Rescuing Costa Rica's Howling Monkeys—Page 2
Story and photos by David Lee Drotar

Feo monkey

I thought I had heard the worst of the gory details when Felicia woke up, so my sister, Karen and I decided to trade monkeys. She took Felicia and in return a several-weeks-old boy monkey named Feo playfully jumped onto my shoulders and wrapped his tail around my neck. In Spanish, "Feo" means "ugly." When a monkey is trapped on an electrical line, Brenda explained, it may try to bite itself free. Some individuals bite the transformers. When this happens, the power surge instantly blows out its face. Feo was the victim of this all-too-common set of circumstances. Furthermore, the high-pitched screams of distress draw other nearby monkeys who meet the same fate unless Brenda can get there quickly and preemptively knock them to the ground as well.

With the tender care at the refuge, Feo was thriving and outgrowing the unfortunate name. He and Felicia had a long road ahead, however. The typical stay in the refuge for howler monkeys is about eighteen months, at which point they are transferred to the "sanctuary" for another eighteen months before their eventual release into the wild.

The sanctuary provides a secure jungle enclosure for ongoing observation and rehabilitative care. Reduced human contact allows social groupings to form, a critical step before they are set free into open canopy. Although Felicia and Feo's progress appeared to be well on track, I wondered what would happen to a monkey if its recovery was not as successful.

Don't Try This at Home
I needn't have worried. As detail-oriented Brenda served up a refreshing peach iced tea to the American tourists whose every need and comfort had been anticipated and met in this hospitable country, she explained more about the process. Like Mariano the parrot, those monkeys who are unable to be released receive permanent long-term care in a protected and enriched habitat.

By this time, Feo was gently climbing all over me like a clingy toddler and clearly relishing the attention I gave him. I stroked his glossy, black fur. How easy it would be to fall in love with these amazing, sweet creatures and want to adopt one as a pet. Lest anyone think that this was a good idea, Brenda quickly pointed out that everything changes when they hit puberty. Hormone-fueled aggressive behavior can result in unprovoked attacks on their owners and other humans. Some recent monkey attacks reported in the news have been horrific. Brenda asks that visitors to the refuge not post videos of its cute residents on YouTube because the clips don't give the full story about the inherent dangers of these wild animals.

howler monkey

In the meantime, Brenda remains on permanent alert, typically receiving a call per week. Initially viewed as a meddling gringa in Costa Rica, she has started the public dialog necessary for change to happen. Her mission has expanded to include that of education and advocacy. Amazingly, there are no existing laws requiring insulated wires or a simple $250 transformer boot that would slow the carnage.

Nevertheless, progress occurs slowly. In 2010, the government conducted a pilot study within a small quadrant of Guanacaste province in which the wires were insulated and plastic boots covered the transformers. Howler monkey fatalities dropped from 132 in 2009 to only eighteen during the study year. If that startling statistic were not enough to spur action, Brenda is trying to get the word out that human lives are also at stake. Children playing around bootleg electrical lines run from main trunk lines to remote countryside shanties can suffer the same consequences as the monkeys.

Reluctantly I surrendered my new friends back to their cages where a healthy meal awaited them. Hoping that our visit and small donation might help further the refuge's cause, Karen, Anne and I climbed into the car, blasted the air conditioner and drove away in search of our next eco-adventure. But the following morning when we drove down the narrow, curvy road leading from the hotel and spotted several shifting, black shapes in the tree-tops, we pulled the vehicle over and grabbed the binoculars. The low-pitched, dog-like grunt of the adult howlers was unmistakable and we hoped that Felicia and Feo would not have any new companions unexpectedly joining them today.

Nosara Wildlife Rescue is not a zoo. As described in the narrative, the refuge and the sanctuary comprise two separate working facilities. Food for the animals, operating costs and emergency veterinary care are funded entirely by donations from visitors and interested persons. Visits to either location must be arranged in advance.

For information on planning a visit or to donate, see

David Lee Drotar

David Lee Drotar's travel stories appear in Mountain Living, The Globe & Mail, New York Post, The Buffalo News and numerous other publications. He is the author of seven books including Steep Passages: A World wide Eco-Adventurer Unlocks Nature's Spiritual Truths (

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Related stories:

Humble in the Jungle: Exploring Guyana's Rainforest by Laurie Gough
Fear on the Menu in Costa Rica by Tim Leffel
Thai Voluntourism for All the Wrong Reasons by Gillian Kendall

See other Mexico and Central America travel stories from the archives

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