WHY VOLUNTEER IN COSTA RICA?
My first trip to Costa Rica was during the winter of 2015. I had dreamed about visiting this country for years, because of its biodiversity and the opportunities to see wild animals their natural habitat: It did not disappoint me. I had never seen a live sloth before and it was my first time watching monkeys scamper through the jungle.
A 2 Towed Sloth Exercises on a home made jungle gym at the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center
A White Faced Capuchin Monkey
Besides the amazing wildlife, Costa Rica is a gem of natural beauty with its volcanoes, mountains, pristine beaches, and waterfalls. The memories remained with me long after returning to the USA and were still frequently on my mind.
When a friend who had never experienced Costa Rica suggested we go this winter it took no persuasion to get a yes out of me, but this time I wanted more involvement with the Costa Rican wildlife. Animals have been my passion in life since birth. Knowing how horribly exploited they are all over the world I felt that volunteering at a rescue center could be one small way of giving back to them. With years of experience in dog and cat rescue, but only some with wild animals, I decided to spend at least part of this trip volunteering at a rescue center with the intention of exploring longer term possibilities for the future
WHY I CHOSE THE COSTA RICA ANIMAL RESCUE CENTER
Searching online turned up a number of rescue groups in Costa Rica, but I ended up choosing the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center for several reasons:
- Very positive reviews from volunteers. I loved the website! The videos and photos gave a real sense of what it’s like to be there.
- Their “Meet the Staff” web page had a tone of integrity which convinced me that these were people who truly loved animals.
- The minimal charge of $35.00 per day to cover room and board seemed very reasonable and the one week minimum commitment requirement was just the time frame I had available to me on this trip.
After filling out the on line volunteer application on the CRARC website I emailed Bernal Lizano (one of the founders) about a month in advance and arranged to arrive on Feb.12th.
The angels must have been with me, because my plane left NY literally two hours before the worst snow and wind storm of the season hit my area in upstate NY. After the long flight and freezing temperatures I landed in the 85 degree tropics – the SJO airport in Alajuela, Costa Rica. Bleary eyed and breathing a sigh of relief to be warm and safe on the ground I was met by one of the CARC taxi drivers who helped me with my heavy suitcase overstuffed with pounds of toys and nutritional supplements for the animals.
THE COSTA RICA ANIMAL RESCUE CENTER is located in the small town of Turrucares Cebadilla in Alajuela only a 20 min. drive from the SJ0 airport. You can arrange a taxi pick up at the airport by contacting Bernal Lizano prior to your arrival. It should be no more than $30.00 US dollars, but at the end of my stay I negotiated with a driver who took me back to the airport for $20.00. There is also a way to go by bus which takes longer if you have a lot of time and your luggage is not heavy. I hadn’t slept for nearly 24 hours so opted for a taxi directly from the airport. After a pleasant ride though winding rural roads of flowers and palm trees we arrived at the center. My driver showed me to the dormitory where I would be staying – a simple one story building with hand painted animals and inspirational quotes on the the front.
There were 6 bunk beds in the room – hostel style. It held 12 people, but somehow, as I would soon find out, it never felt crowded. Showers were located in separate buildings and the water was not heated…..like camping! Given that this was the tropics with temps. between 83 & 90 degrees F. I reassured myself that a cold shower would provide a relief from the heat: It actually did. The trick is to shower mid afternoon when it’s really hot outside.
Rescued Owls “Merlin” and “Rasputin”
THE DAILY ROUTINE AT CRARC
After leaving my things in the dorm room one of the staff, a young woman named Maude, went over the daily routine with me. The schedule also was written on a huge bulletin board in the common area where it was visible to everyone. There were 30 some volunteers present at this time yet I could already see that they were quite well organized. Breakfast is from 7:00 – 8:00 am followed by a community meeting where volunteers are briefed on important announcements and animal updates. At 9:00 am everyone goes off to their designated tasks which involve cleaning animals enclosures, feeding and giving them water, or working in the kitchen preparing their food. Volunteers are assigned to different teams which rotate each day so everyone becomes familiar with all of the animals and their different needs.
WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THE DOMESTIC RESCUE ANIMALS new people are not allowed into the animal enclosures for the first two days. During those two days they watch and assist the more seasoned volunteers by standing just outside the enclosure, handing in the cleaning tools, food,water dishes,and guarding the door so that the animals don’t escape. There’s a lot to learn, but during my stay I always found someone willing to help when I had a question or needed to find something.
Lunch is served at 12:00 p.m. and there is time to afterwards to take a shower, rest in the hammocks, and yes, there’s even a swimming pool where you can cool off, float on your back, and gaze at the birds tweeting above! The afternoon schedule is similar to the morning routine beginning with a group meeting at 2:00 pm. followed by feeding, cleaning, and animal care-giving tasks. Dinner is at 6:00 p.m. Volunteers can also work on special projects such as creating enrichment toys for the animals, or building new structures like the aviary which was in progress during my stay. Whatever skills you bring will be put to good use!
MY FIRST INTRODUCTION TO THE ANIMALS
Since I arrived on a Sunday afternoon some of the core staff members were off, but Maude gave me an overall tour of the grounds. I continued on my own afterwards to observe the animals and become more familiar with the place. There were two kitchens: one for the humans and another for the animals. Just down a short path was a small animal clinic and the “Sloth Garden.” The Sloth Garden is a beautiful pre-release enclosure shaded by a tall tree that provides a habitat for sloths who are almost ready to be returned to the forest. Some of them were taking an afternoon snooze high up in the branches and were so well camouflaged that you’d never see them unless you knew what to look for. They often curl up into a ball when sleeping and to an untrained eye look simply like a growth on the tree. On this day they were too high for me to see, but on the ground I spotted a little black figure lying on what looked like a baby blanket and a woman feeding her with a baby bottle. Curious, I walked over slowly and introduced my self.
MEETING “FELUCO” AND ENA
The woman spoke to me in Spanish and with a beaming smile introduced herself as “Ena” and the little black howler monkey,”Feluco”. I recognized Feluco from some of the CRARC website videos and was ecstatic to meet him in person! Ena was from Nicaragua originally and is one of Feluco’s primary care-givers. Each day Ena brings him down to the Sloth Garden to exercise on a home made gym fashioned out of branches from nearby trees. Feluco can also sunbathe, shade bathe, stroll around, and do whatever he likes in this large yard.
Sadly, the little monkey’s mother was killed by a dog when he was only about 2 weeks old. As a result little Feluco has some health issues which will prevent her from ever being released back into the wild. However, he is doing well thanks to the love and care she gets from everyone especially Ena and her adopted human mother, Marielos Morice Poveda. I immediately fell in love with little Feluco….how could you not? Look at his little face!
Feluco has a lame leg, but his tail is prehensile which means he can use it like a hand to grasp and hold something or hang from a tree branch. That certainly can be helpful if one of your arms or legs isn’t up to snuff! Feluco hobbled over to check me out. After licking my foot (I was in sandals) and seeming satisfied that I was harmless we spent some time hanging out…?? Hmmmm.. Well, let’s say “Playing” since I don’t have a prehensile tail and can’t hang like Feluco. As you can see from this blog post I LOVE monkeys and could spend hours watching them.
At around 5:30 p.m. Ena scooped Feluco up into her arms and we headed up to the main area where the little monkey was handed over to Marielos. Marielos helped found CRAR and has been caring for injured wildlife for many years. She has a special room in her home set up for Feluco with a vaporizer to help ease the monkey’s chronic sinus condition. Feluco goes home with her each night. Here is a sweet photo of them that Marielos let me use for this post.
Feluco with Marielos Morice Poveda
EVENING – MEETING THE OTHER VOLUNTEERS
At 6:00 p.m. a typical Costa Rican dinner was served – rice, beans, and a fresh salad. I sat with some amazing and bright young volunteers from France, Spain, and Germany. Most of them looked to be somewhere in their 20’s and 30’s, but there were a few older folks like me. It was inspiring to see so many people of different ages and nationalities with a shared a love for animals. All of them traveled a great distance to volunteer their skills and labor here at the center.
