Inside the Refugio

Can Costa Rica's zoos really go cage-free?

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A smiling cashier welcomed me in the lobby. His arms were akimbo. He wore a polo shirt that read, “Refugio Herpetológico.”

“Welcome!” he exclaimed in Spanish. “How are you?”

I forced a smile and forked over my 3,000 colones — about $6. He handed me a receipt and escorted me through the gift shop, toward the Refugio’s main entrance. Then he pointed to a trim young man in the corner, also wearing a printed polo shirt.

“This is Marco,” said the cashier. “Your tour will start in a couple of minutes.”

Damn it, I thought. It figures.

As a rule, I don’t like tours, especially in places that are essentially museums. After 10 minutes roaming around with a droning docent, all I want to do is take a nap. Their scripted monologues ruin the experience, especially when there are printed plaques that already explain everything. With his samurai ponytail and acne-scarred skin, Marco looked like a congenial kid, but I wanted nothing to do with him.

Still, I had missed my chance to visit the Refugio for eight months. Ever since I moved to Costa Rica, I had wondered about this odd little sanctuary in the suburbs of San José, and I had finally found a free Sunday afternoon to visit. If I must tolerate a guide, I would tolerate a guide. If there’s one thing I’d learned from Ticos — the name Costa Ricans call themselves — it’s patience.

My tiny group sidled up to a glass box. Its frame was wooden and the ceiling was chicken wire, but basically the space was a glorified aquarium. Two grass-green snakes coiled around each other on a branch. One remained still while the second slid up its back, until their heads were congruent. I half-listened to Marco’s speech about the species and its habitat.

“They seem very energetic,” I said.

“Energetic?”

“Sometimes animals in captivity stay very still. There isn’t much movement. But these two are moving around.”

“Yes, it’s true,” Marco agreed. “It’s a very active species. They’re usually nocturnal, and they tend to spend time in the trees. Most of the animals here are inoffensive, but they can be very aggressive and dangerous, when humans provoke them.”

An eyelash pit viper coils inside its glass tank. Small and brightly colored, this viper is among the most venomous snakes in Costa Rica.

I had seen Oxybelis fulgidus before, in the cloud forests of Santa Elena. I had heard stories of bitten victims cutting off their limbs with machetes to keep the venom from killing them. The snakes looked so pathetic in their glass box, a hundred miles from their relatives in the rainforest.

But I also knew that these glass boxes might be the best option the animals had. As we passed more enclosures, where bored eyelash vipers and boa constrictors lay still, I started taking pictures. And little by little, I started listening to what Marco was saying.

On paper, Costa Rica is a very “green” country. The national parks are enormous. Game hunting is illegal. Vast tracts are dubbed “protected areas.” Each claim is flawed, and enforcement is weak, but the Costa Rican government portrays its country as lush, lively, and carbon-neutral, and foreigners generally love it.

In 2013, Costa Rica shocked the world: The Environmental Ministry announced that it would close two public zoos and free the animals. Practically speaking, this meant releasing around 400 creatures into the wild. More sentimentally, it meant shuttering the 100-year-old Zoológico Simón Bolivar in downtown San José, where generations of Ticos had seen their first African lion. And what would happen to that lion? It was hard to say.

The buzz-phrase was “cage-free,” and people take it seriously. Protesting animal rights activists had gotten into skirmishes with police over Simón Bolivar. The zoos’ staff had fought bitterly in the courtroom for its right to stay open.

When I first moved to Costa Rica, I learned that the zoo would soon close, and because its entrance was located only a few blocks from my office, I decided to spend an afternoon walking its grounds. The day was overcast and spurted rain, and the place looked particularly gloomy. Monkeys lazed on their hemp ropes, and parrots chewed the wire grids of their cages. I saw only two other visitors, a man and woman, who kept feeding fallen leaves to a curious tapir, despite the signs that forbade doing so. I left the zoo with mixed feelings, but mostly I looked forward to its dignified demise.

False hope, it turned out. In March, the zoo found a legal loophole, and a court ruled in their favor. The zoos won a 10-year contract, and The Environmental Ministry had to go back to the drawing board. The war, it seemed, was far from over.

“These are our spider monkeys,” said Marco. He held out a hand, and a nervous ape swung his way over and reached its own arm through the cage’s chain-link fence. Human and primate touched fingers, like two old friends. Then the monkey screeched excitedly and darted away. “They are very friendly,” Marco added, smiling.

The monkeys were cute, even behind bars. But what were spider monkeys doing in a serpentarium?

In 2003, a certain Rodolfo Vargas Leiton established the Refugio Herpetológico with a simple mission: to rehabilitate amphibians and reptiles and release them back into the wild. The Refugio expanded rapidly, and in 2008 they were forced to move to larger quarters, the location where I was now standing.

On the surface, the place looks like a crummy roadside attraction. Situated on a sloped byway between the suburbs of Escazú and Santa Ana, the Refugio is basically a few hectares of land enclosed by a wire fence covered in green plastic. As trucks and buses fly past, the tarp perimeter whips in the wind. The walls are covered in cheesy murals; above the crocodile tank rises a landscape of pharaohs and pyramids. The interior looks like a rainforest, and concrete walkways and crisscross the trees and bushes, but parts of the Refugio look makeshift and low-rent, like a landscaped backyard.

“How much food do your animals have to eat?” I finally asked Marco. The subject interested me, because I had once toured the kitchen of the National Aviary, back in Pittsburgh, and I was stunned by the volume of worms, insects, and frozen chicks.

