DANTAisms: A Night with Scarlita: reflections on animal encounters in Costa Rica- Siobhan Speiran, PhD Candidate, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario
It had been raining all day. This was typical during the hot, muggy rainy season; the Costa Rican downpours in July encouraging the lush foliage that I love despite the always-moist discomfort. I had been in the northern part of the country for the previous two weeks and missed the more temperate heat and occasional breeze to take the edge off the humidity. Now I was on the central Pacific coast in a little vacation town of Quepos, the gateway to Manuel Antonio National Park and its pristine beaches. A place where sloths are easy to spot as they laze about in lower canopies reaching for cecropia leaves, their fur slick with algae as though they had dipped their body into a jar of green Manic Panic. It has been suggested that sloths have a symbiotic relationship with this algal species, which is passed from mother to child so that they live their entire lives with an microecosystem on their backs. This offers the sloth camouflage in the leafy canopies so that when they are curled into balls in the branches of high-up trees, they are exceedingly difficult to distinguish from the enveloping vegetation.
Manuel Antonio National Park is also where mischievous capuchins parade boldly at eye-level, walking along barbed wire fences and electrical wiring, swinging across foot passes and perching alert on park benches. Tourists reach out and offer water, bananas, and even sticks in an attempt to make contact. Naturalist guides work in the park, distinguished by their Indiana Jones attire and the large, tripod scopes they carry for spotting distant creatures. One scolds a tourist who was spraying a capuchin with water. “I’m trying to get him away from us!” the tourist explained with some indignation, thinking he was deterring it harmlessly. “Yes, but do you know how many germs and bacteria are on your water bottle? These monkeys are very susceptible to illness from humans. If one gets sick the whole troupe can die,” maintained the guide with passion. He then recounted a story of a tourist some time ago sneezing on a squirrel monkey that had come close to him, and then it spread to the entire troupe of thirty or so others; they all succumbed to something as seemingly innocuous to us as the common cold.
I watched torn between alarm and intrigue as I notice a parent encouraging their toddler to approach a capuchin with a short stick. My feelings cycled between fearing for the danger of the situation, were the capuchin to attack the child, then an irrepressible feeling of charm at this ‘meeting-of-the-species,’ and the innocence of the child who was not much larger than the monkey. This was quickly followed by anger at the parents for not being aware of not only the immediate danger but also that of zoonotic disease which could affect both the child and the monkey. I thought about telling the parents these risks but instead I froze in place, and then felt guilty later about not speaking up. Something I won’t let happen again. When you’re working on environmental issues, and you are around these sorts of delicate scenarios, it’s hard not to be a killjoy.
An exceedingly bumpy and somewhat treacherous taxi ride twenty minutes through a palm oil plantation brings you to a wildlife sanctuary just outside of Quepos proper. At this sanctuary are a host of different neotropical species: spider monkeys, capuchins, tamarins, marmosets, tropical birds, raccoons, coati, and two species of squirrel monkey. One resident that stands out in my mind is a blind kinkajou named Scarlita.
Kinkajous are a fascinating species, related to other rainforest mammals such as the coati and raccoon. They have been referred to as the Honey Bear, and an indigenous community in Ecuador, living traditionally off Amazonian land, considers the kinkajou to be ‘monkeys’. Despite their large range from Mexico to Brazil, we do not know much about these nocturnal, arboreal species. They move about the canopies deftly as night falls, noshing on fruits and licking nectar from flowers using their tongue which can extend five inches. It is one of the only mammals to have a prehensile tail, a trait which New World monkeys are renowned for. They use this tail like a fifth limb in climbing. This likely leads to the confusion over what exactly is a kinkajou– this animal that looks to most like a cross between a ferret and a monkey.
There were many things that struck me as special about Scarlita. When I first laid eyes on her I saw that she only had one large, black eye and the other a socket, sealed shut. During the day Scarlita would sleep; on one occasion I caught her lying on her back in the cage, belly-up, with such restful abandon and stillness I worried for a moment that she was dead.
Alone in the sanctuary I set up a chair in front of Scarlita’s enclosure with a clipboard, ready to make some behavioural observations. I watched her fuss about with her food bowl and climb up and down the shelves and branches. She moved deftly, but with a hesitation and a vulnerability that in those moments she struck me more as a house cat that had been transported into a miniature rainforest; her enclosure a microcosm for the jungle around us.
In her ‘past life’, Scarlita was a pet; leashed and made to live in human quarters. Her eyes, adapted for nocturnal vision, eventually went blind after years of being awake in daylight during this chapter of her life. Eventually rescued from a pirate-themed bar, her missing eye is made all the more ironic! Her habituation to humans and disability means she is non-releasable, living permanently at the rescue centre. Kinkajous, like Scarlita are at risk from the illegal wildlife trade and deforestation, but there are thankfully happy(-er) endings for some. In fact, Scarlita is well-posed as an ambassador of her species at the rescue centre, since most who see her are drawn-in by her seeming docility and the measured steps she takes to move about around her enclosure.
During the summer in Costa Rica, the sun sets as early as five o’clock and, in what seemed like a blink as I sat on my chair silently watching Scarlita, dusk gave way to total darkness. Being alone in the sanctuary– bordered by jungle, and about a ten-minute walk through the dark to the main quarters– I felt a growing anxiousness. Days earlier I was told in hushed tones about a juvenile toucan named Gonzo, who had been raised in the nursery since he was a baby (I’m told he looked like a ‘chicken wing’). He had been in the transitory enclosure area where raised-in-captivity animals are habituated to the outside before release. In the night, a predator descended, and it was too much for Gonzo who was found to have passed the next morning. The recent death was a dark cloud hanging over the centre when I first arrived.
As I sat across from Scarlita, I made the mistake of looking around us into the not-so-distant dark, surrounding trees and felt anxiety turn to dread. I bolted out of my chair and shone the flashlight around me, turning on a three-sixty. I imagined all manner of creepy crawlies descending upon my chair. I inconveniently remembered that there were four Terciopelo (Bothrops asper, a pit viper) spotted in the area. I moved towards Scarlita’s enclosure where I had lost sight of her. Shinning the spotlight frantically to locate her in the pitch-black made me feel uncannily like a police officer on a bust. After some searching I found her on the ground amongst the foliage, unbothered and pushing her bowl of water around. When I finally appraised her lack-of-care about the darkness– in fact, she was reveling in it– I exhaled with relief. Some combination of her carpe noctem attitude and a resemblance to my old orange house cat eased my stress. Her disposition was a comfort to me. If she was not worried, neither would I be.
Scarlita, like those before and around her, is a veteran of the human-war-on-wildlife (at worst) and of the misguided desire for wild animal companionship (at best). People who rescue such animals often speak of being their refuge: taking them in, cleaning and bandaging wounds, feeding and caring for them, releasing them when ready or holding on longer if they are not. But just as animals like Scarlita can find sanctuary amongst these empaths working in her interest, so too can we find sanctuary in her calm, her resiliency, and even her heroism to press on in a more ‘wild’ life that is worth living. A mutual exchange of peace and respect.