Puerto jiménez, COSTA RICA–Paris Hilton learned the hard way: Kinkajous just don’t make good pets. Paris’s kink “Baby Luv” lost BFF status when it bit her on the arm.

You’d think that lesson would be obvious, and yet … those big, buggy eyes and that fuzzy little face (on the kinkajou, that is) are pretty hard to resist. But there’s a sting in its tail, or at least, in its paws.

“See those hands,” says Earl Crews, founder of the Osa Wildlife Reserve, as he points to a kinkajou peeping from its hideout inside a hollow log. “They can rip open a coconut. If you can do that, what can you do to a couch … or a face?”

Wild animals never lose those feral instincts, even though they seem tame, Earl says.

“Humans began domesticating dogs 5,000 years ago,” he says, “and we still have trouble with dogs.”

And when issues arise between animals and humans, the animals always lose.

That’s why Earl, who moved to Costa Rica after leaving a life as a Chicago commodities broker, started the reserve in 1996.

Now, there are about 70 or so animals in residence – monkeys, wild cats, birds, sloths. Earl and his wife, Carol, take in injured and displaced animals; many others have been rescued from the exotic pet trade, or liberated from lives spent as entertainers in hotels or clubs.

In one of the enclosures, a scarlet macaw pecks at its incandescently gorgeous plumage. Beauty, as they say, can be a curse; these birds are among the most threatened.

“Our guess is that there are 1,500 macaws (in Costa Rica),” Earl says. “There are twice that many in cages in New York City.”

Most taken for the pet trade are young, Earl says, which means the resident population is aging fast.

“They can live for 65 to 80 years,” he says, “but they can only reproduce until they’re 40, not unlike humans, so you get a geriatric flock.”

Other problems are loss of habitat through development and hunting: The size and colour of the birds, plus the fact that they don’t migrate, makes them easy marks.

“Here’s a bird that weighs about two pounds. If you’re poor and you’re hungry, you go into the jungle and you shoot one,” he says.

While Earl is speaking to our group of visitors, there’s a tug on my shirt and, before I can look around, a spider monkey scales my arm and lounges on my left shoulder, bringing laughs from everybody.

“These are not tame monkeys,” Earl explains. “They’re socialized monkeys … and we’re their tribe.”

While hoping that the beast has been, uh, fastidious in his personal hygiene, it’s still a pretty special feeling to be accepted into the tribe.

It’s a tragic irony that these animals have to live in a compound in the midst of their natural rainforest home. The reserve’s goal is to rehabilitate them and hopefully return them to the wild.

There have been a few successes, but years in captivity have deprived some animals of the necessary skills to make it on their own. For others; nature works against them.

“These monkeys live in troupes,” Earl explains. “And they’re territorial. If we released some of them, they would have to compete with already established local troupes, which would kill them.”

So, with the support of universities in Canada and the U.S. (which send researchers to work here), and private donors, Earl and Pat and their employees and volunteers do the best they can. But their work faces threats, too.

“Two years ago, everyone was talking ecotourism, it was all green, green, green,” says Earl. “Now, they’re talking jobs.”

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