Rescuing Costa Rica's Howling Monkeys
Story and photos by David Lee Drotar

Tourism and real estate development have been a boon for the people of Costa Rica. For the howler monkeys who find their habitat chopped up, not so much.

Costa Rica travel

"Hola!" Mariano, the 25-year-old scarlet macaw cheerfully squawked as he lifted his claw and waved. His wing was broken and he would never again survive on his own in the jungle, but his demeanor and background was otherwise comical. He came here after his elderly owner passed away, the refuge's founder, Brenda Bombard explained. Aside from his inability to fly, Mariano had a persistent, hacking cough. Brenda fed, coddled and nursed the feisty parrot back to health until she realized that he was merely mimicking the deathbed gurglings of his sickly owner. Eventually the "cough" subsided and now he was the refuge's official greeter.

Equally as buoyant, the Costa Rican expat filled our morning with stories of how the refuge's other animals and her own life path converged to this point. Her graying tresses pulled back to avoid entanglement with curious animals' claws and paws, Brenda described the unsuccessful attempts to release two other parrots. The birds had it too good, she theorized. Rather than flying away, they kept circling over the tree tops and swooping down to attack her, sadistically cackling all the while.

"There's no book to tell you what to do and not do," Brenda stated, further illustrating her point with a gruesome story of how she had to hack at a threatening boa constrictor and then superglue the restrained snake's wounds together before releasing it back into the jungle -- far away.

I found myself carefully scanning the surrounding trees and ground vegetation while nervously moving toward the center of the small clearing where we baked in the heat.

It became clear that Brenda didn't impose human value judgments on the animals that came here. No midnight phone call or odd request was ever turned down, or animal turned away, despite well-intentioned acts gone horribly wrong or the sometimes brazen schemes to sell animals that had been illegally snatched from the Costa Rican wild.

"We never pay for animals. That would only encourage more poaching by impoverished Ticans trying to earn some quick cash," she stated, going on to tell the story of an endangered jungle cat that was brought to her one day.

"But it will die if you don't pay me," the poacher whined.

"No, it will die if you don't give it to me," Brenda replied.

The response generally worked each time and these types of extortion attempts have dropped off.

As I held a recently orphaned baby monkey, I wondered how one could possess empathy while remaining emotionally detached when it came time to release the animal, often months or years later. Her black fur radiating heat, yet still swaddled in a blanket to comfort her, Felicia reached out a tiny human-like hand and gripped my extended index finger.

"Do they feel emotions like we do?" our companion, Anne asked. She had been a nun in Africa for many years and had witnessed her share of human suffering and misery.

"Oh, absolutely they do," Brenda assured us. "After an infant loses her mother, she cries for three or four days." Felicia looked at me with huge, mournful black eyes that popped from a teacup-sized head. I suppressed a tear, but the story became only more heartbreaking.

Costa Rica

Electrical Lines Make Bad Monkey Paths
Felicia was a howler monkey, the predominant species in Costa Rica. They seek food and move about in social groups by walking and swinging from treetop to treetop. As the jungle canopy becomes increasingly fragmented from the roads, houses and condos being built to accommodate the influx of tourists and expats, however, the monkeys find electrical lines to be a convenient conduit for bridging gaps in the natural corridors.

Brenda reached for a long fiberglass pole that had several extendable, interlocking sections. I anticipated what was coming next and my attention shifted between the demonstration and the little bundle of fur that had trustingly fallen asleep in my arms.

"Electrocution is the number one killer of monkeys in Costa Rica," Brenda said, "with dogs and cars responsible for second and third place." She had acquired the knowledge of these statistics first hand. Although Brenda works closely with the Ministry of Environment and Energy, and other wildlife protection agencies, the refuge receives no government or NGO subsidies. Brenda is the first one on the scene after she gets a call that a monkey is screaming because it has grabbed two wires, its body completing an electrical circuit and its seized muscles unable to let go. She uses the pole to scrape the immobilized animal from the wires and knock it to the ground. I winced at the painful image this conjured.

More often than not, a mother would be carrying a baby on her back, as was the case with Felicia, the monkey I now held. If the mother dies from the electrocution or the trauma, no other female monkey will nurse her suddenly orphaned offspring. Brenda rushes the animal to the refuge where it is bottle fed and eventually graduated to a diet of natural leaves and vegetation supplemented with cooked sweet potatoes, apples, squash and tiny amounts of chicken for protein.

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