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October 23, 2012

The Long Road to Freedom, Page 5: Into the Trees

On release day, animals embrace freedom with eagerness and reluctance

All Animals magazine, November/December 2012

  • A just-released kinkajou climbs onto a low branch after reluctantly leaving the crate in which he was transported. Kathy Milani/The HSUS.

by Karen E. Lange

On the morning of the rehabilitated animals’ release back into the wild, Tatiana Terán is excited but a little sad: “I should not get attached,” says the veterinarian. “But it’s hard when animals come in as babies.”

To ensure the animals returning to the wild don’t end up right back in the trade, they will be trucked to a cattle ranch that is heavily guarded against rustlers, one of five carefully selected private properties where the rescue center releases animals because Nicaragua’s “protected” areas are overrun with poachers. “We look for places that have safety above all,” says Sacasa.

Their journey ends in a wetland drained for cattle pasture, not far from the Honduras border. Across a water-filled ditch stands a patch of forest, part of a wildlife corridor. By the time the rescue center truck arrives, it’s midday and hot, but the trees offer shade and relative cool. After so many months of preparation, animals are released in rapid succession.

The chocoyos immediately fly into the trees and begin to call to each other, chattering in a noisy group, already at home in the wild. The white-faced capuchins rush out of their cage as soon as the door is opened and run off, like athletes taking the field. Several armadillos taught at the rescue center to root out worms leave their crates and within a few steps are sniffing the dirt for food, digging into the soil with their feet.

A scarlet macaw is so sought after by poachers that they can only be released in one place: an island with no bridges to the mainland.

Other animals are slower. The two yellow-naped parrots also confiscated in the 2010 raid and two toucans seized by police at an intersection barely make it into the trees. These birds are active in the early morning, not the middle of the day, and one parrot spends about an hour maybe 10 feet off the ground, unmoving even when Sacasa shakes the branches. Sleepy owls complain angrily and must be persuaded from their cages. Several caracaras rescued from roadside sellers stand dazed until Sacasa stamps his boots and they take flight. One of the two kinkajous stubbornly refuses to exit his crate, despite the calls of a second, who has climbed slowly but steadily up a tree. “Campañero, campañero (partner, buddy),” Sacasa says, waving his hat to encourage the reluctant kinkajou to make his move. The animal sniffs at some leaves. Finally, he moves out and up and into the wild.

It isn’t ideal, but logistics—the distance from the capital, the cost of each trip—have dictated the nature of the release. And it works, for most all the animals. The hope is that there will come a day when mass releases are no longer necessary, when Nicaragua’s animals won’t be taken from the wild in the first place.

The chocoyos alight in a raucous flock and fly into some palms, giddy, exuberant in their freedom. The air thickens with humidity. The sky grows a deeper and deeper blue, a gray blue. Lightning flashes and rain pours down, cooling the forest, refreshing the just-released animals, running off the now empty cages.

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