“Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall they be saved.”
-Dr. Jane Goodall-
‘When faced with the question, “What is your dream?”, ‘Littlest B’ replied, “I want to volunteer with the sloths.”
After landing in San Jose, Costa Rica, we wound our way towards Manuel Antonio on the western coast, a place famous for sloths and monkeys, coveted for its national park with a crescent shaped beach, and home to a renowned animal sanctuary that started this dream adventure. As we meandered along the curves of lush mountains and open ocean, beneath towering rainforest canopies and over a bridge known for its massive crocodiles, we could hardly speak, our senses tuned into the magic whispers of the country sprawling before us. Eventually turning off the highway, we followed a dirt road lined by massive African Palms, perfect rows revealing telltale changes of landscape and history. As rain beat rhythmically on the window, giant palm fronds began to close over, enveloping us in a tunnel fit for a fairytale, a spontaneous river making a home across our path. The evening was bearing down, but we knew we were close. Our family was on alert for signs of the exotic, nocturnal life we were anxious to witness, knowing that in just moments, we would be pulling into the gates of one of the most extraordinarily unique places we have ever been.
Kids Saving the Rainforest also began with the dreams of little girls. In 1999, nine year olds, Janine and Aislin, had a deep desire to make a difference in saving such a precious corner of the world. Today, Kids Saving the Rainforest is a well established, non-profit sanctuary that takes in approximately 200 animals per year, with the mission of releasing as many as possible back into the wild. Many of the animals and birds that arrive are recovered from homes where they were kept illegally. It is against the law to keep wildlife as pets in Costa Rica, and the law is recently being heavily enforced. Others are found abandoned, sick or injured. A few have simply found their own way to the sanctuary in desperate search of care and affection. Dogs are not normally taken in by KSTR, but fate has directed them to the love and medical help they need. We had the good fortune of witnessing two beautiful, furry faces find their forever families with long term volunteers who were returning home. We watched as each day these sweet souls regained their strength, and despite the wounds on the outside, the love and affection within never wavered.
AN ETHICALLY SAFE HAVEN
When volunteering with any animals, travelers should ensure ethical practice, one with the needs and safety of the animals at the forefront. Kids Saving the Rainforest is one of those places. What sets them apart? Animals here are only ever received, NEVER collected for the purpose of display, and there is a strict zero breeding policy. The sanctuary also has incredible relationships with other ethical rescue centers, working together to find the most suitable habitats and situation for each animal. The rehabilitation and protection of the animals with the ability to be re-introduced into the wild is the number one priority, and these animals are not viewed by the public. This includes those animals and birds in the nursery, medical care facility and soft release areas.
The sanctuary also has extremely well cared for permanent residents that are able to be viewed as part of the tour. What needs to be noted is that these animals are in enclosures that serve a purpose of safety and protection. The unfortunate reality is that for various reasons, these long term tenants are unable to be released back into their natural habitats. ‘Bouche’, the Scarlet Macaw, has had multiple surgeries to correct a severely malformed beak. Nina, the quiet spider monkey who served decades in a circus, suffered circumstances that caused the loss of her arm. The porcupine came in dabietic after a diet of homemade cakes, and Sophia, the egg loving coatimundi, is blind. Every animal here has a personality as unique as their story, but each story has a happy ending with KSTR and the volunteers and staff who love them. In fact, watching the relationship between the resident care manager Oseas, and the animals, was a display of palpable respect and affection that completely reached my core.
Special projects in the area have been introduced by KSTR. The Monkey Bridge Program, blue ropes crossing busy roadways in Manuel Antonio, has been highly successful. These bridges help protect 12 species of wildlife, and can be erected for a donation of $100. The bridges have seen the local Titi Monkey population rise from 1200 to 3700! In fact, the sanctuary has a wild troop that hang around, curious little individuals who will happily scoop up handfuls from unguarded buckets.
KSTR VOLUNTEER OPTIONS:
One of the greatest aspects of KSTR are the numerous options for visiting:
Tours: Guests can attend morning tours from 9-12pm (closed on Tuesday). Led by a full time volunteer staff, this experience takes you through the main areas of the sanctuary where you will have a chance to view the long term residents. Tours also include a drink and snack, as well as the option to swim in the pool prior to departing.
