My time at the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Centre varied from good to bad. It made me consider why the volunteer industry is a bad one, and made me question whether I wanted to contribute to it. It was a huge learning lesson for me, and it taught me a thing or two of dealing with difficult situations.
To take it to the beginning, I’m going to go through it day by day. Explaining how things actually worked at the centre and my feelings throughout my 2 weeks there.
Day 1 (Monday): My first full day in Costa Rica – and it actually went ok! I started off the morning in a down mood but after a conversation to home, things started to look up a bit. Breakfast was served at 7:00am, then we had a morning meeting at 8:00am where people would volunteer for morning tasks (such as clean cages, babysit the sloths, food preparation). As it was my first day, I had my tour of the centre today (it’s funny, the girl who gave me the tour seems like she’s been here for ages but when I asked her it turns out this is only her 2nd week here…). It was good, I learnt quite a bit about the animals and their history. Some are such sad stories, such as one of the Spider Monkey’s here was kept captive in a pub being chained to the bar and fed alcohol to “entertain” the guests, another Sloth had been hit in the face with a machete cutting half it’s nose off. It’s tragic that animals are treated so poorly and some “humans” actually think it’s ok to treat them in such a way. After our tour, I was then informed that I was not allowed to touch any of the animals for 48 hours (the same for all new visitors) as it was important to take this time to learn about the animals behaviours so we know who to treat them properly. Considering I couldn’t touch any of the animals, one of the volunteers decided to show me how to clean Oscar’s (the goat) enclosure. Half way through cleaning, he came up to me and started nudging my broom with his head – it was so cute! Lunch was then served at 12:00pm, and then our afternoon meeting at 1:30pm where people would then volunteer for afternoon tasks (same as morning, with added tasks such as feeding the Sloths, Monkeys, Kinkajous, etc in the evening). To keep it simple, I just volunteered to clean out a few bird cages which was scary. I thought they were going to bite me but thank God they didn’t! Cleaning cages is quite a difficult job, I have blisters on my hands already! Although it was quite amusing as the Green Parrots kept saying ¡Hola! to me, they sound just like a person! – I think they were mocking me! After our chores were done, we then had a free afternoon in which I spent time talking to another new volunteer. It’s quite disorientating here, there are so many volunteers (about 40 or so), I was expecting a lot less. Maybe 20-25. I don’t like there being so many people here. Personally I feel there are too many but I don’t know. Maybe I’m just tired, I don’t know. I’m sure I’ll feel better in the morning.
Day 2 (Tuesday): Same routine as yesterday, I was woken up at 4am by screeching birds (why? why? why?), but resisted to getting up until 6am. Had breakfast at 7am, and morning meeting at 8am. I started off this morning volunteering just picking up branches for the food prep team (they use the sticks to put fruit on so the birds have to pick them off, supposedly this creates a more natural experience for them. Although, I don’t think you’d ever find a cut up piece of melon or banana on tree with the skin taken off.) and then I made a toy for the parrots which was actually quite nice as I finally got some alone time. Unfortunately all that time spent making the toy will go to waste as they’ll probably never play with it, when I went to put it in the cage they started coming at me trying to bite my head so I dropped the toy and ran (not literally, but I got the hell out of there very quickly – those birds can be vicious!). I feel like the management here to put it lightly is shit. They don’t tell you anything, just everything you can’t do. I literally have no idea how to complete any of the tasks, and no-one tells you how, therefore I don’t want to volunteer for anything. How is that safe on the animals if no-one tells you what to do? And going back to the toys, when I finished it I asked a person who was in charge (later found out, a volunteer temporarily in charge) what to do and they said to just put it in the cage. Shouldn’t someone be checking it’s safe? I have no idea, I have no experience. It makes me question how good this place really is. After lunch, I cleaned the Marmoset cages which everyone raves about. Me? I hated the entire experience. Apparently when you go in there, they all jump on top of you and basically use your body as a launchpad. When I went in there, I feared that the entire time. I didn’t want them going anywhere near my body, they run so quick and have such sharp claws. They’re cute from far away but scary when you’re locked in with them! I think I must be one of the first person ever to step in that cage and them not touch me. They must’ve sensed my fear. After that I was done for the day. One downside to lots of volunteers is the fact that jobs are sparse, and one task takes about an hour maximum. There’s a lot of down time here, and nothing in the surrounding areas to do. I just sat in the “Peace Garden” for a few hours by myself. God, I’m such a loner.
