suffering. Many animals can no longer survive in the wild so the center provides a safe home for them. Over the years they have released many animals back into the wild but sadly due to new laws in Costa Rica, it has become incredibly difficult to release any more for the time being. Raising awareness about the mistreatment of animals and the illegal pet trade is also important and I was shocked at how many of these animals had previously been owned as pets. If you would like to read more about the center’s goals please see here.
I tried to get photos of most of the animals at the center but some of them are pretty elusive especially the nocturnal ones. If you’d like more detailed information see here. Otherwise, here are all of the animals I got to meet!
2 Toed Sloths
There are plenty of 2 Toed Sloths at the center- adults, teenagers and babies! 2 Toed Sloths have more of a pig-like nose whereas 3 Toed Sloths have the black eyes. Volunteers help clean the enclosures and give them food, water and branches.
3 Toed Sloths
There was just one young 3 Toed Sloth when I was there but I believe there is now a new baby !
It was pretty tricky to get a good photo of the Howlers because I couldn’t take my camera inside the enclosure (they could steal your stuff) and they are constantly moving around! You have to wear a face mask inside the enclosure as the monkeys can easily catch humans germs. They’re great fun, super playful and so inquisitive.
Feluco the Howler Monkey
Feluco’s mother was killed by a dog when he was only 15 days old. Due to losing his mother, Feluco’s immune system is very weak and he also has a cleft pallet which causes breathing problems. He needs extra care and treats Marielos (one of the founders of the center) like a mother. Not all volunteers will get the chance to feed him but I was able to give him his smoothie one day – but he seemed to like the taste of my hair more!
Incredibly intelligent monkeys! You cannot enter their enclosures but you can go and visit them. Again, I couldn’t get great photos as they are always on the move but I did capture this one whilst he was having a little think.
These monkeys are very cheeky and have so much character! You cannot enter their enclosure but you can watch them so long as you maintain a couple of meters distance from the cage.
There’s just one squirrel at the center now but when I volunteered there were a few. Hopefully this little guy no longer has a cone on his head.
There are a number of different birds at the center. Please note that some of the ones you see in the photos may no longer be there.
Kinkajou’s and Olingo
These are two animals I had actually never heard of before coming to the center. They are SO cute! I couldn’t get a photo of the Olingo as she only ever came out at night but it bares some similarities to the Kinkajou’s. They are mammals and almost a cross between a monkey, a small bear and a Raccoon! They are actually part of the Raccoon family.
Porcupine, Hedgehogs and Opossum
It’s quite hard to get a glimpse of these guys since they are nocturnal but volunteers help clean the cages and give them food and water.
Animals that are no longer at the center: I’ve recently updated this blog and with help from current volunteers I found out that a few of the animals I met are no longer there. Gigi, the beautiful Tucan, was released (I am assuming before the law changed). There are no longer farm animals and Evo, the sweet little Marmoset, sadly passed away.
The Rooms and Common Areas
The rooms you sleep in are dorms with approximately six bunk beds. You get your own mosquito net and sheet and there are plug sockets. I went in January and although it’s very hot during the day, I found it quite cold at night as the rooms don’t have much insulation. Bring some warm clothes to sleep in. There are a number of toilets located near the dorm rooms as well as showers with hot water. They only had cold showers when I was there so you better appreciate those hot showers!
Some people have emailed me about places to keep your valuables- there are now lockers available where you can keep your stuff but you need to bring your own padlock. It’s unlikely anything will be stolen but it’s good to take precautions and not leave valuable stuff lying around in plain sight.
There are 2 kitchen areas- one for animal food prep and another for human food. Some days it may be your teams turn to help with food preparation (animal and human food). People eat and chill out in large common areas inclduing a hammock area upstairs. There is a pool but I found I was too busy with my tasks to use it- I used it once in 10 days.
The Animal Hospital
There is a small animal hospital at the center where they treat some of the most poorly animals. Whilst I was volunteering, Oscar the Goat was castrated because he was starting to get too agressive! This surgery was performed in this animal hospital by the wonderful on site vet- Andres.
What to do in your spare time
At the center they refer to your free time as time for ‘personalized passion projects’. This could be a number of things and it’s best think about what skills you have and how you can utilise those skills to help. For example, if you are a builder or carpenter you could help build a fence or enclosure. If you are creative you could help paint signs and murals. If you are neither of these things you can still help! Another great thing to do is create enrichment toys for the animals. If you are unsure there is some guidance in the information book you read through when you start or you can just ask one of the staff members.
Some examples of my projects
The Blog: I consider this blog to be one of my personal projects. Hopefully it will help others that want to volunteer and spread awareness.
Gigi’s enrichment toys: Gigi the Tucan – who is no longer there– was set to be released when I was a volunteer. Therefore, he needed to be fed on a regular basis to mimic what it would be like searching for food in the wild. We did not want Gigi to get into the habit of having his food in the same place each time. In order to teach him to search for his food we hid it inside a couple of natural enrichment toys that we made. They were very simple to make and hang up inside his enclosure.
My bench painting: It’s not my best work ever but I had a spare couple of hours that I used to spruce up this bench.
If you still cannot find your answer I’d be happy to try and help- you can leave a comment or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lastly, I would like to thank the wonderful staff at the center who helped me and made me feel so welcome. You should get a chance to meet co founders, Marielos and Bernal- truly lovely people.
Thank you to Maude and Fabrice- an amazing French couple who helped me and my team out so much and also let me help with Gigi’s feeding. Also, thank you so much to my main team- Sabrina, Hannah, Agnes and Josh. You made this experience even more special. This is also a test to see if they’ve read this far.