Costa RicaCosta Rica

The Osa Wildlife Refuge

Destination: Puerto Jimenez

My new friends from the Iguana Lodge and I stepped off the boat and into an entirely different space and time. Just 20 minutes across the Golfo Dulce from Puerto Jimenez, the Osa Wildlife Sanctuary is so lush and remote that it seemed we could have just as easily been observing dinosaurs in place of local wildlife.

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Wounded or orphaned animals and illegally-captured pets are brought from all over southern Costa Rica to be rehabilitated in the refuge, which is located on the edge of Piedras Blancas National Park. Owners Earl and Carol Crews walked out to the boat to greet us, and our mouths dropped open in surprise as a long-limbed spider monkey followed closely behind them.

To deaf ears, the couple began telling us about their project. Sadly, we were far too distracted by the curious spider monkey to pay any attention whatsoever to Earl and Carol we were completely oblivious to everything except the primate. After about ten minutes, the novelty wore off and our minds began absorbing information again. We apologized for being rude, and they assured us that they were quite used to it; guests are simply not accustomed to being so near wild animals. Carol explained that despite Costa Rica's recent conservation efforts, much of the country's wild inhabitants are still endangered. Even those not necessarily on the IUCN Red List.

The Osa Wildlife Sanctuary's mission is to provide a "five star hotel with room service" for each disadvantaged animal that is unable to be released. Containment areas (which are a far cry from cages) are unconventional: complex playgrounds tailored to specifically mimic the habitat of one species of animal. This natural enrichment serves as a way to involve the animal with its surroundings, preventing boredom and encouraging natural behaviors. For example, margays are nocturnal, carnivorous and only drink cascading water as if from a stream. Their home features fresh branches thick enough to hold their body weight, a dark box in which to hide during the day, and a three-tiered hose system for drinking water. They are also fed live food in order to practice hunting in the trees.

Our first stop was to visit a house of scarlet macaws, where birds with injured wings are given daily physical therapy. Earl pointed out one particular macaw that required its trainer to drop the stick upon which it was perched, forcing it to flap its wings and isolate particular muscles. While it will never heal sufficiently to be released into the wild, the creature has been able to make a contribution to its kind by producing healthy babies - which is crucial to the propagation of the species. Sadly, many of these noble birds are poached for the illicit pet trade before they even hatch.

Moving on, I learned that peccaries, or wild pigs also known as javelinas, are much tougher than they look. Found from the American southwest to Argentina, peccaries can eat anything. They have been known to devour monkeys for breakfast and poisonous fer-de-lance snakes for lunch. Up to four different species of frog lay eggs in mud puddles created by their rooting and wallowing. The next containment area held the cutest bundle of fluff that I have ever seen: a kinkajou. Its soft, sweet smell and cuddly face made me melt. I coaxed it out of its home with something that looked like a red gummy bear, and we cooed as it emerged from its hollow log. Kinkajous are sadly still regarded as legal pets in the U.S. A. and must be protected from unsuitable celebrity caretakers who carry them around in their handbags.

Next, we visited the sloth cage, and learned that as many as 900 species of insects can live in the fur of this incredible animal. With a heartbeat of 11 beats per minute, Earl described the sloth as "basically, a bag of bones." Equally as interesting was Boogie the weasel, located just around the corner. Members of this species are notorious for killing things when they are bored, simply to entertain themselves.

As we approached the capuchin, or white-faced monkey area, a pair of wild simians was trying desperately to join those in captivity. This species is so clever that they use tools for hunting snakes and but apparently they're not smart enough to appreciate their own freedom. Unfortunately, the capuchin monkeys can never be released; they are aggressive and territorial, and if discharged into the wild, they would undoubtedly be killed by predators or competing troops.

By far the most endearing creatures at the refuge were the personable spider monkeys. Rarely have I seen happier, healthier animals (with the exception of my own ridiculously spoiled dogs). 'Sweetie' was my favorite, a social being who closely followed our group, surrounding us with her unbridled cuteness. She is slightly younger than a teenager in monkey years, and therefore still prefers to stay close to home. 'Poppy', on the other hand, is emotionally similar to a 16-year old human that is "too cool to be with [Carol and Earl] anymore." The staff cares for both their physical and social needs, showering them with love and affection. Spider monkeys here are caged out instead of caged in, and all buildings are heavily screened to keep the mischievous creatures from entering try as they might.

Controversially, the primates at the Osa Wildlife Refuge are completely free to come and go as they please. The property is surrounded by Piedras Blancas National Park, and each day these critters venture farther and farther out into the jungle testing their boundaries in a safe environment, much like human children do. The species requires a range of at least 22 miles, far more than any cage could ever allow, so this approach makes logical sense. The method allows the spider monkeys to develop their foraging skills naturally, and is based upon studies in Barro Colorado, Panama and here in Costa Rica.

Another revolutionary concept the Osa Wildlife Sanctuary utilizes is providing positive employment opportunities; they recruit notorious poachers to play for the 'good team' instead of the bad. Having grown up in the rain forest, these former hunters have invaluable knowledge of its inhabitants. One reformed worker is now so passionate about the cause that he recently called the authorities on his own cousin, who was selling a captured ocelot.

On the way out, Carol and Earl mentioned that they have a special area just for newborn babies. Before I had a chance to get too excited, they crushed my hopes of entering by saying that there are no visitors allowed -- it would compromise the well being of the animals. Like many refuges in Costa Rica, the Osa Wildlife Refuge relies mostly upon visitors' entrance fees to support its animals. Fortunately, they are not tempted to keep creatures that are perfectly suitable for release for the sake of attracting tourism --a common problem with similar enterprises. Philanthropic institutions, companies, and private individuals also make donations to make the operation feasible.

What can we do to help? Besides donating to worthy organizations, the delicate ecosystem can only truly only be saved through education and awareness -- along with a green change in lifestyle and a unified effort to reduce worldwide waste and consumption. Spread the word.

The Osa Wildlife Refuge in Pictures

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