While looking up things to do in Puerto Viejo, the Jaguar Rescue Center kept popping up in my search results. Honestly, at first I was wary of doing something so popular because that usually means large crowds of people and a tour that does not end up being informative. However, after browsing through their website, I knew I was wrong. The Jaguar Rescue Center's main goal is to rehabilitate the ill or injured animals that come into their care with the end goal of releasing them back into the wild. We woke up early to do the morning tour so we wouldn't have to be walking around during the heat of the day. We had decided to venture out by foot, but you could probably take the bus. It took us about an hour to walk there--a huge sign greeted us from the main road. We turned onto the property and walked down a gravel road along which some horses were grazing on the adjacent field. We waited in line to buy our tickets for the tour. There are only two public tours available per day, so the animals aren't being gawked at by tourists all day. At our tour time a gentleman gathered us around the entrance to the rescue center and gave us an introduction to the center.
Encar and Sandro retired to Costa Rica after full careers in their respective areas of expertise. Encar had specialized and cared for primates, while Sandro was an amphibian and reptile expert. Word began to spread along the Caribbean of their expertise and one day someone dropped off an injured baby jaguar at their doorstep and asked if Encar and Sandro could nurse him back to health and release him to the wild again. They agreed, but the baby jaguar was found too late and ultimately did not survive. Locals kept dropping off these animals and they did successfully treat and release several more. Their home became filled with injured or ill animals needing treatment and rehabilitation. Even the Costa Rican government was dropping off animals at their home, yet they received no funding whatsoever for treatment supplies or building the temporary habitats necessary to house the animals. They decided to build a rescue center, and its namesake reflects the first animal they attempted to save. The Jaguar Rescue Center officially opened in 2008. The funding is solely based on the tours and volunteers work tirelessly to restore as many of the animals in their care back into the wild.
Our large group crowded around the entrance was divided into different language groups. The groups were divided even more as each tour guide took 10 people. Our tour guide had worked at the Jaguar Rescue Center for 10 years and had completed a PhD focused on sloths. To say the least, we learned A LOT about sloths. Throughout the tour we were told stories of the animals we were seeing. The birds that are rehabilitated and released from here like to come back every once in a while, because the conditions are that good. Plus, free food. We wouldn’t pass that up.
There were many baby sloths at the center because of a problem with the increasing development in Costa Rica. Many sloths die when they mistake a power line for a tree and get electrocuted. Baby sloths being carried by their mothers tend to survive these incidents but are orphaned. The Jaguar Rescue Center utilizes hammocks to get the baby sloths used to sleeping in trees. Because the babies need feedings every two hours though, they cannot be placed in actual trees as the volunteers would have a hard time reaching them at mealtimes! Once they are old enough to not need these regular feedings, they graduate to sloth high school. There are a series of trees which the teenage sloths learn to climb and sleep in. Volunteers put sloths’ favorite leaves on these trees, so they have extra motivation to climb and learn how to eat for the trees.
Another issue with sloths also had to do with increasing development. Many of the grown sloths at the center had deformities, such as missing limbs. This is thought to be due to developments breaking up the rainforests. Sloths travel via tree top. They only come down to the ground once a week, and the only reason they do that is to poop. Yup. All those leaves and they only poop once a week? They lose a third of their body weight and do a happy dance after their weekly poop. I would too if I had to carry all that around. Anyways, these developments leave small groups of trees and the sloths are not able to migrate and interact with other sloth families, so they reproduce among the same group of sloths. This leads to deformities and increased illnesses.
Monkey rehabilitation is just as interesting. We did not see as many monkeys up close as it is important for monkeys to have a natural fear of humans. As they are ready to be re-introduced into the wild, the volunteer that has been working with them takes them out into a preserve and into the treetops where other monkey groups are passing by. The male monkeys have a more difficult time joining these groups, as they must fight another male monkey and win to be welcomed. Female monkeys have to get knocked up essentially. Our guide said many times a female monkey would join a “monkey party” and sleepily come back to the center three days later and rest for a long time before trying again. Once the monkeys have been accepted into a monkey group, it’s rare they come back to the center.
The center also rescues cats, such as jaguars, pumas, and ocelots. We were not able to see any that were being rehabilitated as the center’s main priority is to restore these animals to the wild; therefore, they greatly minimize human contact with these animals. In fact, each cat is only seen by one volunteer. That volunteer cares for them during their stay. When the time comes for them to be released, that volunteer takes them deep into the jungle, many miles away from Puerto Viejo and walks them into the wild to join a group. Bryan and I were both astounded at how brave these volunteers must be to walk so deep into the jungle that they come across wild cats.
The only ocelot we saw was one that was brought to the center after being injured by a farmer. The farmer had caught the ocelot eating his chickens. The center fixed him up and re-released him, but again, the ocelot went after another farmer’s chickens. After being rehabilitated again, an expert was brought in and found out the ocelot was elderly and too old to hunt successfully in the wild. The center kept him with the new goal of just keeping him comfortable until he passed away. They thought he would live maybe a year. I guess the ocelot got a little too comfortable because five years later he’s still around!
At the end of the tour we were given a bookmark with the picture of monkey on it. This monkey of course had a story. He was famous around the center for being mischievous. One night, around 2 am, the monkey picked the lock on his habitat and proceeded to pick the locks and release all the animals in the immediate area of the center. The night volunteer was surprised to hear such a commotion so late at night. He peeked out into the middle of the center and saw a wild animal party happening. He had to frantically capture all the animals and put them back into their respective habitats. Curiously, the only animal to not be out of their habitat was the mischievous monkey. It was later found on the surveillance tape that after releasing the animals, this monkey had gone back to his habitat and locked himself inside to avoid blame.