Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary in Costa Rica

As a family with small children it was impossible logistically to be in less-visited areas of the rain and cloud forest in the early hours of the day when we would be most likely to see wild animals in their natural habitat. Other than the night walk during which we saw a sloth and several other nocturnal creatures, we had seen only a few native animals for which the region is famous; a handful of colorful birds, green iguanas, capuchin monkeys and the geckos which seemed to live on the walls (interior and exterior) of our villa. Part of the allure of staying at Villas Alturas was the Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary, located within a stone’s throw of the resort, where we hoped to meet a few of the animals native to the region that we had not yet seen.

With our stay on the southern coast coming to an end we were excited to tour the sanctuary with its Director of Operations, Mike Graeber. With over 40 years of experience rescuing and rehabilitating animals, Mike moved to Costa Rica in 2000 and founded D.A.W.G. - Domestic Animal Welfare Group. After 8 years he stepped down from his leadership role there and returned to working with rescued wild animals. Soon Mike was locally known as someone to take abandoned baby animals or injured creatures to, and in 2011 the opportunity arose to develop and manage Osa Mountain Animal Sanctuary, a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center. With animals in the region under constant assault from hunters, poachers, loggers, domestication and the illegal pet trade, the needs of the sanctuary outgrew the facilities, and near the end of 2014 Mike and his menagerie made Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary their new home.

The Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary is a facility that receives animals confiscated by the government of Costa Rica, and also abandoned or orphaned/injured baby and adult animals. Not just a sanctuary for those animals that will never be able to be released back into the jungle, Alturas also serves to rescue, rehabilitate and release as many animals as possible back to their natural habitat. The sanctuary is currently home to over 40 animals that have made it their permanent home, and although the type and number of animals at the sanctuary is constantly fluctuating, there are habitats for over 75 animals. An important goal of the sanctuary is also to educate, and a Learning Center allows large school groups to visit by providing a space for presentations and lectures.

As we met each animal we learned how it came to be at the sanctuary, and some particularly horrifying stories stayed with me: the scarlet macaw who had each and every tail feather cruelly pulled out, or the monkeys that had been found staked in backyards with only a few feet of chain, others found partially electrified by power lines and far too many permanently scarred and unable to return to the jungle. Luckily there were many success stories as well, of animals that healed and were released.

Lauris got a little too close to a friendly little capuchin who deftly removed the cell phone straight out of his pocket (a play cell phone, quite realistic looking though!) and proceeded to escape to the higher reaches of his enclosure. Mike gave chase, eventually retrieving the toy once it was dropped – I wasn’t sure we wanted it back… Turns out Lauris wasn’t the first victim, as a few weeks back a visitor lost $50 to the thieving primate.

I was especially pleased to make the acquaintance of a prehensile-tailed porcupine. A nocturnal animal, it is named for the bare tail which can be used as a fifth limb for grasping and balance. These guys are adept climbers, spending most of their lives in trees feeding on leaves, shoots, fruits, bark, roots, and buds. Unless angered, the quills lay rather flat, and I didn’t feel their sharpness at all during our visit – it was more of a tickle.

A tour of the Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary is a great way to see Costa Rica’s animals up close, learn about them and support a good cause all in one. The boys happily chatted about the various things they had learned (and about the monkey’s little misdeeds) during their afternoon swim in the pool, and I gained valuable insight into the realities of the fragile balance of wildlife tourism vs. protection in a tourist hotspot that remains a developing nation. I wish the sanctuary success in their new home, and thank you for introducing us to so many of Costa Rica’s animals! Now if only I knew what creatures we had yet to meet on this trip…


  1. That's a great story Lauris will be able to tell for years to come!

    1. I was embarrassed as the guide just finished telling us to beware! Of course I never imagined Lauris had something in his pocket... Luckily it was just a toy, it would have been horrible if the monkey had been hurt by the screen shattering or a battery!


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