Human Hammocks And Howler Monkeys: Visiting Costa Rica’s Jaguar Rescue Center

Encar García, Founder of the Jaguar Rescue Center“Why don’t they like me?” my travel companion huffed in frustration, abandoning what he had hoped would be a welcoming hand gesture toward a group of rehabilitated baby howler monkeys. Maybe they sensed our initial apprehension. After all, we had been nervous to visit the Jaguar Rescue Center, given the world’s alarming amount of faux sanctuaries that operate more akin to zoos and tourist destinations, but many locals in Puerto Viejo, a small beach town in the southern Caribbean of Costa Rica, spoke highly of the experience in Playa Chiquita, telling of the daily free-range policies where the animals may decide for themselves if they are ready to leave.

So we rented bicycles in town: cruisers – the kind with large baskets and banana seats that position the rider as almost a parody of leisure (our uptight go-go city bikes would never forgive us for crossing over). Truth be told, the lazy cycling on stretched lanes along the Caribbean with backpacks snug in our front baskets seemed like perfection when compared with the pre-traumatic stress of avoiding car doors that so often invade Chicago’s bike lanes.
No – here things were different. Here, tranquility was the goal. Costa Rica sinks into the bloodstream like a rich dessert – best enjoyed slowly.

After a 20-minute ride down a sun-drenched road dotted with open-walled cafes, vegan restaurants and yoga schools, we rolled into the Jaguar Rescue Center for an 11:30 a.m. tour.Founded by Barcelona Primatologist Encar García and her herpetologist husband, Sandro Alviani, the rescue serves as an educational beacon along Costa Rica’s Caribbean edge. Jaguar strives to rehabilitate its residents with the end goal of releasing sloths, toucans, ocelots and howler monkeys back into the wild.

We joined the dozen or so in the small crowd and were immediately greeted by Encar, a serene and natural beauty whose eyes smiled and set in exhaustion on the horizon of her cherub cheekbones – a ringer for a young Jane Goodall on several counts.

Perched on her hand was a toucan whose beak had been mangled by a feral dog one year earlier. We were pleased to learn that the complicated operation of gluing its beak back together at the facility had allowed the strange bird to heal properly and once again enjoy a staple of fruits. Soon, Encar explained, it would leave the sanctuary like many before.

A guide directed us through an exhibit of venomous snakes and small tree frog habitats. The intimacy of the tour allowed its guests to share their own stories in between the cooing and chittering of happy travelers facing a sloth’s crooked smile.

We excitedly approached the baby howler monkey lodging, realizing for the first time that we were going to be allowed to touch them. But suddenly, our guide directed his attention to Encar who let out a surprised cry.

The tour followed, surrounding the sanctuary’s founder. She was calling to a wild adolescent howler monkey that had scurried in from the deep canopy. The animal recognized her and ran in for a full embrace, Encar holding it to her chest and crying. “This is a special moment,” she revealed to the crowd. “I have not seen her for a long time; we raised her and she left into the wild.”

The monkey who came back was Cuca, one of the original animals housed when the rescue center first opened. At the time she was a tiny baby, malnourished and ill. “We did everything we could,” the founder explained. “We were not sure if she was going to recover.”

She did recover, and three years later left the rescue center on her own accord. This return was touching (Encar later emailed that not long after, Cuca joined a wild troop and is now fully rehabilitated); it only further fueled our excitement to hold a howler ourselves. Our guide ushered us into the cage and we extended our arms and waited, but to no avail.

“Am I doing something wrong?” I asked in concern. The small faces could not answer beyond sharp chirps.

A volunteer leaned in with an insider’s tip: “They like it if you make a hammock shape with your arms.”

We folded them into cradles and before I could finish asking, “Like this?” four howler monkeys jumped into our arms, channeling a cartoon dust cloud of pushing and fighting, all vying for the ultimate comfort of resting one of their apple-sized heads in the palms of our hands. We smiled from ear to ear, happy to oblige as one winner wrapped its digits around our “pillows,” fluffing for comfort and allowing us to study the similarities of our fingernails.

It was peculiar to be so close to an animal whose more wild brethren stirred us from our cabinas each morning with a startling bellow. In time, perhaps these little heads would soon echo the chant throughout the canopy and only vaguely recall the time spent here at the rescue center.

The Jaguar Rescue Center offers tours ($15 per person) Monday through Saturday at 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. They accept volunteers for a minimum commitment of three weeks. For more information visit www.jaguarrescue.com.

[First image courtesy of Jaguar Rescue Center; second by Robin Whitney]