In January 2017 I spent 10 days volunteering at Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center. I had the best time and learnt about some amazing animals. I wanted to write this blog to give people an idea of what it is like to be a volunteer there. Maybe you are interested in volunteering yourself? Or perhaps you are just here to see some cute animal pictures and see what I got up to !
3 important things to consider before you go:
-Volunteer because your priority is helping the animals. DO NOT volunteer just because you’d like to get photos with sloths and monkeys.*
-Be prepared for early mornings, hard work and unglamorous living conditions. You will be sleeping in 12 person dorms and sharing bathroom facilities and cold showers.
-Volunteer for at least a week. Anything less and you will only just be getting used to things by the time you leave!
*When appropriate it is okay to get photos of and with certain animals but always make sure this is not distracting you from caring for them – and never purposely pick up or hold an animal for a photo.
Where is it?
There are a number of animal rescue and conservations centers and charities in Costa Rica. Just to be clear – I am talking about the animal rescue center based in the Alajuela province. You can check out their website here. This is about a 45 minute drive out of central San Jose (see the map below). You can arrange a pickup either from the airport or your hotel. If you arrange this in advance with the center they will send one of thier trusted drivers. It is kind of in the middle of nowhere so not super easy to get to by public transport but it’s not impossible. You can get a public bus from San Jose to Alajuela town then there is another bus from there that goes past the rescue center. To avoid the hassle and to save time I went for the car option so I’m afraid I do not know the bus schedule ! However, one kind reader has posted in the comments below some info about the bus. The airport pickup is a little pricey at $30 US dollars (more if you are coming from further away) but if there is more of you then you can split the cost.
Why I chose to volunteer at Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center
The main reason I chose to volunteer here is simply because I love animals! But a great thing about this rescue center is that anyone can volunteer. It doesn’t matter what age you are, how much volunteering experience you have or if you have worked with animals in the past – you just need to be passionate about caring for animals. You do not have to be a vet but if you are- then great! Having extra help from those with training (such as vets, biologists etc.) is extremely beneficial for the center. There is a trained vet who works on site and you would be able to help out with some of the animals who need extra care. I also chose the center because compared to other volunteering projects this one is relatively inexpensive. Plus, food and accommdodation is included in the price.
The rescue center gets no financial help from the government and they rely on volunteers and donations. They used to be located on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica but there is a really sad story about why they had to move. I’m not going to try and tell the story myself. I think it is best you read it from their point of view – see here to read their story.
How much is it?
$30 US Dollars per day but this includes accomodation and 3 meals per day.
I tried to get photos of most of the animals at the center but some of them are pretty elusive especially the nocturnal ones. If you’d like more detailed information on each animal see this page on the rescue centers website.
Some of the animals have been treated incredibly badly by humans and kept illegally as pets while others were injured by cars or electric wires. The animal rescue center’s main goal is to rehabilitate and release injured animals but some of them can never be released. I think it is important to understand the animals history – some will behave differently around humans depending on their past. It is so sad how poorly some of these animals were treated especially the beautiful Spider Monkeys. Volunteers are not able to enter the Spider or Capuchin monkey enclosure as they may become aggressive toward strangers. You can enter the Howler monkey enclosure for cleaning and feeding.
2 Toed Sloths
There are plenty of 2 Toed Sloths at the centre- adults, teenagers and babies! 2 Toed Sloths have more of a pig-like nose whereas 3 Toed Sloths have the black eyes. Volunteers help clean the enclosures and give them food, water and branches.
3 Toed Sloths
There was just one young 3 Toed Sloth when I was there but I believe there is now a new baby 3 Toed Sloth at the center!
Marius the 2 Toed Sloth
Marius is a special Sloth because he has to be fed by hand. They think there may have been complications with the mother before he was born which could have affected Marius. He doesn’t eat if left on his own and would begin to starve. He has very distinctive fluffy hair and you may see Marius at certain times of the day when he comes out to play on his jungle gym (although he moves very slowly-even for a Sloth!). Not all volunteers get to feed him but I proved myself worthy and was given the opportunity to hand feed a Sloth for the first time in my life!
It was pretty tricky to get a good photo of the Howlers because I couldn’t take my camera inside the enclosure (they could steal your camera!) and they are constantly moving around! You have to wear a face mask inside the enclosure as the monkeys can easily catch humans germs. These monkeys are great fun and very playful!
Feluco the Howler Monkey
Feluco’s mother was killed by a dog when he was only 15 days old. Due to losing his mother, Feluco’s immune system is very weak and he also has a cleft pallet which causes breathing problems. He needs extra care and treats Marielos (one of the founders of the center) like a mother. I had the chance to bottle feed him his smoothie one day but he seemed to like the taste of my hair more!
Incredibly intelligent monkeys! You cannot enter their enclosures but you can go and see them. Again, I couldn’t get great photos as they are always on the move but I did capture this one whilst he was having a little think about life.
These monkeys are very cheeky and have so much character! You cannot enter their enclosure but you can watch them so long as you maintain a couple meters distance from the cage.
The center has one Marmoset and it is the cutest thing! A Marmoset is a tiny breed of Monkey. This one can sadly never be released as it was kept as a pet and is too humanised now. He may jump on you when you go in to clean his enclosure!
The squirrels are crazy! Wear long trousers when you go into their enclousure because they will climb all over you and their tiny claws kind of hurt!
There are a number of different birds at the center. I took photos of some of them. Gigi the Tucan was my favourite as I got to help feed him/her throughout the day- He/she (we dont know the sex yet!) has a good chance of being released!