Day 3 (Wednesday): Once again, today has been a bit of a mix of emotions. I woke up feeling good, then after cleaning the birds cage out in the morning things went down hill. Those birds are crazy. I think they were hungry, they kept running around and flying towards me. It was awful. They even started pecking my tools! Eventually I just had to get out of there. So I just lazied around afterwards as that’s all there is to do, but then 10:30am came around and we were told to re-do morning chores to look “busy” as a film crew just came in to film the centre and the work volunteers do. Excuse me, but that is utter bull. I find that appalling personally. No way does that help the animals, it just falsifies the work the centre actually does. Putting aside my anger, after lunch I decided to try something nice and new and volunteered to clean the Sloths. Now this task I loved. You don’t do anything in the cages with them, but just being so close to them, knowing they’re not going to surprise you or do anything to you is such a lovely feeling. You’re just chilling with the Sloths. I wish I could do that all the time. And to make it even better a Mother Sloth and her baby were walking around the cage just above my head, centimetres away! It was amazing. Cleaning cages differs slightly depending on which animal your doing but it basically consists of scrubbing the poop off the floor, sweeping the floor, re-filling the water bowl and taking the empty food bowl to the food prep team so they can be fed in the afternoon. Very quick and simple work. I’m starting to learn to just be slow in pace and relax. There’s no time limit on the work you have to do, and the longer you take to do something reality is the better it’s done and the less free time you have (as I’m talking about hours. If you finish your afternoon chores quickly you’re probably done by 3pm the latest and have that whole afternoon and evening to yourself to do literally nothing). My afternoon wasn’t too bad today though as a couple of girls had to take the baby sloths out of their cages as repair work was being done on the cage next to them so sparks were flying everywhere. I just sat for hours with them watching. They were so cute crawling on branches and sunbathing. I could watch them forever! I didn’t hold one, but I touched one. Their fur feels so funny, it’s so much coarser then I expected!
Day 4 (Thursday): I think I’m adjusting a bit more here. I’m still not keen though, something at the back of my mind makes me wonder how good a place this actually is. The animals are in small cages, the management here is non-existent, the training of volunteers is almost non-existent. So far it’s just volunteers helping volunteers. But when the first volunteer has only been here 2 weeks how much knowledge do they actually have? It’s probably getting misunderstood somewhere down the line. Despite me feelings, I try to do the best I can under the circumstances. I came here to work, so I work. I volunteered to clean Sloth cages again, and picked up branches for food prep again after. Then this afternoon I cleaned the bird cages, and raked the garden. After that I just wandered around the centre and played with the tamarins (they were in the cage, but I was out!). It was so cute as one just kept sticking its hand out and kept holding onto my finger (I think it was just trying to get my phone, but I’m going to pretend that it was actually out of affection). In the evening, around 20 of us decided to go out to dinner and eat pizza. I was so excited but now I think I’m cursed with pizza. I ordered a medium vegetable pizza, but it never came. They kept calling a small one out, but I know I definitely got a medium. After a while they offered me the small one as they “forgot my order” and said I can have it for free. So I ate it, and at the end I was stuffed. Then 10 minutes after I finished, they brought my original order out! They never told me they were going to bring me it! Who can eat 2 whole pizzas on their own! Not as bad as my avocado pizza disaster but it was such an unexpected thing and now I have a whole medium pizza to spare, that I didn’t really want. I suppose worse things have happened!
Day 5 (Friday): My busiest and best day so far! In the morning, I volunteered to clean the Howler Monkey cages for the first time. I did two cages, the first one had Howlers in who didn’t care about me at all but the second one. The second one was a whole other story. I think they were very curious about me! One of the Howlers called Catherine jumped on my head the second I walked into the cage and wouldn’t get off my head, she even had her tail wrapped around my throat. I don’t know about you but I’ve never had a monkey on my head before, but it was the strangest thing! They’re actually quite heavy! I didn’t like it at all whilst it was happening, but now I just wanted to go back in there so she can jump on my head again! After the monkeys, I cleaned Oscars enclosure again and the peacocks. I got to play with Oscar for quite a bit which was fun. After that, one of the volunteers who had been my godsend during this experience (my teacher, my mentor, my friend, one of the nicest people at this centre when a lot of people seemed horrible and unfriendly) showed my how to create lollypops for the Capuchins, Spider Monkeys and Oscar to cool them down in this heat. Man Capuchins love lollypops! They were so simply created, just out of vegetable and fruit juice left over from the food preparation team and added with water.
After lunch a couple of volunteers and I decided to go to a local waterfall. Despite the 15 minute hike all the way down in the beginning and all the way up hill again in the end it was beautiful. We went to the bottom of the waterfall so you had to walk through the streams and deeper parts until you get to the main section. It was bloody brilliant but absolutely freezing cold. Icily cold. And the water hurt like a bitch when you went under the falling water section, it was quite ferocious! But it was such a laugh. Today was a good day. A real good day.
