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.
In 2014 I wrote about canoodling with danger (not asteroids). Last year I wrote about being open to all pleasant/unpleasant possibilities. Here are some wishes for a shiny new year…
This year, I hope you are kinder to yourself. I wish for you to be your own best friend, but also continue to be an excellent friend to all of the people who don’t have to inhabit your corporeal form. I hope this year you are an especially good friend to those who help jump your car when you leave your headlights on for a whole work day. I hope you trade your endless mental chatter for silence and silence for an accordion. Or a sitar. Or something easier to play, like a ukulele or a rain stick. I hope this year everyone stops saying, “Life is short” and starts using the word “stroopwafel.” I hope that 2016 brings you flamenco mornings, cider doughnut afternoons, and walks with your cat by light of the full moon. I hope you find no pleasure guilty. And when you leave your headlights on for the fourth consecutive time, or you forget to sign up for health insurance, or you dig yourself into a deep hole, all the while thinking, “I am digging myself into a deep hole,” I hope you go easy on yourself. I’m sure you are trying your best.
I am done with crowded yoga classes. I am done with all crowds. I can’t enjoy anything that involves being in the center of a dense mass of humans with flailing limbs. I need my space.
The 9:30am Labor Day yoga class was populated with people like me who normally work on Monday mornings. When I arrived, every mat was plotted in evenly-spaced rows. I took the last awkward block of real estate just in front of the stage where the yoga teachers lay their mats, which is the equivalent of sitting in the first row at the movie theater. While I stepped away to get blankets and blocks, the teacher parted the row behind me and squeezed my mat into a tight space between two men.
“This is fine,” I said. “I am fine with this.”
I forgot that this yoga teacher prefers to lead from the space in front of the stage instead of on top of the stage. She usually sets a portable musical instrument called a harmonium on the hardwood floor in front of us and tries to get us to repeat long, complicated Sanskrit chants. The harmonium is like an accordion that you set on the ground and pedal with your hand like a bicycle pump. It’s the size of large shoebox but it produces the same tones as a pipe organ in a church. Most of the time when I try to repeat her chants with the rest of the crowd I just quietly mumble made-up Sanskrit words. “Om sri vashinashi Nagasaki Lakshmi mazel tov…”
I’ve been meaning to check if Sanskrit is a language option in Duo Lingo.
“Let’s not talk about the end of summer, let’s talk about puppies,” the teacher said. “There! Now everyone is smiling again.”
The yoga class was puppy-themed because the teacher was in the market for a new puppy. She visited a litter of spastic furballs that were quarreling over pieces of rope and losing control of their legs. She said that she forgot how much energy puppies have, and that they are kind of like your mind when you try to meditate. The teacher then coined the term “puppy mind.” I have heard of the mind being compared to a monkey, a wild horse, an elephant. We are always trying to discipline our feral gray matter in yoga.
Once we started moving, it was hard to be distracted by my puppy mind. Things were moving too fast. Our drill sergeant called out poses as though she was schooling us in multiplication tables and I felt like I was always a few beats behind.
From half moon pose, bent into the shapes of a starfish, the man to my right gave me some unsolicited advice.
“You’re not supposed to curl your toes,” he whispered.
We flowed at the tempo of a flamenco dance from downward dog to warrior one to warrior two to warrior three to peaceful warrior and it was a struggle to keep up with the death march of warriors. How long until confused warrior? Panting warrior? Sleeping warrior? Our arms rotated like windmills and spandex-clad legs swung into the air.
While we were all in downward dog, the teacher told us to “flip our dogs.” Everyone flipped belly-up, hearts open, paws reaching for the stars. Before I had a chance to process the command, the foot of the man next to me bowled into my right kidney before rooting down on my mat. It was the same fellow who was schooling me on the position of my feet.
“Flipping the dog” is a real ice breaker. I guess that’s why it’s such a good heart opening pose. It is almost impossible to flip downward dog without planting a foot on your neighbor’s mat and we were all so tightly compressed in the studio. All the other dogs were flipped and mine was upright and trying to get its equilibrium. Thankfully he didn’t kick me with much force. I wasn’t badly hurt, just startled.
I am done with crowded yoga classes. Not that I didn’t feel amazing afterwards. I felt like chiseled greyhound, a limber Labrador, a regal, panting mastiff.
At the shoe rack, the kidney kicker plopped down in an armchair and sighed heavily.
“What a workout,” he said.
“That was intense alright,” I said. “Have a nice Labor Day.”
Dave and I sat on a sofa at the back of the cat café. In front of us, an owner of the café and a tortoiseshell cat named Milady were showing off for two women. Milady would stand with her front paws on his chest and give him high fives for treats, but when she thought the man wasn’t paying enough attention to her, she would paw at his face.
The owner disappeared behind the counter and returned with a bow-tie that he clipped around Milady’s neck. She followed back and forth from the tables to the counter, starry-eyed and not particularly interested in all the visitors eager to pet a feline in formal wear. She only had eyes for her human.
To our right, two cats pounced on the wall trying to kill the zigzagging light reflecting off of a man’s cell phone screen.
Cat bridges hung from the ceiling and lined the walls. A long-haired Siamese cat lounged on one of the highest vantage points in the room and surveyed her dominion below. She reminded me of my cat Olive.
We both ordered “cat-puccinos” because how could you not? But cat drinks are simply no substitute for actual cats and, as you would expect, all the cats were lazing about, snubbing hairless beings they must coexist with.
“I miss our cats,” Dave said. “We should appreciate them more.”
Several of them were sunbathing on the windowsill. Sipping frothy beverages on the sofa wasn’t getting me any cat action so I wandered over to long-haired Luna, who Dave aptly renamed “Sass-bucket.” She allowed me to pet her for a minute or two before retreating to a secluded pillow.
Then a majestic black beast named Sheldon lumbered over. He let me pet him for a moment before disappearing into the women’s bathroom. I followed. There he was, the front half of his body sticking out from the bottom of the handicap accessible stall. He was rolling luxuriously on the tiles. For a little while he let me stroke his head, but then he went more deeply into the stall for a private moment.
I guess it was rude to follow him into the bathroom like that.
Cats must get so weary of our pawing and cooing. Cats ignore our attempts to entertain them. Cats endure our company. They are cats.
Because the cat is not hungry.
Because the cat is hungry, but the cat does not like the taste of the food.
Because the food is not Purina cat food.
Because, even though it is Purina cat food, it’s not the Urinary Health Formula
Because the food is the Urinary Health Formula and the cat’s bladder is perfectly fine now.
Because the cat does not like the texture of the pate.
Because the cat only wanted to lick the gravy.
Because the food is too dry.
Because the sides of the plate are too high.
Because the cat is far-sighted and unable to see the morsels left on the half-eaten plate of food.
Because ANTS. Now there are ants.
Because the cat’s stomach contains a fist-sized glob of cat fur.
Because the food was touched by another cat’s mouth.
Because the food was touched by another cat’s mouth, and now there is more on the floor than on the plate.
Because the plate is dirty.
Because the floor is dirty.
Because of imagined contamination of the floor and plate.
Because the dried food was cleaned from the floor tiles, but the tiles were note disinfected.
Because when you disinfected the tiles, you did not use the Mrs. Meyer’s brand lemon verbena all-purpose cleaner, which simply smells cleaner.
Because there are two plates of food on the floor, and now the cat is confused and wants neither.
Because the cat is sleeping right now, prefers sleeping. Leave alone.
Because the cat has decided to wake you up between the hours of midnight and four AM when it will finally be time to eat.
NEXT: Why Your Cat Vomited Up Her Food and What’s So Fun About Rubber Bands?