Alex Martínez watched the tree on the edge of his property as he called, “perrrrro, perrrro, perrrro.” Minutes later, a scarlet macaw appeared. The vibrant red, blue and yellow bird appeared healthy, with a limp wing the only remaining sign that it had been struck by a slingshot and captured to be sold as a pet.
“This is something very satisfying,” said Martínez, cofounder of Tierra Hermosa Wildlife Reserve and Rescue Center located in Sarapiquí, Costa Rica.
Martínez founded the 4.3-hectare center four years ago with a partner from Wisconsin to care for injured wildlife. Animals are brought to him after being confiscated from people and homes in the area.
Keeping wildlife as house pets is commonplace for many Costa Rican families. Once animals are removed from their natural habitat, it can be difficult to find organizations with the knowledge to rehabilitate and release them.
Nearly 25 percent of Costa Rican homes had wildlife as pets in 2001, according to a survey by the Universidad Nacional in Costa Rica. Nearly 65 percent of adults responded they had kept a wild animal as a pet at some point in their lives, with birds and turtles being the most common animals.
Wildlife trafficking is less frequent in Costa Rica than in other Latin American countries, according to Cynthia Dent, the regional director in Latin America for Humane Society International, located in San José. However, while only 220 animals were confiscated in 2008, rescue centers receive 1,400 animals per year, according to a 2009 study by the organization.
“It is very cultural,” Dent said. “A lot of people look to having wildlife as very normal.”
Keeping wild animals as pets is illegal under Costa Rican law because their removal depletes species numbers. Those found in homes can be confiscated by the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications and sent to rescue centers or zoos for rehabilitation or permanent residence.
Costa Rica has a large number of rescue centers in comparison to other Central American countries, Dent said. Many are started by individuals or expatriates who may not have the knowledge or resources to effectively care for wild animals.
“We don’t have any regulations, so sometimes it just happens that people start picking up animals,” Dent said. “I think people always work trying to do their best. But there are many, many issues. People aren’t necessarily aware of them.”
Martínez founded Tierra Hermosa to address this need he saw in his community. Too many people have wild animals as pets without enough places to take them, he said.
Martínez, a former hunter, committed himself to protecting wildlife when he settled permanently in Sarapiquí in 1985. He uses lessons learned as a volunteer for the Red Cross to treat animals that come to the center.
“Rehabilitation is not a quick process,” Dent said. “It all depends on how the animal is doing when it’s confiscated.”
Baby birds are covered with wet wash clothes by traffickers to muffle their squawks. Baby monkeys are stolen after their mothers are shot, and family birds are fed diets of coffee and gallo pinto for years.
Animals that have lived with humans are especially difficult to rehabilitate, according to Dent. They can be mistreated in their homes and have an unnatural bond with humans.
“The most important part of the process is making animals afraid of humans, just to have the natural mistrust that animals come with,” she said.
Martínez addresses these issues with his menagerie of animals. He has kept up to10 at a time, which nears the maximum capacity for his facilities.
He sees firsthand the damage humans can cause to wild animals. There is a toucan in his care that was confiscated from a cage too small for movement. “This guy is having a hard time,” Martínez said. “He only takes short flights. Sometimes they get very stiff being kept in captivity because their muscles are not well formed.”
There is a baby capuchin monkey who craves human companionship. He is harassed through his cage by a dominant male monkey in the area, Martínez said.
“Everything is bad about that,” Martínez said. “When one person has a monkey, the next door neighbor wants one. It’s a good thing for poachers who catch wildlife and sell it. It’s a business.”
Many animals are turned in directly to the center by people who no longer want their pets. Baby animals that were once cuddly can grow up to bite children and threaten owners.
“Especially with monkeys, when they grow up a bit and they sexually develop, no one wants them,” Dent said. “They become dangerous and unreliable.”
The Humane Society is working with the government to convey these realities before people capture wild animals. They have released radio and billboard campaigns and work with local schoolchildren.
“I think the trend is getting better,” Dent said. “I do know there are lots of efforts in improving that. So I think there is a change in that sense.”
In the meantime, organizations like Tierra Hermosa are working with limited resources to give captured animals a second chance at a natural life. Martínez relies on donations from individuals and his own money to expand his facilities.
He is building a flying cage to allow the rehabilitation of more birds and is constructing guest quarters to raise revenue. Visitors can enjoy watching animals come back to life and perhaps spot a pair of Great Green Macaws in the distance, Martínez said.
“This place is full of life,” he said. “That is why I am so motivated.”