Cost Of Living Update: Package of English Muffins — $4.90
While staying at Anne’s farmhouse, we decide to check out what’s up the steep, dirt road. We follow signs for Osa Mountain Village, a mountaintop development that advertises a restaurant and pool. And as you guys know, I can’t pass up a pool.
Just before we reach this development, we see an entrance for Osa Santuario De Animales. It’s a remarkable place with an equally remarkable owner. Many of the animals that reside here were rescued by MINAE (Costa Rica Ministry of the Environment), a division of the government that is responsible for protecting Costa Rica’s wildlife. Some will be rehabilitated and returned to the forest. Others will spend the rest of their lives at the sanctuary depending on their condition.
It’s our lucky day and we receive a tour of this center by its owner, Mike Graeber. He’s a burly man, who speaks with authority and intent. I imagine him riding motorcycles through South America, or logging in Oregon. However, looks can certainly be deceiving. He is a gentle man whose calling is to care for helpless animals that have no other place to go.
The center consists of large enclosures that house a variety of animals. Mike escorts us around giving a brief history of each animal, including the conditions they were rescued from. Thankfully he only divulges some of each story, because heaven knows I can’t bear to listen to the rest. There is a menagerie of sadness surrounding these creatures, but what outshines the inhumanity is this man who cares for his furry tribe with a sacred heart and scarred hands.
“Have you ever been bitten by the animals?” I ask.
“Yes, all the time. It’s part of the job,” Mike replies.
“Any one instance that really stands out?”
“Let me introduce you to our spider monkeys.” He goes inside the cage containing two monkeys. One immediately grabs his hand, while the other climbs up and wraps her spindly arms around him. “These guys gave me the hardest time when they first arrived.”
What I’m witnessing now doesn’t match what Mike is saying at all. “I don’t understand. They look so gentle. One is even hugging you!”
“Now they’re gentle, but you should have seen them when they came to the sanctuary. They were rescued from someone’s backyard where they had been chained up with leashes around their necks. They spent most of their lives in fear of people.”
Spider monkeys are endangered and are one of the smarter species. Their long arms nearly drag on the ground as they walk; they use their tail for balance, and can appear human-like in their attempt to stand upright. Spider monkey faces are adorably hairless, and when approached by a predator they make loud barking noises in order to alert the rest of the pack. They are beautiful, and I can’t imagine anyone doing something so cruel to them.
“When they arrived they were terribly frightened. And why wouldn’t they be after all they’ve been through?” Mike tries to put one of the monkeys down but she climbs back up and wraps her arms around him once again. “I had entered the cage and one lunged at me in full attack mode. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get him off. Don’t let their size fool you; Spider monkeys are incredibly strong. I only have two hands while they can use all four limbs against me at once.”
“I would have sprinted for the hills,” I say since getting beat up by a monkey is not on my bucket list. Although with all of my husband’s wacky excursions, that will probably happen sooner or later.
“It all went down so fast, I couldn’t even turn around,” he continues. “It was then I came to the realization this was an all out fight. I pushed him off, put up my hands like a boxer, and made a wild face. If this is what he wanted, I was ready. Then something miraculous happened: he looked straight into my eyes, backed off, and sat in the corner.”
“When did you try going back inside the cage?”
“The next day. This is my job. I have to get close to these animals for feedings and medical care. I had my colleague ready to spray him with the hose while I slowly entered the cage. I was preparing for what I thought could be round two when the same monkey that attacked me walked up and grabbed my hand. Just like that, we were now friends. It was amazing. They have been very affectionate toward me ever since.”
As I’m watching Mike hug the spider monkey, a red squirrel jumps on my head and decides to make a nest in my scalp.
“He’s in my hair!” I scream.
“Stop yelling,” Mike calmly replies. “It’s no big deal. I’ve had that squirrel since he was a baby.”
I make a stance like Mike did with the spider monkey. This does nothing but encourages him to use my body as his own personal jungle gym.
“Get the hose!” I yell.
Mike casually grabs the squirrel and tosses him up on a branch. “I can’t get rid of him. He goes off into the forest but always returns. Such a troublemaker.”
We head on over to another enclosure housing two white-faced monkeys. They were rescued from a drug cartel, and unfortunately, they can never be released back into the wild.
“It’s very hard for white-faced monkeys to make it on their own after being pets,” Mike explains. “If we let them go, another pack of monkeys will probably kill them in less than forty-eight hours. They will spend the rest of their lives here, but I will make it a good life for them.”
As Mike approaches the enclosure, the monkeys maniacally jump up and down. This behavior is radically different when compared to howler monkeys. Howlers have a laissez-faire attitude: grunting at you before falling asleep seconds later. They just can’t commit to that kind of energy.
