Interview with Dr. Carmen Soto, exotic animal veterinarian at wildlife sanctuary Kids Saving the Rainforest in Costa Rica. By: Siobhan Speiran
A mere twenty minutes’ drive from Quepos– fifteen of which are spent “off-roading” through a palm tree plantation, your taxi deftly careening around potholes and trundling over bumps past plantation workers biking home with five-metre-long harvesting sickles on their shoulders– arrives you at the Blue Banyan Inn, where those wishing to visit or work at Kids Saving the Rainforest (KSTR) spend their days and nights. KSTR is a non-profit sanctuary which hosts nearly fifty animals including five species of monkeys indigenous to the area (Spider, Squirrel, Capuchin, Tamarin and Marmoset monkeys), sloths, coatis, kinkajous, and diverse bird species—to name a few! KSTR was founded in 1999 by two nine-year old girls named Janine and Aislin, the children of American expats, who were devastated by the rampant deforestation in Costa Rica at the time and started selling handicrafts to raise money to purchase and plant trees.
One day the girls were brought a young sloth by a local, who they rehabilitated and released into the wild. At the time there was no sanctuary in Manuel Antonio, and once word got out about the successful release, more wild animals in need of care were brought to the girls and the sanctuary began. Janine’s mother Jennifer, and her husband Chip, currently oversee the operation of the sanctuary, with the help of full-time staff and volunteers.
I sat down with the KSTR’s veterinarian, Dr. Carmen Soto, to discuss her journey as an exotic animal vet in Costa Rica, her work in rehabilitating and releasing animals, and the particular challenges of providing good wildlife care.
Dr. Soto has loved animals since she was a child growing up in the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose. She had a particular passion for wildlife and conservation, but when attending veterinary school found that there were no specific courses on wildlife veterinary care, just the odd seminar. Furthermore, at the time, there were only six exotic veterinarians in the country. They formed an organization to support each other, overseen by the veterinary college.
Dr. Soto gained hands-on experience by completing a wildlife conservation course in Africa, and then worked in a small animal clinic. She then worked at the renowned Zoo Ave for six years as the resident veterinarian. Located just outside San Jose in the province of Alajuela, Zoo Ave features the largest rehabilitation centre in Costa Rica, and hosts thousands of individual animals including the largest collection of bird species in Latin America. While at Zoo Ave, Dr. Soto attended to a toucan who had lost the upper part of his beak after being attacked by local teenagers. This case received international attention when it was decided that the toucan would be fitted with a 3-D printed prosthetic replacement for the missing beak section, since the toucan was having critical issues with eating and other bodily functions.
Dr. Soto went on to complete her Master’s in wildlife conservation, with a specialization in internal medicine, and in 2017 she started working at Kids Saving the Rainforest.
Siobhan Speiran: What are the challenges of being a vet in Costa Rica?
Carmen Soto: Exotic vets in Costa Rica have diverse roles: some do “house calls”, others work in small animal clinics, rescue centres, zoos, field research or lab research developing methods for diagnostic testing. Working as a vet at a sanctuary, I find money is a major challenge the clinic faces, considering our expenses. At KSTR we work from donations, so for certain complicated or expensive procedures we need to have permission from the sanctuary’s board and the donors. We do not have the equipment to perform x-rays and surgeries at our clinic, so we send the animals to other locations where they can receive diagnostic imaging and the necessary care. Furthermore, the specialized equipment we could be using to track and monitor the success of our releases, such as radio collars and camera traps, are incredibly expensive. Without this equipment, we need creative and collaborative solutions for monitoring animals post-release.
SS: Do vets in Costa Rica follow the One Health (i.e., a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort to achieve optimal health of people, animals and environment) and One Welfare model (i.e., a holistic consideration of environment, animal, and human wellbeing)?
CS: Yes, and at KSTR we have a Quality of Life team consisting of myself, the nursery manager, the head zookeeper, the sanctuary management, and KSTR’s president.
SS: What governmental bodies oversee animal care in Costa Rica?
CS: In Costa Rica we have the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) which oversees each animal institution and how they are managed. The National Animal Health Service (SENASA) oversees all biosecurity and epidemiological concerns for animal health.
SS: What do you consider the local attitudes to be towards wildlife?
CS: Around five years ago a lot of Costa Ricans had wild animals as pets. In 2014 a law was passed in our country that banned the keeping of any domestic wildlife. Since that time there have been national campaigns highlighting the cruelties that wildlife face in captivity. I have seen a drastic shift in the perception of wildlife between when I started ten years ago as a vet and now.
SS: What do you consider to be the greatest threat to the wildlife that pass through your clinic?
