It is a wonderful morning in Cahuita and in the middle of a serene natural setting I am staring at Luca, a kinkajou, kept in a large cage. She is blind apparently, as her eyes do not have the usual glistering kinkajous have. Moreover she carefully tries to find her way. “This kinkajoe was attacked by dogs”, elucidates Patricia. “A couple of local residents saved her from being killed”. Patricia is the initiator of the wildlife rescue center I’m visiting, called Tree of Life. “Luca can’t go back to the wild, so we take care of her. And since she is already quite old, you could say that Luca is enjoying her retirement over here.”
Luca is one of many animals that are being taken care of in this rescue center. Opposite a pristine beach and located in a beautiful garden with labeled plants, Tree of Life is a healthy walk from the center of Cahuita. Some 14 years ago, the upbeat Dutch Patricia started here an educational floral and plant conservatory, as well as a habitat for animals and birds in need. Between her work of feeding the animals and cleaning the area together with her volunteer, everyday Patricia offers a tour at 11am, to tell visitors about the center’s’ activities.
“We receive animals from locals or the government which are found injured, without a mother or that are misused as a pet”, Patricia starts the tour with. “Our main goal is to get them in a healthy condition and reintroduce them to their natural habitat”. As Patricia illustrates during the tour, that isn’t always easy or possible at all. “Some animals have to stay at the sanctuary and for them we try to provide the most natural habitat as possible.”
With a group of ten people we follow Patricia as she marches through the garden, stopping every now and then. Not only does she explain the stories of the animals, but she enlightens our knowledge of flowers and plants as well. “Who knows what this smells like?” asks Patricia. “It’s not the best!” We just passed the plants of the black pepper, vanilla and cinnamon and moved on to the fruits. All of us sniff a little bit, leaving most in disgust. “This is the noni fruit and it might remind you of old cheese or stinky shoes.” Some people claim this inconspicuous fruit can treat bacterial infections and support the brain. I’m trying hard not to imagine what the fruit would taste like. Thankfully, the next plant, ylang ylang, has a much better smell. “This is the key ingredient for Chanel N°5” says Patricia, whereafter a cheered up “awww” transcends the group.
After this alluring news, we’re up for an even better and furrier surprise: sloths! As we approach them carefully in their cage, we see that they are both two-toed. Patricia knows how to please her audience and gives the sloths a couple of flowers to eat. It makes them even more photogenic. As the models are being captured on camera, Patricia points to the youngest, “He was found on the ground during a tropical rainstorm in Cahuita.” Most of them are being brought here because their moms have died. “In urban areas it is difficult for the sloths to move around. They try to cross roads or to make their way via power lines.” Needless to say those obstacles do not often have a happy ending, and thus the babies are left alone. Thankfully, Feisty, the smallest sloth, is doing very well by now and will be reintroduced into the wild in a couple of months.
It is not easy to say goodbye to those cuties, but the monkeys are waiting for us. At the time of visiting, the Tree of Life is taking care of spider, capuchin and howler monkeys, three of the four existing species in Costa Rica. We start with a couple of capuchin monkeys and their history. “Jacky was being held by humans with a chain on her neck in a little cage”, tells Patricia. “This caused her so much stress that she pulled out her own hair”. Most of the monkeys are misused as pets. Suzy for example was living in a bar in San José, not the best place for a monkey. All fun and cute when they are young, but Patricia explains that when they grow older, capuchin monkeys become too strong and rough for humans to handle. Due to their backgrounds not all monkeys are able to connect to the others. Some need some time alone before they can be introduced to the monkey group.
More endangered species are here to be found too. Take for example the Paca or the Jaguarundi. The last one, named Shakira, was found as a baby when a bulldozer annihilated a jungle area near Guapiles, according to Patricia. I have never seen one before, here in Costa Rica. Shakira is herself as well astonished by the situation, as she is walking nervously up and down her cage.
The rest of the tour leads us to deer, raccoons, coatis, parrots, peccaries and a peacock. Though many of the animals I’ve seen quite often before, hearing about their specific stories and learning a bit more about their behavior and interacting with humans is actually very interesting. Patricia brings each and every one of them to live, in some cases literally.
Of course, when in Costa Rica, preferably you want to see some animal in the wild. Seeing some rare ones in captivity might feel like tricking yourself. But then again, for $ 15,- you have a great morning (for a reasonable price compared to other rescue centers), and the best is that you are in fact supporting the wildlife being taken care of in a natural setting. And you raise some extra awareness for animals that shouldn’t be taken care of as pets. That said, though I know I’m not allowed to think it, but boy how I would love to take one of those baby sloths in my knapsack home!