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Costa Rica: Proyecto Asis

by Kathy 13. May 2013 16:20

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Proyecto Asis Wildlife Rescue Center

While in the Arenal area, we headed to the Proyecto Asis wildlife rescue center to learn more about Costa Rican animals and the hazards they face in their natural habitats.

The rescue center is located on the edge of a rainforest, with 8 acres devoted to caring for animals in both enclosures and a natural environment.  

We had signed up for the Volunteer half-day tour, and we were the only guests this morning.

Sebastian, Ben, and Genevieve, waiting for the tour to begin:

JoAnn and David:

Our fabulous guide was Carlos:

The first part of our tour involved learning the stories of the various animals who are being cared for at the center.

The first animal was Perla, a white-lipped peccary:

Perla came to the rescue center 4 years ago as a baby, after someone killed her mother. Peccaries need a big pack to survive in nature, and are generally very aggressive. Perla cannot be released into the wild because she does not have a pack to protect her and would be killed by other peccaries. She likes people too, which is unusual.

Perla was Genevieve’s favorite animal here:

The above petting occurred BEFORE Carlos demonstrated how a musk gland on Perla’s back emits a VERY STINKY liquid that peccaries use to mark their territory in nature. The smell . . . oh, the smell. No more petting of Perla after that.

Next to Perla’s pen were two other peccaries, Pancho and Lupe, who came to the rescue center after a failed attempt by some residents to raise the two as pets.


Pancho and Lupe had not wanted to be domesticated and they had continually displayed aggressive behavior, so their owners brought them here. They cannot be released into the wild because they do not have a pack and, as with Perla, would most likely be killed by other peccaries if they tried to integrate.

Lupe and Pancho do not have any babies. Female peccaries instinctively need a natural habitat to breed, and they generally will not mate with males unless they are in the wild. This, of course, leads to a decrease in population when more and more people try to keep them as pets.

The next animal enclosure held a White-Nosed Coati, similar to those that have been visiting our hotel room on a regular basis. Coatis are from the same family as raccoons and are great tree climbers. This one was found in alone in nature when it was a baby; it is now 6 months old and will be released into a protected rainforest in 4 more months:

Then came the animal that captured my heart—Yessica, a spider monkey who came here after being a tourist area pet:

Spider monkeys do not have thumbs, only 4 fingers:

They eat fruits and leaves, not bugs, so they don’t need a thumb for picking up tiny objects. Their tails, however, are very strong and used as a third limb.

Yessica liked to hold hands and also wrap her tail around your hand for extra affection.

Yessica seemed to love Carlos, but she was not crazy about either Sebastian or Ben. She even refused to look at Ben. However, with JoAnn and me, she gave us her two hands plus her tail to hold, and she looked at us directly in the eyes for a long, long time. I felt a definite connection with her, and so did JoAnn.

Here is Yessica with JoAnn:

Carlos explained that spider monkeys only have one baby every 3 or 4 years, and that they carry their babies on their backs for 1 year. People like to keep spider monkeys as pets, so they will often kill the parents to get the baby.

The spider monkeys at Proyecto Asis will not be released into the wild because they have been around people and have learned that food comes from people’s hands. It would therefore be unsafe for them on their own because they would always continue to seek out food from people.

It was hard to tear myself away from Yessica.

Continuing on, however, Carlos brought out a 6-month old boa constrictor, Bécquer:

The baby boa has been here for a few months and will be released back into the wild when it is about 2 years old.

Boa constrictors are not poisonous, although they can become aggressive when shedding their skin. Of the approximately 140 kinds of snakes in Costa Rica, only about 15 are poisonous. The nonpoisonous ones generally have small heads and brown eyes, not yellow or green eyes. (But I don’t think I’m going to be getting close enough to a strange snake to check out its eyes to see if it’s poisonous!)

We all got a chance to hold Bécquer if we wanted.




Even JoAnn took a turn!

Next came a baby Grison, a carnivorous animal related to ferrets and weasels.

Carlos said that Grisons are in danger of extinction and that this one, named Sammy, was only 5 months old and would be released back into the wild in another 2 years:

Sammy was standing on the edge of the table, with no cage separating him from us, and I was feeling uneasy . . . half-expecting him to launch himself at us.

I was relieved to move on down to the next set of animals, two baby White-Faced Capuchins that did not yet have names. One was only 1 month old and had been found last month next to a river. The other was slightly older and had been found close to a nearby town.

They would not be released back into the wild. Carlos explained that capuchin monkeys live in groups, with one alpha male and about 30 females. The alpha male is often very jealous of the babies and can kill them. The females are allowed to carry male babies for about 5 months, and then the male baby has to leave the group.

The one held by Genevieve immediately made a beeline for her hair:

He did the same thing with me. JoAnn, however, got the snuggler:

Proyecto Asis also had a number of birds, many confiscated by rangers from people who like to have them as pets. The first were some Scarlet Macaws, which have been here for about a year and will be released soon into the natural 5 acres at the back of this property.

Scarlet Macaws are in danger of extinction because of the pet industry; they can fetch about $5000 apiece in the United States.

Another bird that people like to keep as a pet is the Great Curassow, which is not endangered but still illegal to take from the wild. The males have a curly crest on their heads:

Carlos then took us inside the enclosure of a nocturnal, rainforest animal that is rarely seen by humans—a Kinkajou.

I peeked into his house and took a photo of him sleeping:

His name was “Benjamin” and he had been found as a baby when he had apparently fallen out of a tree but not retrieved by his mother. He was now 6 years old and would be released soon into a protected rainforest.