By nature I have always been a night owl who never goes to bed before midnight so it took some adjusting to go to sleep at 10:00 p.m. in order to be ready by 7:00 in the morning. However, the jungle and its animals wake up when the sky gets light : Makes sense, no? It’s the natural rythm. I was also surprised at how the temperature can rise sometimes to near 90 degrees during the day and then drop to the 60s after midnight: If you decided to volunteer here you may want to ask for a blanket at night as I did.
MY FIRST FULL DAY AT CRARC
Morning came soon enough and the sounds of dawn breaking in the jungle became my alarm clock – the deep throated roars of the howler monkeys, the chirping of twittering birds, and on going hum of cicades all chimed together in a strangely harmonic orchestra.
Breakfast this morning was a type of pancake which was different than the ones we’re used to in the US. I asked for the recipe – a mixture of flour, water, mashed bananas, and sometimes a little milk added. In addition to there was fresh pineapple slices and coffee.
TIP** TO ANYONE WHO IS VEGETARIAN I RECOMMEND BRINGING SOME KIND OF PROTEIN SUPPLEMENT.
After breakfast the group meeting was lead by the manager/volunteer coordinator, SARITA CHINCHILLA, a warm, up beat woman and passionate animal lover. She sets the tone for each day by starting with an inspirational concept that will stretch your edges, encourage you to think and tap into your own inner resources. I found this to be so important, not only for building confidence, but it is a conscious focus on drawing out the best of our human qualities….sorely needed in these times. This was followed by important center news and animal updates.
When the meeting ended Sarita was about to lead a tour for a couple of new volunteers so I joined them figuring that she would give an interesting perspective on the center and its animals. As we moved from one enclosure to the next Sarita shared the heartbreaking backgrounds of the animals and the sad history of the center itself which was ruthlessly forced to move from its first location in Moin on the Caribbean coast.The land near the original rescue center was put up for bid and sold to a foreign company for the construction of a commercial port. This turn of events morphed into a disaster which took the lives of one volunteer, many animals, and threatened the founders of CRARC with violence. You can read more of the details on their website here
Despite the horrors of the past the center volunteers and staff are persisting in their efforts to fund raise, rebuild, and care for all the sweet little beings that are brought to them at the new location.
THE MISSION OF CRARC is to rescue animals harmed by humans, rehabilitate, and release the them back into the wild. In the cases where an animal is not able to fully recover and cannot be returned to the forest they are allowed to live on at the center in a protected environment created to approximate as much as possible the way they would live in the wild. It is a work in progress.
One of our first stops was at the enclosure belonging to the the nocturnal kinkajous and olingo who were in hidden away in their hollowed logs snoozing in the heat of the afternoon. I later discovered that around 3:00 pm. I would often find one of the kinkajous hanging out on a log….asleep, but only half visible LOL!. The kinkajou, Nela, and Itchy the Olingo were brought to the center by workers from the electrical company who found them during their construction of a dump there.
As we traipsed down the stony dirt path to the next area I heard a thrashing of tree branches over my head followed by a crashing of what sounded like somebody banging on metal. “Oh, careful! That’s Juman defending ‘his’ territory! ” one of the staff called out to us. Juman, I learned, is a cute and very smart little capuchin monkey who escaped from his enclosure months ago and was roaming freely through the trees. He hangs out near his two favorite females “Wim” and “Simona” and closely guards them often throwing down branches and occasionally charging people who he feels are invading his domain. The metallic banging that I heard turned out to be Juman jumping up and down on a sheet of tin roofing! I managed to capture a bit of it in this video clip:
Somebody saw Juman and Wim making love through the fencing one day and Wim was now about to give birth to their baby (LOL!). Juman has eluded (so far) all attempts to capture him. I couldn’t help but admire this mischievous little fellow and in my free time would often wander down with my camera to spy on him nd see what he was up to!