CS: The greatest threats are all related to human contact in animal habitats; we have invaded the animal’s areas. We see a lot of orphaned wildlife such as sloths, monkeys, and coatis who were stolen from the wild as infants for sale in the pet trade. We also rehabilitate animals who have been electrocuted by telephone wiring in urban centres or injured in vehicle collisions. The major reasons an animal is rescued and brought to us is because they were orphaned, confiscated by governmental authorities, experienced trauma, or were electrocuted.
SS: Is there are particular species most at risk of harm?
CS: Squirrels and sloths are particularly vulnerable to electrocution, but we also see a number of anteaters who are involved in vehicle collisions.
SS: What kinds of animals do you most often find involved in human-animal conflicts?
CS: The animals I usually find involved in conflict are reptiles, opossums, and raccoons—typically they’ve entered someone’s home and been injured as a result. I see far fewer animals at KSTR that have been involved in such conflict compared with when I worked at Zoo Ave some years ago. This could be due to the increasing education around wildlife in Costa Rica.
SS: How involved are you in the rehabilitation process, and what are the associated challenges?
CS: I am totally involved in overseeing the rehabilitation process. When we rescue an animal, upon receiving it I perform a physical exam, provide any necessary treatment, and keep it in a quarantine area where visitors and volunteers are not allowed. Once it is stable, the animal is taken to our rehabilitation area where they have minimal contact with humans, and we reproduce wild conditions to help them prepare for release. At the “boot camp” stage, we facilitate the learning of necessary “wild” behaviours, such as foraging. After performing behavioural observation to ensure they are ready, we release them in a suitable natural area.
SS: How do you determine if an animal is ready to be released?
CS: The time to release is species-dependent. Some animals can be released in this area, such as the grey-capped squirrel monkeys that are indigenous to Manuel Antonio. Other species may need to be transferred to other sanctuaries or regions of Costa Rica. When making release decisions we have to consider, for example, that monkeys need to be released into troupes of the same species. We also want to release animals in the same spot they were found, unless they were found in a dangerous area (i.e., urban centre), in which case they will be released somewhere safe. Once an animal is released, we monitor it for a few months to ensure its success. We just released a sloth named Kiwi in Manuel Antonio National Park. Since we didn’t have a tracking collar, we had to dye his hind legs black so that we could identify and monitor him. The park’s naturalist guides and locals also help us to monitor Kiwi. These are the kinds of creative solutions we devise in the absence of more advanced and expensive equipment.
SS: How many animals and species pass through your clinic?
CS: On average we receive about 191 animals per year, 103 of which are mammals representing 25 different species, including all the primates. The most common species we receive are primates and possums. Between 2013 to 2017, we successfully released 38% of the animals we received, 50% of whom were mammals. Sadly, 39% of the animals we receive are in dire states and pass away in the clinic. Any species that are non-releasable (formerly pets, disabled, etc.) we care for in the sanctuary where they act as ambassadors for their species, or we send them to other rescue centres.
SS: What kind of enrichments do both released and non-releasable animals have at KSTR?
CS: Our interns and volunteers create enrichments for our animals both in the sanctuary and rehabilitation area. The enrichments we add to their enclosures vary with the species, but typically include lush, local foliage such as palm fronds, mirrors, and food treats housed in puzzling structures and toys. We also deep clean all the enclosures twice a week to prevent parasites and illness.
SS: How else can we improve the lives of animals in the context of wildlife sanctuaries?
CS: I would say preventative medicine, since parasites are major issues for Costa Rican wildlife. And also collaborating with other wildlife vets and sanctuaries– we actually have a WhatsApp message group for all the Costa Rican exotic vets where we share ideas and troubleshoot!
Why should you support wildlife sanctuaries, especially when you’re travelling abroad? Recent studies have revealed that the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of animals involved in tourism around the world today are jeopardized by poor animal welfare conditions.[i][ii] Furthermore, at a population level wildlife conservation may be threatened by ineffective or nonexistent conservation planning on the part of the tourism operation. Wildlife sanctuaries are typically, however, a safe bet when they place the needs and interests of animals above those of the tourists or tour operator. Such is the case at KSTR, where there are no physical interactions allowed between animals and visitors; instead there are activities for visitors such as creating animal enrichments for enclosures and preparing the animals’ food for the day. These activities improve the lives of animals in sanctuaries in meaningful, tangible ways and are far more impactful than a mere wildlife “selfie.”[iii]
Since its inception, KSTR has planted thousands of trees and rescued three thousand animals, two-thirds of whom were released into the wild. One of KSTR’s biggest contributions to wildlife in the surrounding area is the installment of two hundred blue rope “wildlife bridges” to create mini-corridors for animals that reduce the risk of electrocution. They have also successfully pressured the Quepos region to insulate their electrical wires and place caps over the electrical transformers.
To visit, volunteer, or intern at Kids Saving the Rainforest, check out their website at: https://www.kidssavingtherainforest.org.
Author: Siobhan Speiran, Environmental Studies, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.