Moving on down to the last set of enclosures, we found more monkeys. First, there was a small group of White-Faced Capuchins, which are very smart and also have a thumb that allows them to pick up ants and bugs to eat. This one was 1 year old:

Across the walkway were 2 more Spider Monkeys, including 4-year old Coco:

We circled back through the property and passed by a small lake, where we were fortunate enough to see a Boat-Billed Heron:

The herons come here on their own because there are fish in the lake. They are nocturnal and generally sleep during the day.

A raised, covered platform serves as a classroom for individuals or families who want to come here and stay 1 or 2 weeks with a local family, learning Spanish at Proyecto Asis, and volunteering with the animals.

Carlos pointed out a cacao tree but explained that Costa Rica does not produce chocolate:

The reason is a pervasive parasite that grows a black fungus and kills the cacao fruit. The parasite was brought here about 40 years ago by people who were trying to prevent the spread of the parasite. They were cutting leaves off of cacao trees, searching for the parasite; but what these well-intentioned people did not realize was that their scissors had the parasite on them, so cutting the leaves actually infected the plants by placing the parasite directly into the stems.

Next, Carlos walked over to a tree and showed us a line of termites. He swiped some onto his hand and told us that these were edible insects.

Sebastian and I sampled them—they tasted like wood!

Before continuing on, Carlos offered us refreshments, and I learned a new way to make coffee. This method is called “Sleeping Coffee”: you take a cup of hot water and stir in 2 spoons of ground coffee; then you mix it for 1 minute and pour it through a small hanging bag:

After our break, we walked a short distance to meet a set of Keel-Billed Toucans:

The two birds were kept as someone’s pets and will soon be released from the rescue center into the wild. Their colorful beaks were fascinating.

Then Carlos brought out a creature that had us all ooh-ing and ahh-ing:  a 2-toed baby sloth, sprawled out on a pillow.

The baby was about 2 months old, and its mother had been killed by a dog. The rescue center plans to release the baby sloth in about 4 months.

We were allowed to touch its fur gently:

Now that we had met all the animals, it was time to put us to work! We were on the “volunteer” tour, after all, so now was our chance to help out. The tour description had mentioned that part of our job could be cleaning cages (which would have been fine with me). However, we were really happy that the task involved helping with the things that go into the animal (the food), as opposed to the things that come out! Carlos put Genevieve and Sebastian to work making balls from corn, flour, and seeds.

Here is Carlos, giving instructions:

Sebastian, mixing the ingredients:

Making the balls:

Ben and I were put to work slicing up chunks of yuca, the root of the cassava plant (not to be confused with yucca).

Then we made the feeding rounds, supplementing our ítems with fresh fruit:

The toucans ate banana slices:

Perla received some yuca chunks:

She sniffed them and then came over to look at me, as if to ask, “D’ya have anything better?”

We fed papaya slices and whole bananas to the coatis:

Yessica and her mate, Hercules, received the same meal:

The baby capuchins had bananas:

This majestic lizard posed nearby—hopefully not becoming a meal for Sammy (who got a scoop of dog food) or the baby boa:

We fed the birds our grain-balls:

And even Benjamin, the sleeping Kinkajou, woke up for his meal!

He emerged from his house to get a banana slice offered by Sebastian:

He would take the morsel and then eat it in an upside down position inside his house:

Then he would emerge for another bite (this time from Genevieve’s hand):

He also received some papaya, which was perhaps too juicy to eat upside down:

We were careful to follow all the safety instructions provided by Carlos (e.g., hold the food in your palm with your hand flat, and keep perfectly still); for the most part, everything went smoothly.

However, the fact that these are indeed WILD animals, with the potential to cause serious harm, was hit home when I was feeding Coco, the spider monkey.

I was handing a piece of papaya to Coco, and it slipped out of his hand before he could pull it into his enclosure. I reached down to pick it up so that I could give it back to him, and Coco did what wild animals do—he saw what looked like someone else getting HIS food, and he went into aggression mode. While I was bent down, Coco reached through the bars with both of his long arms, grabbed my head and my hair along my scalp, and started pulling violently. It was over very quickly, as Carlos immediately intervened, and Coco released me. In just those few seconds, however, I had felt the powerful strength in that “sweet little monkey’s” grip.

It was a HUGE wake-up call, and a big lesson in letting one’s guard down, as well as in never ever getting in between a wild animal and his/her food.

Even with Coco, we really enjoyed our experience at Proyecto Asis. The group is doing a great job of caring for the animals and releasing them back into the wild when appropriate. A big “thank you” goes to Carlos and the others at the rescue center for introducing us to the animals and allowing us to assist with the feeding.

Afterwards, we were ready for some food of our own. We were looking for a local restaurant that served “casado,” which is typical Costa Rican food. Carlos recommended a place just down the road, where we consumed heaping plates of tender chicken, black beans, rice, egg, plantains, and potatoes. The food was superb.

Waiting for our platters to arrive:

The restaurant was named “Happy Land.”

Given our experience of Costa Rica so far, we would have to agree. Happy land indeed. And happy visitors.



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Places We’ve Been, w/Quick Links

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   Hanging Bridges
   Manuel Antonio
   Poas Volcano
   Proyecto Asis
   Sky Trek Zip Lining
   Venado Caves


   Amazon Rainforest
   Chaquiñan Bicycle Trail
   La Mitad del Mundo
   Napo Wildlife Center
   Papallacta Hot Springs
   Proyecto DCR
   Yasuní National Park


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