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Monkey, Tree of Life




A rescue centre in Costa Rica provides homes for monkeys, jaguarmundis and sloths. Paul Belz reports  

Two white-faced capuchin monkeys stared at us. Jojo jumped straight up and down, a behavior she learned as a caged pet. Suzy danced, an activity that began when she entertained customers in a bar.

“Funny, but sad,” said Patricia Vermuellen of Tree of Life Wildlife Center and Botanical Garden, based near Cajuita, Costa Rica.

Toys such as driftwood, leaf covered branches and swings help these permanent residents play and remember how to be capuchins.

According to the Embassy of Costa Rica in Washington DC, nearly six per cent of the world's biodiversity is found in Costa Rica – even though the country accounts for only 0.03% of the Earth's surface. Forests and other wild lands help prevent floods and provide habitat for crop-pollinating insects and bats, while ecotourism has played a strong role in the economy for decades.

morpho butterfly

Above: morpho butterfly; Gumba the peccary. Photos © Tree of Life

But Costa Rica's environmental record is far from perfect. It has historically had a high deforestation rate, with wildlife suffering from habitat loss, hunting, and the capture of birds, monkeys, and others by the pet trade.  

Many citizens and non-governmental organizations are striving to improve this situation. The government uses funds from fuel taxes and energy fees to support biodiversity, clear water and air, and nature reserves. Officials pay landowners to preserve wild places; forest cover increased from 21 per cent in 1987 to 52 per cent in 2010 (Ministry of Environment and Energy, Costa Rica). 177,000 citizens signed an initiative to ban sport hunting throughout the country, and the government passed this legislation in 2012. The nation also uses funds to support ecotourism and environmental education among its citizens. Some 25 per cent of the country is now protected as national park or reserve.

Rehabilitation and release

However, animals that have already been injured by human activities would be helpless if it weren't for places like Tree of Life.

Zoo Ave shelters and rehabilitates 250 species – including 125 types of birds – on 50 forested acres near Alajuela. Cahuita's Sloth Center shelters and researches these unique mammals.

These and other institutions gathered at a Wildlife Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Release Conference near Manuel Antonio National Park, where wildlife center employees, biologists, NGO and government representatives and others shared information and perspectives. They focused on strategies for rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing neotropical wildlife, as well as techniques for challenging animals so that they keep wild behaviors.

“The government is not involved in the wildlife rescue animal centers, which means there is no financial support,” Patricia said.

“They bring us animals that are rescued or confiscated from owners, but there is no budget with that. It is always a challenge to see if we have enough money to make ends meet.”

Donations and admission fees keep Tree of Life and Costa Rica's many other wildlife centers open.

White tailed deer
Tree of Life

Above: Stella the deer; Support and protect rainforest animals. Photos © Tree of Life

Todd Scottland and Patricia Vermeulen founded Tree of Life in 2008. Todd – who has lived in Costa Rica for more than 40 years – grows ornamental plants, herbs, vegetables, and fruit for export. He manages the native plant garden, and currently raises cacao for fair trade organic chocolate.

Patricia has cared for mentally and physically challenged people, and worked with chimpanzees in Sierra Leone. “Todd is the flora, and me the fauna,” she said.

“Working in the rainforest is a challenge every day,” Patricia said. Storms flood animals' habitats. Mosquitoes are a problem. Humidity causes fungus to grow, making wood rot and turn susceptible to termites.

Every workday is different at Tree of Life. “It all depends on if we have new arrivals, and how many baby animals we have here,” Patricia said.


The staff cares for young and sick animals first. Workers cut and clean fruit to feed the herbivores. They hide meals in boxes and coconuts to challenge their guests. Tourist volunteers prepare food and feed animals, clean and repair their shelters, garden, plant trees, and repair roads. They rent rooms, helping fund Tree of Life.

The center opens before noon, and travelers and school groups come for tours.

Patricia showed us Little Shakira, a kitty-cat like jaguarmundi that is related to jaguars. Workers found her with her dead siblings in a construction site. Little Shakira keeps her hunting skills honed when she grabs pieces of chicken that dangle from ropes.

“Northern white tailed deer grow large to keep heat in their bodies,” Patricia said as we approached Stella and Bella's space. “Tropics are warmer, these deer can be small.” The siblings lived in a San Jose park until their herd grew too large.

Gumba the peccary was a pet until his bad smelling musk alienated his kind owners. These wild pigs' razor sharp teeth make them hard to domesticate. Gumba has acquired a female companion named Guapa since my visit.

I ended our visit by telling Patricia about the sloth who climbed down a tree in the town of Cahuita, delighting travelers and locals. These mammals avoid people and only leave trees to defecate. We laughed, knowing that contact and surprises connect people with wildlife!

Patricia Vermuellen
Todd Scotland

Above: Patricia Vermuellen and Todd Scotland. Photos © Tree of Life

Green Adventures July 2016

Paul Belz is an environmental educator and writer based in Oakland, California. Paul develops and teaches natural history workshops for preschool and school-age children, and their parents and teachers. His articles have been published by Terrain Magazine, East Bay Monthly, Childcare Exchange Magazine, Boots’n’All, Oakland Wild’s blog, and Green Global Travel. He is editing a book on bioregional education with Judy Goldhaft of San Francisco’s Planet Drum Foundation, and his poetry has appeared in a wide range of magazines. Paul is a world traveler, and an enthusiastic backpacker and camper. His other interests include cooking vegetarian feasts, long walks around his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Beethoven. Paul can be contacted via His blog is at Twitter @PaulGBelz

Animal rescue Costa Rica