** Tours are limited to specific days and times. Group numbers are limited and all proceeds go back into providing care. At no time are the general public allowed to touch or feed the animals.
Day Volunteers: This is an exceptional program, offering hands on work. Day volunteering runs from 9 am – 4 pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and includes lunch and the tour.
Long Term Volunteering: For those wishing to experience volunteering for 14+ days. The work week consists of approx 48 hrs/wk. Accommodations are provided in a volunteer center. Minimum age requirement is 18.
Interns: Stays of 3 months or longer. (Suitable for gap-year students, undergraduates or recent graduates who wish to gain more experience in wildlife management and conservation)
STAYING ON SITE:
Volunteers at Kids Saving the Rainforest have the option of staying off site and traveling by car rental or taxi to the sanctuary, approximately 10 minutes from Quepos. We had the opportunity to stay at the beautiful Blue Banyan Inn, comprised of three deluxe cottages on the grounds of KSTR. We enjoyed A/C, WiFi, comfortable beds, a gorgeous rock shower, peace and quiet from the balcony and plenty of down time by the pool. With views of the mountains and surrounded by nature, this cottage is serenity in its purest form.
OUR DAY VOLUNTEERING EXPERIENCE:
Because we were guests of the Blue Banyan Inn, our mornings began in the open air dining area with a beautiful breakfast of made to order eggs, fresh fruit and the most incredible banana pancakes. We enjoyed conversations and connection with other volunteers, as well as the owners, Chip and Jennifer, over hot coffee and a passion for animals. In volunteering, our day also included lunch in which we enjoyed typical Costa Rican dishes such as beans and rice, as well as items such a spaghetti and salads.
FOOD PREPARATION and DELIVERY:
The first item on the volunteer agenda was food preparation. This task is performed twice daily, and provides you with an appreciation of just how much effort, and quantity of supplies, goes into caring for the animals of a sanctuary. A variety of fruits and vegetables were cut into varying sizes, depending on which animals the bucket was designated for.
We then were a part of delivering the food to the animals and birds. The kids were active in putting food into the containers. Note that even the full time staff do NOT enter the cages at the same time as many of the animals. The day is done with safety as the first and foremost important part, both for volunteers, as well as the animals.
GETTING OUR HANDS DIRTY:
I never dreamed our family could be so excited to clean! We had the privilege of shining up the habitat of Izzie and Wendy, the resident two-toed sloths. We scrubbed branches, shelves and floors from top to bottom, and changed out their much loved hammock for a fresh one. To be up close with these amazing creatures was such a fortunate experience!
Part of the daily activity of the sanctuary is gathering necessary enrichment items from the grounds, and helping to keep each habitat updated. These tasks ranged from picking fruit and making toys to challenge the food finding skills of the animals, to help in locating a termite nest for the baby ant eaters, who happily demolished it in record time! We gathered fresh branches and leaves to keep the enclosures natural and up to date, and even went spider catching, a treat akin to chocolate for the white faced capuchins and marmosets! Each activity brought a sense of fulfillment, knowing that these small acts would help in making a big difference in the daily life of the sanctuary animals.
Volunteering with Kids Saving the Rainforest was one of the most unique and rewarding opportunities our family has had the privilege of experiencing. We live a fortunate life, and it was very important as parents to get our kids involved in giving back without expectation. As a family we worked in the heat, got our hands dirty, challenged a few fears and enhanced our knowledge on ethical animal treatment and care. It was an authentic experience that not only connected us as a family, but enriched our lives and broadened our views of the world. I will forever cherish the moments, the feelings and the friendships that came along with our short time there. We truly hope to return as a family, and Miss Teenage B already has plans for longer term work in her future.
To Chip and Jennifer; you are simply incredible human beings who are making a difference. Your active roles and your dedication are inspirational.
To the staff who worked with us; you are some of the most selfless, kind, hard working people we’ve ever met. You took us under your wings, going above and beyond to give this family a chance to realize a dream, and to have a glimpse into the amazing work you do. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts for allowing us to be a small part of a much larger picture.