I’m all but certain white-faced monkeys pop amphetamines when no one is watching. It’s as if their goal in life is to cause as much mischief as possible. They remind me of my husband’s Brooklyn friend Tommy Walnuts.
“I love the action,” Tommy says, usually after playing poker for twenty-four hours straight. I gather if white-faced monkeys hopped a flight to the United States, they’d settle in Las Vegas, drive fancy Cadillacs, and party every night.
The moment he opens the cage these guys spring into the air as if rocket launchers were attached to their feet. One jumps up on me, reaches into my pocket, and steals my hair band. He plays with it for a few seconds before tossing it over his shoulder, jumping on Rob, and pickpocketing him as well. We were all grateful that Rob was not carrying his bear mace that day.
“That’s Pablo, what a rascal,” Mike laughs. “There’s only one way to calm him down: sit in that chair, and once he jumps into your lap start grooming him.”
“This may sound like a stupid question, but how do I groom a monkey?”
“Brush your hand along his fur, just like you see them doing to each other. Act as if you are picking bugs off his skin.”
Once I’m in the chair, Pablo leaps into my lap. I begin rubbing my hand along the fur and he reacts as if I removed his batteries by stretching out and closing his eyes. Apparently, I am the monkey whisperer and a darn good bug picker. Now that Pablo’s calm, I take a closer look and notice how the black cap of fur on his head looks a lot like a beret. His face is light pink, the color of bubblegum that you’re likely to find in a pack of trading cards. I continue grooming since I imagine that’s the polite thing to do when a monkey is curled up in your lap. It doesn’t take long before Pablo wakes up, and in an instant propels himself halfway across the room.
“Who’s that?” Rob asks, pointing to a small animal wrestling with the monkeys.
“That’s Oscar, our baby coati. Or as they call them in Costa Rica, a pizote. His mother was poached and someone brought in her babies. He is the only one out of three that survived.”
The coati and monkeys chase each other like kids on a playground. He’s adorable but will not stay still. We try to get a picture, however, Oscar is moving way too fast; every shot is a blur. Rob falls in love and immediately wants us to adopt a baby coati.
“If you want to see a real charmer, let me show you our anteater.” Mike reaches inside a cage, and an anteater (Tamandua) about two feet in length climbs into his arms. It’s as if Mike has an air of kindness that animals immediately detect. Every time he puts the anteater down, the animal extends his arms to be picked up once again.
Tamandua tongues are covered with thousands of hooks that are used to scoop up insects, and boy do they love insects. I’m even considering putting an anteater on my terrace. It would make alfresco dining more pleasurable if three-inch flying beetles weren’t always landing in my spaghetti.
Mike calls out to his assistant and asks her to warm up a bottle of milk. “Wait until you see this little guy,” he says while opening up another cage. Inside is a box where I imagine something must be napping.
“What is it?” I ask while Mike coaxes the animal out of its nest.
“Her name is Blossom and she is a baby Mexican tree porcupine. Do you want to touch her? Make sure you pet in the direction of the quills and not the opposite way.”
Rob volunteers and delicately strokes the porcupine. “It feels like the bristles of a straw broom.”
Blossom reaches up and uses her front legs to grasp the baby bottle as Mike feeds her. The milk dribbles all over her face, making this one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.
“The quills are sharp, and because they are hollow it creates a suction when embedded into predators. It’s not uncommon for my dog to come home with a bunch of quills in her face. It’s best not to jerk them out. Instead, cut the quills in half. This removes the suction effect making them easier to pull out.”
I wish I had known this when trying to help Dolores (The Crazy Dog Lady from my first book) remove quills from her dog’s face. My job was to hold the dog down while Rob tugged at the quills with pliers. While we were busy saving the day, Dolores spent her time searching for a calculator that was allegedly stolen by Indian spirits living inside her house.
Mike’s dedication to these creatures is phenomenal. Just when I think we are at the end of the tour, he shows us another cage where a baby opossum is sleeping. Mike explains that he has to get up periodically throughout the night just to feed this little guy. Even with all of this on his plate, he hopes to expand the sanctuary so that he can care for larger animals such as Costa Rica’s big cats. I can’t imagine how one cares for jaguars, but I’m confident that Mike will find a way. Maybe this is one of the secrets to living a more purposeful life: finding a way.
Osa Santuario De Animales is an oasis for the discarded, and the love that radiates from this place could light up an entire city. Mike is a man that looks to the future. A future that ensures the well-being of all his furry friends. He’s a man I admire and hope that others will take this tour, get to know him, and leave a donation as well.
Once again, I found something fabulous at the end of a dirt road.
If you are looking for cuteness overload, please check out Mike’s Facebook and webpage.