“It depends on the animals,” Marco said, suddenly animated. “But this crocodile, for example, eats about four chickens a day.”

As we passed cages for owls and toucans, I felt increasingly annoyed. The Refugio seemed to have a very loose idea of “herpetology,” and despite its leafy surface, the place looked cramped. Legally, the Refugio and the zoos are completely different animals: While the zoo is a public institution that puts wildlife on display, a “rescue center” is designed to rehabilitate wildlife and eventually let them run free. Yet a rescue center can do everything a zoo does: charge an entrance fee, lead tours, and show off their menageries.

A macaw snacks on mashed fruit. Unable to fly and dependent on prepared food, this specimen may never leave the Refugio.

Two girls in my tour group posed in front of a rainbow-hued macaw. Unlike the other birds, the macaws were “free,” in the sense that their wings were clipped and they could openly wander the Refugio grounds. Each time one girl posed, clutching her hips and smiling like a model, the bird behind her turned around, flaring its feathers. It looked like the bird was mooning the camera, and both girls burst into giggles.

That about sums it up, I thought.

I feel the same way about animal rights that I feel about Israel or abortion: total philosophical stalemate. I don’t like to see animals in captivity, and I would rather they lived and died without human involvement. In theory, a spider monkey with a head-injury should face its Darwinian fate, and bleeding heart veterinarians should lay off. But with seven billion humans clogging the world, wild habitats only exist because we feel like they should. Costa Rica is crawling with wildlife profiteers, from illegal fishermen to turtle egg poachers to trappers of exotic birds. If a loving biologist can save an animal in the short-term, why not?

But I have a hard time distinguishing between a “rescue center” and a zoo, since they behave almost identically. Costa Rica has plenty of wilderness, and for the most part, the government enthusiastically celebrates those open spaces. Tico naturalists are the only guides I enjoy, because they are rigorously trained and passionate about their work. In the rainforest, anything can happen, yet seasoned naturalists always know where to look. They are the greatest improvisers I’ve ever met, turning just the right leaf to reveal just the right tree frog. In Tortuguero, my guide tracked a venomous snake from 300 meters because he could smell it.

Why, then, is Costa Rica also home to Africa Mia, a synthetic African safari in Guanacaste, where tourists can drive through herds of zebra and giraffes? Why is there a gigantic “sloth sanctuary” in Limón Province, where tourists pay $25 to hang out with the world’s slowest mammals, complete with jungle boat ride? There’s nothing wrong with these places; the sloths living on a 300-acre property don’t seem exactly “caged.” But the arrangement still puts me ill at ease.

For concerned environmentalists, each location is a triumph for wildlife: Not only do they get to rescue endangered animals, but the operation is also sustainable — tourists will pay handsomely just to show up and look an anteater in the eye. Yet the rescue centers are also a sign of global failure: They prove that natural spaces are critically handicapped. The ecosystem can’t survive without human maintenance, and human maintenance can’t survive without a decent gift shop to fund it.

As the other guests took pictures, I finally took Marco aside and asked him my burning question.

“I know there’s been a lot of conflict between the zoos and the government,” I said. “So what exactly is the difference between the Refugio and the zoos?”

Marco nodded understandingly. I was worried he would get defensive, and I wouldn’t understand the reply, because hostile Spanish is the hardest for me to follow. But Marco turned even more serious and delivered his explanation: “A zoo displays animals, and the animals live there their entire lives. The purpose of a zoo is to keep the animals in cages. Here, no animals stay longer than they have to. The only reason we show them to people is to educate them. We are here so people can learn. Many of these animals are sick, and we receive all of them from the government. But it’s about education.”

Marco blinked, in the stoic way that Ticos often say, That’s it. Your turn.

Claro,” I said. “Entiendo.”

That wasn’t quite true. I still felt the distinction was foggy, and I wondered whether Sea World might also be considered “educational.” But I liked that Marco was so unapologetic. He was young and straightforward, and he clearly cared about the animals. In total, the tour lasted two hours. He spoke intelligently about each animal, and he admitted when he didn’t know something. (“What do you do with the snake skins?” I asked him. “I’m not sure exactly,” Marco replied, but then he waxed poetic on serpentine molting).

As we approached the final cages of iguanas and squirrel monkeys, I felt more forgiving of the Refugio. The place lacked some polish, and it would function just as well as a South Dakota highway attraction. But superficial judgments aside, Marco sounded as sharp and professional as any wilderness guide I had met. He knew how to hold a scorpion turtle shell so that the head wouldn’t shoot out and bite his finger off. When he called the simians by name, they turned their heads and squealed.

One cage seemed empty. A placard read “Manigordo” in Spanish, then the English translation: “Ocelot.” Also called a “dwarf leopard,” the ocelot looks like an overgrown housecat with patterned fur. We all leaned toward the cage, trying to see the wild feline inside, but nothing stirred. The ocelot had clearly retreated into a pipe or behind a tree.

“The ocelot is nocturnal,” said Marco. “Most visitors never see it.”

The shadows of foliage painted the soil. It felt silly, standing in a line and gazing at nothing. But still we stood there, looking at the empty space, waiting for nature to do something. • 28 May 2014

 

Robert Isenberg is a writer based in San José, Costa Rica, where he serves as a reporter, videographer and photojournalist for The Tico Times, Central America’s most respected English-language newspaper. He is the author of The Archipelago: A Balkan Passage and the poetry collection Wander, as well as numerous plays and stage works. Originally from Vermont, he spent 15 years living in and writing about Pittsburgh.

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