Day 6 (Saturday): I cleaned out Turbo the Emu’s enclosure today. I hoped to see him have his famous mud bath but alas he didn’t treat me to it. Cleaning his enclosure wasn’t too bad, you could just get on with the work away from everyone. It was quiet work. It was nice, and he pretty much left you alone too. After I was done, I found one of the volunteers called Jackie, who had been another saviour of mine, babysitting Feluco the baby Howler monkey. “Babysitting” basically consists of sitting with the animal, outside of it’s cage and just watch them playing. So I sat with her, and watched him walk around. He’s just the sweetest thing ever! He has to be watched as he’s a very vulnerable monkey, he’s very weak having fallen off a tree when he was young breaking his leg, and even more disastrously apparently a few years ago when he was a baby, a volunteer fed him with a bottle too big for him, causing an air bubble to be created inside his lungs making it difficult for him to breathe (Again, this highlights for me the bad side to volunteering, and the lack of supervision and knowledge given to the volunteers). It’s quite sad to see, but he’s looked after very well by the centre, maybe a bit too well… He’s literally treated like a baby. He can’t ever be released, and has become far too dependent on human attention, but I suppose if you’re never going to live in the wild why shouldn’t he have human interaction if he wants it? For the afternoon chores, I cleaned the Sloth cages once more, but half way through Marielos (the owner of the Rescue Centre, her husband Bernal also owns it too) came and noticed that construction work was being done on one of the cages next to the babies cage, so another volunteer and I had to move the three babies. So I finally got to hold a Sloth! And for a good cause too! It was literally the best experience ever, they cling on to you so tight, he didn’t want to let me go! It was so cute, I can’t even! We then had to watch them for awhile until the construction work was done. They mostly slept, to be honest. I suppose it was their night time.
Day 7 (Sunday): Morning chores consisted of cleaning Turbo’s enclosure once more. And once more, he didn’t have hid mud bath for me. This morning wasn’t too eventful, I just “jungle bathed”. My twist on sun bathing, but evidently I am in the jungle. It was nice. I just listened to music and had some time on my own. It’s so hard here, there’s so many volunteers, everywhere you go there’s someone. Everything’s communal here, so you’ve got to find somewhere not many people go. For me, that was always the “Peace Garden”. After lunch, I cleaned some Sloth cages once more, then “babysat” Feluco with another girl. He was too cute! We took him down to the other Howler cages, as he seemed to enjoy interacting with them from outside the cage. They were play fighting and licking each others faces! It was during this point that I actually saw Turbo have a mud bath for the first time! It was as good as everyone said, he looked so cute ruffling all his feathers and dipping into the mud! At 5pm, I was meant to feed the sloths but Sarita (the volunteer co-ordinator who had been on holiday until yesterday) wanted us to all go see the new land they had brought. In the morning meeting, she gave us a big talk. Basically the poor management last week was down to the fact that she is the only management here (apart from Marielos and Bernal who only come to the centre every evening) but she was on annual leave for 2 weeks, so she had left some long term volunteers in charge. A lot of shit went down whilst she was away such as them being very unfriendly towards new volunteers (i.e. me and everyone else who had arrived during their time in “charge”) and drinking at night (this was against the rules), plus more. She apologised for everything, and told us the history behind the centre. Everything was starting to make sense. Turns of the centre had only moved to San Miguel, Alajuela (where they’re currently located now) as they were forced to move from Límon last year as the government wanted to build a port. Marielos, Bernal and Sarita had to move all the animals across country all on their own to this centre and unfortunately several of them died on the way due to stress. It was very sad to hear. They’re only in this place temporarily as they’ve been trying to find a new centre. But today was the day, it had finally been confirmed. Through all their volunteer fees and donations they had finally been able to afford a new Rescue Centre. Close by, but it would finally be their own instead of the rented place they have now. So Sarita wanted us all to visit the new land. So we did. It was beautiful. It was large, it was spacious, it was lush with greenery. Hundreds of fruit trees, and a river too. 4 acres of land, all to them. It was brilliant to see, and finally made me feel like maybe this place wasn’t too bad. They know they have problems. But they care, and they’re trying to make things better. I can’t fault them on their passion, that clearly shines through. It’s admirable. Once we got back, I fed the Kinkajous at 7pm with Dana. Kinkajous are also known as honey bears (they smell like honey, supposedly – they just smell sweet to me- and they love to eat it!) They’re so cute! Daniel jumped on my head and just ate the food from my hand, he kept dropping it on me, cheeky bugger! I love the Kinkajous, they are seriously so adorable. He kept burrowing his head in my hair bun! Afterwards I fed Itchy, the Olingo. She also crawled on me which I’ve never seen her do before. I think these animals take a great liking to me!
Catch my second week in Costa Rica at the Animal Rescue Centre here! – Slothin’ around in Costa Rica (Part 2)