Little Simona was a former pet whose owner trained her as a pickpocket to steal from tourists. She had been released several times, but always came back to the center. Her friend Wim was used as a tourist attraction before being brought to the rescue center as a baby.
We continued on to meet the howler monkeys, the pigs, squirrels, Macaws, the hedgehog, owls and many more animals learning about their histories and how they ended up at the center. Some were victims of accidents such as electrocution on power lines, loss of habitat from deforestation, illegal pet trade captives, and other forms of human abuse. Each has his or her own unique story which would far exceed the capacity of one blog post to describe, but you can read about all of them in more depth at the CRARC website.
After the tour I was assigned to kitchen duty where we cut and chop fruits and veggies for all the animals according to their dietary specifications.
Some of the animals also get liquid vitamins sprayed on top of their food for extra nutritional support. I never saw so many pineapples and papayas in my life and it was so much fun to watch the animals delight when they saw us bringing it!
In the evening a couple of the men brought huge bunches of soft green branches with leaves for the monkeys and sloths to eat. All of these were sorted by volunteers and then distributed to the animals. Ena showed me how to pick out the small tender shoots and buds of the Cecropia branches for the baby sloths to eat. The final task for the evening is a food and water check on all animals as well as making sure all the enclosures are locked securely.
DAY 3 – I AM ABLE TO ENTER THE ANIMAL ENCLOSURES, YEA!
A Young Howler Monkey At The Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center
On my third day I was able to go into the howler monkey enclosure in the am and in the evening was assigned to do a water/ food and lock check around 7:00 p.m. with a couple other volunteers. This a It’s a kind of double check to make sure nothing has been missed and that the animals are set for the night. It was already dark and we walked around with our head lamps. I used the brighter LED light to see the path ahead of me when walking, but turned on the red softer light around the animals so it wouldn’t bother their eyes. As soon as I entered the Kinkajou enclosure one of the two jumped onto my shoulders and I heard the soft snuffling in my ear as he licked the side of my face like a puppy dog! I let him check me out and silently thanked him for his trust. Connecting with a wild animal in this way is a such a special and unforgettable experience.
TIP – TIE YOUR HAIR UP AND DON’T WEAR JEWELRY OR ANYTHING THAT HANGS WHEN WORKING WITH THE MONKEYS: THEY ARE CURIOUS AND WILL GRAB IT.
SOME THINGS TO BE AWARE OF IF YOU ARE THINKING OF VOLUNTEERING
Though the CRARC website shows a lot of hands on interaction with the animals I found, during my time there, that this was not the case…… unless you work with the medical team in the clinic.
Volunteers were able to interact freely with the domestic animals – pigs, goats, chickens, etc. but we were asked not to initiate physical contact with the wild animals. HOWEVER, IF THE ANIMALS THEMSELVES INITIATE CONTACT WITH YOU THAT IS ACCEPTABLE. For example, the howler moneys, squirrels, and marmosets will often climb on volunteers when they clean their enclosures. We were instructed just to let them check us out as we go on about our tasks. They are wild and the hope is that they will return to the forest when ready. Getting too friendly with humans might not be in their best interest (as we know, not all humans have good intentions).
Perhaps there were safety issues involved as well. My own experience in working with wild or timid animals has taught me to move slowly and not get in their face. Fast and sudden movements coming head on can confuse and frighten the animal who doesn’t know your intention. This can set you up for a bite. I think it’s wise to maintain a respectful distance letting them come to you when and if they want. They will usually indicate where their boundaries are.
VOLUNTEERS ARE NEEDED AND ALWAYS WELCOME
With all those animals to care for there is a lot of work: Volunteers are needed and welcome year round at the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center. You can arrange your stay by directly contacting Bernal Lizano at email@example.com BE SURE TO READ their website and check the recommended list of things you will need to bring for your stay. You will have one day off per week where you can travel, arrange a trip with other volunteers, or just hang out and rest. For trips I recommend the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Manuel Antonio, Poas Volcano, and visiting one of the local coffee plantations.
