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October 23, 2012

The Long Road to Freedom, Page 2: A Way Station for Wildlife

Rescue center saves thousands of wild creatures caught up in the illegal wildlife trade

All Animals magazine, November/December 2012

  • A margay was bought as a pet for a child, then turned over to the rescue center when the family realized the cat was wild. Kathy Milani/The HSUS.

by Karen E. Lange

On the outskirts of Nicaragua’s capital, Humane Society International is doing its part to help the animal victims of the web of trafficking. With a grant from the U.S. State Department, HSI is supporting the country’s only officially sanctioned rescue center as it takes in animals confiscated from the illegal trade, rehabilitates them, and releases them back into the wild. At the same time, HSI is running public education campaigns and training customs officers, police, and soldiers to enforce anti-poaching laws, including a 2005 statute that imposed tougher penalties for environmental crimes. Participants also learn to identify protected species and humanely handle confiscated animals. (HSI runs similar programs in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.)

The rescue center is located next to the national zoo in Managua, which was saved from financial ruin by Friends of the Nicaraguan Zoo Foundation director Marina Argüello and her husband, veterinarian Eduardo Sacasa. In 1996, following Nicaragua’s years of civil war between the left-leaning Sandinistas and the U.S.-backed Contras, the couple returned from exile in California and Miami. They found the zoo in trouble and took it over. “I love my country, and I love my animals,” says Argüello, who despite neck surgery and back pain has kept the enterprise going, using her own money and funding she manages to raise from the government and others.

Last year, $35,000 in State Department money, provided through HSI, paid for the construction of a new set of buildings for the rescue center so it could be moved from the zoo grounds and run separately. There’s a receiving area, a clinic, and a room for baby animals. HSI gave another $7,000 for a two-story mesh enclosure in which monkeys and birds can get ready to return to the forest. Almost instantly, the new rescue center was at its capacity of around 500 animals. Nearly 2,000 would pass through it during its first year of operation.

There's a pink-nosed two-toed baby sloth climbing slowly, slowly across the mesh of his cage to examine visitors with unhurried intensity.

In late May, babies born during the first months of 2012 look out from their cages. They were taken from the wild just days or weeks into their lives and, through confiscations or rescues, ended up here. There are fuzzy little howler monkeys, and ferruginous pygmy owls with fledgling feathers, and juvenile yellow-naped parrots who were fed by syringe when they arrived three months earlier, after police had confiscated them on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast. (These parrots, popular for their friendly personalities and ability to talk, are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.) There’s a pink-nosed two-toed baby sloth climbing slowly, slowly across the mesh of his cage to examine visitors with unhurried intensity.

Beyond the baby room, cages lining the walls of the buildings and spilling out into a big grassy clearing hold a cross section of the animals who make up Nicaragua’s ecosystems, which contain 7 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Some, like the juvenile yellow-naped parrots, were diverted here from the wildlife trade. Others are pets given up by their owners: two round-eyed kinkajous, nocturnal relatives of raccoons, who every night broke out of their home and into the neighbors’; a pair of white-faced capuchins, one of whom got aggressive and bit people; two gray foxes who ended up in people’s houses, one kept like a dog from a very young age; and a margay whom a man bought for his son thinking it was just an unusually colored domesticated  cat, though it’s actually a species of wild cat that may soon not survive outside the Amazon Basin. Still other animals were brought in hurt or sick or after being trapped as nuisances in neighborhoods.

There is an assortment of brilliantly colored parrots, squawking, chirping, and screeching. Eight are the lapas prized in the pet trade—scarlet macaws listed as deserving of the highest degree of protection under international trade agreements. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service this year proposed listing the subspecies that lives in Nicaragua as endangered. Eduardo Sacasa says he doesn’t dare release these birds anywhere but Nicaragua’s Ometepe Island, accessible only by ferry or boat. Ecotourism there has won residents over to the cause of protecting wildlife.

There’s a troop of 4- to 5-month-old spider monkeys cavorting in the mesh enclosure, moving easily through the branches with their arms and legs and prehensile tails. A tapir wanders the floor. As part of the rehabilitation process, the big animal is supposed to keep the monkeys up in the branches, which is where they have to stay if they want to survive in the forest.

Cages hold a cross section of animals who make up Nicaragua's ecosystem, which contains 7 percent of the world's biodiversity.

On the verge of freedom, the two white-faced capuchins share a cage with another of their species who’s not ready for release. He spends a lot of time on the concrete floor, retreating from this more dominant pair while they are up in the branches, confident. The older of the two arrived wild enough that he could teach the younger how to hunt and defend himself. He grunts to let people know not to approach any closer, then reaches through the bars to search through pieces of cucumber, carrot, watermelon, papaya, and cabbage until he finds his favorite—banana.

Also on the eve of release are a bunch of chocoyos and two yellow-naped parrots, all of whom came to the center in 2010 as babies. Confiscated in a raid of a Managua holding center, they arrived as hatchlings, naked, starving, and dehydrated. “They didn’t even have any feathers on them. They [were] in baskets, and they were freezing,” says Tatiana Terán, a young veterinarian with a gentle manner who assists Sacasa at the center. Terán and other staff warmed the baby birds and gave them fluids and small amounts of food using syringes. After three and a half months, the birds were able to eat for themselves and their feathers had grown in. The staff patiently taught them how to use their wings. After more than a year, they were able to truly fly.

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