The first thing you should know is that everything is our fault. We don’t know how to leave nature alone. We erect houses in wild pig territory. We find a baby monkey all alone in the forest and keep it on a leash in the corner of the kitchen. When connect our towns up to the power grid, sloths get zapped while trying to cross the power lines.
“This is Perla,” the guide Carlos says, indicating a scruffy wild pig trotting circles in a pen. She has dark, wiry hair and a rotten odor. “She used to live with humans when she was a baby pig. Have you ever seen a baby pig? They are so cute, aren’t they?”
The two youngest children in the group, brother and sister, wholeheartedly agree.
Perla scampers up to Carlos and lets him scratch behind her ears.
“When Perla was a cute little baby, she lived with humans. Then she grew older and she developed a scent gland.”
He squeezed a lump on her back near her tailbone and a spray of rank liquid shot into the air. It was like one of those prank daisies that you use to squirt water on unsuspecting friends.
“This is how wild pigs mark their territory. Can you imagine having a pet that does this in your house? It makes everything smell like Perla’s musk.”
Perla flops onto her back and Carlos gave her a vigorous belly rub. The air around her pen smells like sweaty garbage. We all line up single file to scratch the smelly pig’s belly. She reminds me of my aggressively affectionate cat Penny.
“She’s Penny’s soul pig,” I whisper to Dave.
Carlos went on to explain why Perla has lived at Proyecto Asis from the beginning. She spent her piglethood with a human family who then dropped her at the reserve when she became an adult, claiming that they had just found her wandering alone. Wild boars are normally very violent and territorial and they live in large packs. Now she is so friendly with humans that she would never survive in the wild and she has no pack to protect her.
After Perla, we meet the macaws: two sad sacks who live only for sliced bananas, also former pets. It is illegal in Costa Rica to keep wild animals as pets, but we see time and time again that people do it anyways. People take the macaws inside and clip their wings so they can’t escape out the window. Some of them are kept by native Ticos and confiscated by the police. Most of them are smuggled abroad and sold in pet stores.
Several dozen green parrots who have spent their lives in living rooms with clipped wings occupy two large cages. One cage is full of parrots that are growing the feathers on their wings back, a process that takes several months, and the other cage is for parrots that have already regenerated their feathers. The parrots that have flown before teach the ones that haven’t how to use their wings.
Carlos tells us the story of a parrot with clipped wings that was kept in a cage next to a newborn baby. The parrot learned that crying earned the baby a lot of attention. He realized that if he mimicked the sound the mother and father would come running. As far as the parrot was concerned, this was his family, too, and he deserved as much attention as the infant. The family quickly got tired of its racket and brought the parrot to Proyecto Asis.
Carlos plays a clip on his cell phone of the parrot belting out human baby sobs in the parrot cage.
“Do you know what the other parrots did when we put this one in the cage?” Carlos asks.
“They beat him up?” a little boy offers.
Forty other parrots beat him up and after a few days he only made parrot sounds.
Carlos shows us the spider monkeys. His favorite is a somber female monkey named Yessica who seems to be in perpetual mourning. She comes to a ledge at the side of her cage and dangles her hand. Carlos takes it and kisses it. Yessica was once someone’s pet and wore a leash and a diaper. Then Yessica grew up and became boring.
We line up again to stroke Yessica’s hand and feel the joints of her opposable thumbs.
“Don’t show your teeth because monkeys see that as a sign of aggression,” Carlos warns us, “And don’t make eye contact. Monkeys see that as a sign of aggression.”
As I take Yessica’s hand I grin sheepishly at Dave, trying and failing to conceal my enormous white teeth. The hand is smooth and her grip is strong. Suddenly, I feel an agitated tug. When I glance over, Yessica’s face is furrowed. She is showing me all of her pointed teeth and trying to yank me into the cage. I wrestle my hand away.
“I forgot to mention that Yessica sometimes does this with women,” Carlos says.
I look back at the misogynist monkey. She seems to still be viciously glaring at me.
“That’s why I never go into the cage,” Carlos says. He addresses the monkey. “I love you, Yessica, but I do not trust you.”
He took her hand and kissed it again.
Then, at last, a baby monkey! Playful, energetic, and safe. She had her own cage near the parrots and gracefully maneuvered the branches and obstacles in her cage. When we stopped outside, she posed her graceful dancer’s body, gripping the wire with outstretched limbs, and awaited our gifts. We take turns playing with her, offering her leaves to eat and ponytails to tangle. She steals one woman’s sunglasses and retreats to the top of the cage.
“Okay,” Carlos sighs. “Time to work.”
He opens the cage and slips inside. The baby monkey immediately leaps onto his back. She crawls all over him, using his body as a jungle gym. Carlos wrestles the glasses out of her hands and she protests. He slides out of the gate and locks the door, returning the sunglasses.
“Imagine how happy our baby monkey is now,” he says. “She used to live in a house and wear a diaper.”
The way the baby monkey uses her tail like a fifth limb, it’s hard to picture how her old human family could keep a diaper on her. Carlos tells us that people often say they just found their baby monkeys in their yards, but female monkeys never leave their children alone. That means that this baby’s mother was likely killed so that the human family could keep her has a pet.
“Just remember that when you see someone keeping a baby monkey as a pet, its mother is dead,” Carlos said. “And if it’s in the United States, it was smuggled out of Costa Rica because it is illegal here. This is why the spider monkeys are an endangered species and not the more aggressive monkeys. You should never keep them as pets.”
The youngest little boy crouches on the ground, dejectedly feeding leaves to his new best friend the baby monkey.
“I want a baby monkey,” he says. He sounds as though he has just learned of his own eventual mortality. But wouldn’t a lifetime without a baby monkey be the same as death?
The little girl squeezes her mother’s hand.
“Mommy, I really want a baby monkey,” she pouts. “It could live in our house, can’t it?”
Carlo’s expression is vacant. Dave recalls watching a scathing documentary about the fast food industry. After learning a number of alarming facts about pink slime and meat glue, he left the movie theater urgently craving a McDonald’s hamburger.
We never learn.