Tellus: (tel’us), n. 1. [Latin] earth, soil, and the land; a country; the world. 2. a collection of Willamette University student’s insights, stories, photos and thoughts from their experiences studying abroad.

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Changing expectations

When I chose to study abroad in Costa Rica, I was expecting to be welcomed into a “green” country, a country dedicated to conservation efforts with progressive laws and a functional government. I had heard about Costa Rica eliminating a standing army, having a woman president, having incredible environmental protection laws, and eradicating all zoos. On paper, Costa Rica looked like the perfect place to be, so perfect, in fact, that I hoped to live there after graduate school (spurred by my love for sloths and desire to become a sloth ecologist). When I arrived, however, things were not as I had imagined they would be. I imagined pristine nature and people who cared about the environment and reducing their carbon footprint. What I found was nearly entirely the opposite.

My first week in Costa Rica, I was astounded by the overwhelming amount of trash that seemed to be everywhere I looked. Because I was living in a large city and houses do not have trash cans for roadside waste pickup, trash was piled on the sidewalks and streets, usually in bags. But because of the large populations of stray dogs and feral cats, the bags would be ripped open and trash strewn everywhere as the animals searched for food scraps. Rivers were full of trash and they reeked of decay. Pedestrians would throw there trash in gutters knowing there would be no personal consequence.

I volunteered at a tourist attraction called La Paz Waterfall Gardens, an ecological destination and wildlife preserve. I was ecstatic to start volunteering there. I was told the animals had all been illegally held as pets and had been confiscated by the government. They were given a new home at La Paz where tourists could learn about the biodiversity of Costa Rica and how to protect species from extinction. I was in charge of the toucan exhibit, and each day I’d help tourists take pictures with a toucan on the arm, an unforgettable experience that served to educate and encourage people to become more connected with nature and wildlife. I quickly learned, however, that many of the animals in our care at La Paz were not pets after all. They were wild animals taken from the rainforest, in the toucans case as chicks, and raised in order to be friendly and gregarious for the tourists. I was taken behind the scenes and I saw how animals not visible to the public were kept in deplorable conditions. Additionally, animals were allowed to breed at La Paz, causing another problem since the progeny could not be released back to the wild and the only available space for more animals was in small cages with cement floors and no natural light.

This trend seemed to continue to make itself apparent as  I explored the country. As a sloth lover, I was very excited to visit the Sloth Sanctuary, made famous by the Animal Planet show “Meet the Sloths”. I had high hopes that perhaps I could do my graduate research there. When I arrived, however, I noticed something fishy. The sloths were kept yet again in small enclosures without real trees and were eating an artificial diet of frozen vegetables. In the wild, sloths eat leaves of over 200 species of trees, not frozen vegetables. I was still very excited to see the sloths though and left feeling both happy that I had seen them and a little uneasy about the questionable conditions the sloths were kept in. The following week, two veterinarians who had volunteered at the sanctuary bravely came out with a testimony of their work. They revealed that the sanctuary, who claims to release sloths back into the wild and aid in sloth conservation, actually hoards sloths and keeps them in horrifying conditions behind the scenes. The sanctuary has over 200 sloths kept in tiny cages with no access to the natural world or their natural diet. Sloths are solitary animals, but they are often held in cages together at the sanctuary and will fight, seriously injuring each other with their sharp claws. Sloths do not receive the medical attention they need due to a lack of staff able to treat them and when a healthy sloth escaped multiple times back into the rain forest, it was captured and put back in its jail cell of a cage.

As you can probably tell, I was pretty discouraged and disheartened. I had come to Costa Rica to be inspired by their environmental actions, but found that laws were not enforced and citizens were not internalizing the fight to lessen their negative impact on the planet. Costa Rica is marketed as a “green” country to the rest of the world to bring in tourist revenue, and it is true that they have a lot of beautiful national parks and pristine beaches. And because these are the places tourists visit, not the cities or behind the scenes at wildlife sanctuaries, they continue believing that Costa Rica is an immaculate, environmentally friendly country. I, however, was able to see in my time abroad both sides of Costa Rica, the beautiful and the ugly. While it may seem like I am placing the blame on the Costa Ricans, I want to point out that much of the blame lies on us, the Americans, and other foreigners. Both La Paz and the Sloth Sanctuary were started and run by foreigners with the goal of making a profit, exploiting wildlife in the process. If they really wanted to help the animals as they claim, they would not be open to the tourists. Often without knowing about the issues of such refuges and sanctuaries, tourists contribute to the problem. Additionally, tourists visit large hotels and resorts that seclude them from the local Costa Ricans. These resorts cause an unprecedented amount of environmental harm, often disregard environmental laws, and make it difficult for locals who own environmentally friendly eco-lodges to stay afloat. It can also be argued that because Costa Rica is not as developed as the United States, the citizens have more critical things to worry about than protecting the environment. But what can be more critical than preserving the dwindling natural resources and biodiversity upon which our entire race relies?

It may seem like I had a terrible time while studying abroad in Costa Rica, but I am so glad that I saw the full picture of the country. I saw the good and the bad and learned from the locals their challenges and frustrations. One coworker at La Paz, an animal lover and environmentalist fed up with the animal exploitation he saw at work every day, asked me to go to the police to report the terrible conditions and illegal practices of taking wild animals and putting them in captivity. He was too scared to do it himself because he though he would lose his job, which he desperately needed to take care of his sick mother. Without having any evidence and knowing how the officials did not enforce laws, I didn’t take it to the police, but I got a professor and friend involved who is a well known animal rights activist in Costa Rica. I try to do my part through education and the experience has motivated me to return to Costa Rica to aid in animal welfare and conservation efforts as a mammal ecology researcher.

Below is a picture of me with a white-faced capuchin monkey at La Paz Waterfall Gardens. While I may look happy in this picture, I soon became upset, realizing that this animal has lived in a cage behind the scenes at La Paz his entire life. He deserves to live a happy life in the rain forest, but instead is trapped in a cage, unable to be released because of his friendliness and reliance and on humans.


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