Kinkajou’s and Olingo
These are two animals I had actually never heard of before coming to the center. They are SO cute! I could not get a photo of the Olingo as it only ever came out at night but it bares some similaraties to the Kinkajou’s. They are mammals and almost a cross between a monkey, a small bear and a Raccoon! (They are actually part of the Raccoon family).
Porcupine, Hedgehogs and Opossum
It’s quite hard to get a glimpse of these guys since they are nocturnal but volunteers help clean the cages and give them food and water.
There are also farm animals such as pigs, ducks, chickens and goats. Volunteers also clean, feed and water these animals. There are also fish and turtles which I never got a photo of!
The Rooms and Common Areas
The rooms you sleep in are like dorm rooms with bunk beds. Each dorm room has approximately 6 bunk beds. You get your own mosquito net and sheet. I went in January and although it’s very hot during the day, I found it quite cold at night as the rooms don’t have much insulation. Bring some warm clothes to sleep in. There are a number of toilets located near the dorm rooms as well as showers. The showers really aren’t that great-they are also cold. It gets very hot during the day so a cold shower isn’t so bad then but in the evenings and early mornings the cold showers are not so fun.
There are 2 kitchen areas- one for animal food prep and another for human food. Some days it may be your teams turn to help with food preparation (animal and human food). Then there are large common areas with tables for everyone to eat or just chill out. There is also an upstairs hammock area. There is a pool but I found I was too busy with my tasks to use it- I used it once in 10 days.
The Animal Hospital
There is a small animal hospital at the center where they treat some of the most poorly animals. Whilst I was volunteering, Oscar the Goat was castrated because he was starting to get too agressive! This surgery was performed in this animal hospital by the wonderful on site vet- Andres.
A Typical Day for a Volunteer
Your group tasks will be slightly different each day. There is a 5 day rota so you don’t end up doing the same thing all the time. If you only have a few people in your group the tasks will take much longer so it depends how many volunteers are at the center at the time. I always had at least an hour free before lunch-often more.
7am: Breakfast (Things like pancakes and eggs with rice and beans were common)
8am: Morning meeting
8:30am: Start morning group tasks. This will usually be cleaning, giving water and sometimes giving food to the animals. Each animal enclosure needs raking/sweeping and scrubbing with water and disinfectant . You also need to remove the used food bowls and replace the water. You will not have do every animal enclosure instead you have a list of the animals you need to care for each day. Other morning tasks include food preparation, watering the garden and collecting and moving the compost. Sometimes you will need to do a water check around 11am to make sure none of the animals have spilt their water and need more.
12pm: Lunch (Lots of rice, beans, potato, chayote and occaisonally lentils with vegetables and sometimes meat such as chicken, fish and beef. There was always a vegetarian option. Sometimes we had pasta with tomato sauce too and once there was burgers and veggie burgers)
1:30pm: Afternoon meeting
2pm: Start afternoon tasks. This is similar to morning- cleaning, feeding and giving water to the animals. You will usually go to different animal enclosures to the ones you went to in the morning. You will sometimes need to check the water in the enclosures and help prepare food for dinner.
5pm: It will be one teams job to sort tree branches (one of the rescue center team cuts these down from nearby forest) and place them into baskets for each animal that needs them (usually Monkeys and Sloths). Then you go to the enclosures and place the branches around for the animals to eat/play with.
6pm: Dinner (similar food to lunch)
7pm: Nocturnal animals such as the Sloths get fed at this time. There is just one day on the rota where you do not need to feed any of the nocturnal animals so most days you will be doing an evening feed.
7:30pm: Once every 5 days it will be your teams turn to do the lock check on all of the enclosures.
Here’s a video I made to give you a 1 minute insight into a day at the rescue center:
What to do in your spare time
At the center they refer to your free time as time for ‘personal projects’. This could be a number of things and it’s best think about what skills you have and what you can do to help. For example, if you are a builder or carpenter- you could help build a fence or enclosure. If you are creative you could help paint signs and murals. If you are neither of these things you can still help! I tried to help with some fence building by holding the planks of wood in position but I was too weak for hammering he nails! Another great thing to do is create enrichment toys for the animals. If you are unsure there is some guidance in the information book you read through when you start or you can just ask one of the staff members. For a more detailed explantion and more examples of enrichment toys see here.
Some exmaples of my ‘personal projects’
The Blog: I consider this blog to be one of my personal projects. Hopefully it will help others that want to volunteer and help spread awareness of the center. In my spare time I took photos and videos and planned what I wanted to include in my blog. I left the writing for when I got home because it was just too tricky on my iPad!
Gigi’s enrichment toys: Gigi the Tucan is set to be released therefore he needed to be fed on a regular basis to mimic what it would be like searching for food in the wild. We did not want Gigi to get into the habit of having his food in the same place each time. In order to teach him to search for his food we hid it inside a couple of natural enrichment toys that we made. They were very simple to make and hang up inside his enclosure.
My bench painting: It’s not my best work ever but I had a spare couple of hours that I used to spruce up this bench.
Lastly, I would like to thank the wonderful staff at the center who helped me and made me feel welcome. You will defintley meet Sarita whilst volunteering here and her passion for helping the animals is extraordinary! You should also get a chance to meet co founders, Marielos and Bernal- truly lovely people.
Thank you to Maude and Fabrice- a lovely French couple who helped me and my team out so much and also let me help with Gigi’s feeding. Also, thank you so much to my main team- Sabrina, Hannah, Agnes and Josh. You made this experience even more special. (This is also a test to see if they’ve read this far).
I hope you have found my blog insightful and helpful! Please do leave me a comment if you have any further questions or just want to say hi! Thanks!