Whenever possible try to bring some of those much needed supplies for the animals
There are certain things that are very hard or not possible to get in Costa Rica, so as long as you are coming try to stuff some of them into your pack. They have a wish list, but needs change from time to time. I would suggest contacting and asking them prior to your trip if there’s anything in particular that they have an urgent need for.
A FEW TIPS IF YOU VOLUNTEER
STAY HEALTHY FOR YOUR SAKE AND THE ANIMALS
Getting sick in a foreign country is a drag, but if you are volunteer at a rescue center it can also be dangerous for the animals.The monkeys especially are very suseptable to human viruses and can easily pick them up from people. If you have a cold or are feeling under the weather at the CRARC you will not be permitted to work with the animals until you feel better. They have lost several monkeys in the past due to upper respiratory infections passed on by people.
I come from a naturopathic background and believe it’s best to prevent getting sick in the first place. Here are some tips that have worked well for me personally over the years. Even when not traveling I take a basic whole food supplement program and then about a week before a planned trip I add to it additional immune support which is as follows
- A travel friendly probiotic (promotes digestive & immune health)
- A whole food sustained release vit. C supplement ( I chose to take it 3X’s a day).
- A special immune support herbal formula developed by Dr. Yasuhiko Kojima MD, the scientist who discovered interferon. This natural supplement helps the body produce its own interferon as needed.
I use these particular supplements, because they are made by a reputable 60 year old environmentally conscious company that only uses natural and safe ingredients. They have been CLINICALLY TESTED ON PEOPLE, NOT ON ANIMALS and their effectiveness has been published in over 90 peer review scientific journals.
DEALING WITH MOSQUITOES & OTHER BITING INSECTS
In Costa Rica mosquitos are a challenge and hard to avoid completely. Insect repellent (and sunscreen) tends to be expensive in CR so you should bring some with you. The CDC recommends a repellent with at least 20% DEET. It does work, but personally I am concerned about the potentially harmful health effects of DEET. For the safety of the animals you will be asked not to apply any kind repellent (or sunscreen) before entering their enclosures. There are herbal products that are safe, but the strong smell may irritate the animals so they are not permitted either. You will be able to use repellents and sunscreen at other times there when you are outside and not working directly with the critters.
NATURAL ALTERNATIVES TO DEET
In my search for natural alternatives that work, I read years ago that taking B complex may help repel mosquitoes. The thinking was that it imparts an odor to the skin that the mosquitoes don’t like (though we don’t smell it). I decided to try it on my trips to Belize and Costa Rica (mosquito havens). and chose to take one tab. in the morning and a second one in the later afternoon. I also took the homeopathic remedy “Ledum” which seems to prevent reactions to a whole range of biting insects and animal bites. The result? Very few bites and the ones I did get did not itch or swell up https://joettecalabrese.com/blog/a-tale-of-two-states-from-frostbite-to-bug-bites/
I googled Vit. B complex for mosquito bites and everything seemed to say that there was no “Proof” of any benefit. I then spoke with a doctor of functional medicine who said he knew of at least a couple people that found it helpful. If anyone else has tried this I would be interested to know your results positive or negative.
As far as finding non toxic topical repellents that really work I had good results with Terra Shield by DoTerra, but in my experience you need to apply it to all exposed areas. If you forget and miss one little area of skin the mosquitoes will bite there and avoid the places where you applied the oil. I tested this out before remembering about the vitamin B article.
Repel’s Lemon Eucalyptus spray and the (non oily) Out Door Blend are natural non toxic repellents that I have not tried myself, but they were recently recommended by a couple of Costa Rican bloggers who have used and found them to be just as effective as the ones containing DEET.
IF YOU LOVE ANIMALS AND WANT TO HELP THEM ALONGSIDE KINDRED SPIRITS WHO SHARE YOUR PASSION, GO VOLUNTEER AT THE COSTA RICA ANIMAL RESCUE CENTER! BE READY TO LEARN, LOVE, TEACH, AND HAVE THE EXPERIENCE OF A LIFETIME! THE ANIMALS ARE WAITING!
Yuman & Wim’s New Baby, “Prince” (video by Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center FB )
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