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Zoo Ave: Cougars, Crocodiles & Macaws

Destination: Alajuela

Having loved animals of all kinds since I was a little girl, I'm drawn to places that guarantee wildlife sightings. Alajuela's Zoo Ave, or "Bird Zoo" is committed to conservation and animal education, and offers visitors a chance to view an amazing variety of Costa Rica's wildlife. Animal lovers are treated to more than 250 kinds of animals -- 120 bird species give the zoo its name -- and can rest easy knowing that all zoo proceeds go toward animal care and other worthwhile projects, including macaw conservation and breeding.

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Zoo Ave began 20 years ago to care for Costa Rica's orphaned and mistreated animals. In Costa Rica, it is illegal to keep wild animals as pets, but 24% of all households have birds, snakes, monkeys, or other contraband animals. Unfortunately, once animals are raised and kept as house pets, they lose the skills necessary to survive in the wild. When the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) rescues an illegal pet, they often take it to Zoo Ave. There, the animal receives shelter, food, and quality health care. When possible, the zoo rehabilitates young animals, teaches them to live in the wild, and finally releases them into their native territory. Individuals, organizations, and the Costa Rican government have donated every animal at the zoo.Zoo Ave and its parent foundation, the Fundacion de Restauracion de la Naturaleza (The Nature Restoration Foundation), strive to protect Costa Rica's animal population. In addition to rescued animals, Zoo Ave also accepts pet donations and injured animals that range from crocodiles attacked by poachers to small birds or turtles hit by cars. No matter the animal, if it's meant to be wild, Zoo Ave will give it medical treatment and the best quality of life possible. As a non-profit organization, the Foundation is funded 100% by the profits realized at Zoo Ave. Here, your entrance fee really does make a difference.

I took the bus to Alajuela, where I caught the Zoo Ave bus from the small terminal located in front of the old train station. The ride was pleasant and I enjoyed passing through La Garita, where the roads are lined with farms and small plant nurseries. Arriving at the zoo, I slipped through the entrance gate and found myself in an outdoor paradise.

Zoo Ave sits on about three acres of land, just a small part of the foundation's 50-acre nature preserve. (The additional 47 acres are closed to the public, reserved to release injured local animals.) A giant loop winds its way around the park, leading visitors through each of the animal habitats along the way.

I began my journey in the macaw area, where blue and gold macaws, scarlet macaws, Buffon's macaws, and hybrid macaws reside. Each one of these birds was a pet for years, until their owners could no longer care for them. After having lived so long in captivity, these birds are not equipped to live on their own. Only young animals, those who can still learn how to hunt and survive, can be reintroduced into their native habitats. These once-captive macaws will spend the remainder of their 50-year lifespan living at Zoo Ave.

Admittedly, the macaws live a pretty posh life: giant macaw "trees" line the path, not a cage in sight. The birds are free to fly around -- most do not have clipped wings -- and they are fed fresh fruits and seeds, the same diet they would enjoy in nature. Macaws are monogamous animals, and most had paired up with their life mates. The birds' brightly colored plumage indicated that none was depressed; in fact, they were all in perfect health and seemed to enjoy squawking at each other all day. (I can only imagine they're telling gossipy stories about the personable parrot down the path that says "Hola! Hola!" on constant repeat.)

In 1945, scarlet macaws lived in almost every area of Costa Rica; today, only 2500 are left in the country, living in two small geographical sections. The Nature Restoration Foundation restores populations of this magnificent bird with their Scarlet Macaw project. After breeding and an educational period, juvenile birds are transported in groups to San Josecito on the Osa Peninsula. In 2006, the project had a 70% success rate; in 2008, the number climbed to 85%.

One of the things I love most about Zoo Ave -- have I mentioned this was my sixth visit in three years? -- are the animals that roam around freely. Peacocks pepper the walking paths, iguanas scurry around the ground, and today I saw an agouti fraternizing with the peacocks. The animals are not actually domesticated -- feeding them is prohibited and they maintain a natural distance from humans -- but being able to get up close and observe wild animals in, well, the relative wild is a unique experience.

The zoo's trails are beautiful -- easy walking paths lined with trees, vines and flowers. There are huge (and I do mean huge -- about 50 feet high!) stalks of "noisy" bamboo throughout the zoo: when they reach these heights, their bark is no longer soft and green, but tough and tan. As the breeze blows through, the bark rubs together to create an eerie but magnificent sound, reminiscent of a tree before it falls. The kid in me fought the urge to shout out, "Timberrrr!"

Each time I visit the zoo, special things happen. Today, an enormous American crocodile sunned himself, mouth wide open, just two feet from me (a chain link fence separated us). Later, I caught a lucky glimpse of two white-lipped peccaries who were hunting for food nearby. And, winning a spot as the day's most amusing event, I scared off three ostriches. Yes, three enormous birds -- the world's largest -- turned tail and ran (they can reach 45 mph!) when they saw me. I don't know what I did -- maybe I just startled them -- but I couldn't help but laugh as they lurched away, their heads bobbing and huge rear ends swaying back and forth.

I'm a sucker for monkeys, and Zoo Ave really delivers with three of Costa Rica's four primate species: white-faced capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys, and squirrel monkeys. The tiny squirrel monkeys, not much larger than actual squirrels, seem to be everyone's favorite: they twitter and play in the trees and on their ropes, oscillating between ignoring and vying for their observer's attention. The zoo's squirrel monkeys are divided into two areas -- one for each sub-species -- and if you stand in the middle of the path, between the two, you'll have a great view of all the action. Today, they were waiting for their feeder's arrival, and stared at me with rapt attention. I shrugged, explaining that I didn't have their food. As if they understood, the monkeys soon went back to their normal antics and I leaned against the railing to watch the amusing interplay.

Just down the path lived two cougar sisters, Sol y Luna (Sun and Moon). They were rescued at about six weeks old, just after poachers had killed their mother. A local man found them, malnourished and in very bad shape, and decided to sell them to a hotel. Luckily for Sol and Luna, another man overheard the plan and called MINAE. Zoo Ave rescued the sisters and spent a harrowing six weeks nursing them back to health. Today, they are the picture of healthy cougars. I found them sleeping in the trees, their limbs hanging languidly off their perches.

As I meandered around the cougar enclosure, birdsong symphony played all around me -- scarlet macaws squawked, Montezuma oropendola warbled, keel-billed toucans cawed, and songbirds sang their melodic tunes. I was entering one of the bird areas, where the zoo's 120 bird species reside. Earlier in my walk, I had passed the resplendent quetzal house -- Zoo Ave is only one of two zoos in the world to house this colorful bird -- and now I found cranes, curassows, and others. Birds of prey resided elsewhere -- they would scare the smaller birds if placed too close -- and a special enclosure was built for those that had been permanently disabled.

My final stop was at the parakeet and toucan houses. The birds were painted in every color of the rainbow and most were very inquisitive. A keel-billed toucan, its rainbow-colored bill vibrant, watched me with one eye as he pecked at a branch, peeling its bark off with his beak. Green and blue parakeets hopped back and forth, following my every move. When I spoke to them -- I couldn't resist! -- they bobbed their heads in response. It was obvious how well cared for the animals were, and I couldn't help but smile.

After walking around for more than two hours, I was ready for a snack. The zoo's new restaurant, El Colibri (The Hummingbird), is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays during the low season (usually May-November), but a snack cart sits beside an open field. I bought a drink and sat down at one of the picnic tables to watch the butterflies, peacocks, and scarlet macaws. The sun shone brightly. It was the perfect day.

Zoo Ave: Cougars, Crocodiles & Macaws in Pictures

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