by Mekalyn Rose
Editor in Chief
I was thirteen years old when I first stepped off the boat onto the shore of the Osa Wildlife Sanctuary and met Carol Patrick, who had a fuzzy auburn spider monkey sitting atop her shoulders. The monkey’s name was Sweetie and there were others like her who followed us as we explored the premises. While the tour lasted only an hour, the experience stuck with me. Four years later I was lying in bed listening to the melodic chatter of the jungle, waking up at sunrise to feed a pair of baby Titi monkeys, floating in warm waves during breaks, and leading the same tour that had first inspired me to volunteer.
The Osa Wildlife Sanctuary is both a home and a rescue center. It lies on the Osa Peninsula near the town of Puerto Jimenez, accessible only by boat and shrouded by a thick layer of trees. Since October of 2003, the center has given refuge and care to over 55 different species of birds, mammals, and sea turtles—each arriving with varying levels of need, illness, and injury. Every species is accepted, but those not indigenous to the area are relocated to the Southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica. For the animals who have reached their natural life span, there are “quality of life” programs that include five-star accommodation, nutrition, and medical services. In every case, the goal is release–a moment the sanctuary’s owner, Carol Patrick, reflects on with joy and pride.
“When we release an animal. It is so euphoric! It erases all the sadness of the losses and gives you encouragement to continue. Just to know an animal is back living in the wild, where it was intended to be, gives all of us a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.”
These releases are the product of a long and, at times, arduous and demeaning process that Carol undertook to manifest the now successful center, whose conception was aided by both passion and a bit of fate. Coming from high risk and stressful jobs trading lumber in the United States, Carol and her husband were looking to make a change. After taking a vacation in Costa Rica and falling in love with the culture, they continued to visit over the next six years, searching for a place and a niche.
“We very serendipitously found where the sanctuary is today—Caña Blanca. The property had a large house and two cabins. We started a small eco-lodge. After arriving in February of 1996, one of our staff gave us a red-lored amazon with clipped feathers. I put perches up all around the second story of our house. We even put one out to a tree! A few months later the staff suggested I clip his wings again, and I refused.”
“Let him fly,” she said. “If he stays around, so be it, and if he flies away, that is good too.”
“To the amazement of all the workers, little Chico stayed around and flew all over the area, always returning home. Word got out that there was a ‘gringa loca’ taking care of birds. People from everywhere came with injured birds, chicks knocked from the nest and pet birds they wanted to release. In October of 2003, the governing agency for wildlife called and asked if I would take a young spider monkey that they had confiscated from a home. I was given an 18” square cardboard box that held a spider monkey clinging to a damp mop head. She looked up at me, gave me eye contact, squinted her face, and sadly put out a faint giggle. It was like lightning striking me—I knew what I would be doing the rest of my life!”
Before this revelation, life in Costa Rica was a huge adjustment for a city girl who, upon moving, gave away 35 pairs of shoes and sold her Saab Turbo Convertible for a very rustic lifestyle off the grid, free of cell service and other common utilities. However, as she puts it, “When you work your passion, there is no adjusting.”
Though the process of applying for the wildlife rescue center required a lot of research and perseverance, Carol finally received a very restrictive permit.
“It was a start! I had no experience in wildlife rescue, which sent me to reading textbooks and reaching out to specialists for assistance. I have taken all of the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) animal welfare husbandry classes and have been certified by them. I continue to read conservation books, animal behavior and welfare, and physiology.”
Today, she has a board of five people—a local project veterinarian, licensed wildlife specialist, project biologist, ethologist, and herself—who decide who can or cannot be released. There are also five full-time workers living at the center and usually one or two volunteers or interns. She emphasizes, “The volunteer program does not take jobs away from the local people, they either help lighten the load for the employee or help with animal welfare projects.”
Carol’s day begins at four in the morning with administrative work, and by 5:30 am she is in the clinic cleaning cages, preparing food for special diets, and providing animals with water and medications. Tours of the Sanctuary are given from nine to eleven, and afternoons are filled with animal welfare programs and observing animals ready for release. She explains, “A good time to release is upon sexual maturity. The drive to reproduce is very strong which helps their survival rate.” Work is finished by six in the evening, when the nocturnal animals have received their meals and all meds have been disbursed.
There are still many challenges that Carol has to face, such as government acceptance and funding. Tours cover overhead costs for about six months. The rest of the year, she depends on donations and sales of Sanctuary goods. “Funding is always a challenge. I have honed the skill of groveling.” Staffing is another issue. “Not many people want to live in such an isolated area, but I am very happy to have the staff I have, and I help them to continue their education and learn English.”
Upon asking her if she’d ever felt like giving up her work on the Osa Peninsula, she replied, “Never, but I can become terribly discouraged with short bouts of depression due to the losses that you incur. The majority of animals that arrive are in serious conditions from dehydration, severe injuries, or infants that have been orphaned—often beyond help—but we always put every effort forward to try to save them. We win and we lose.” I still remember standing in Carol’s kitchen as she earnestly fed an infant anteater wrapped in a blanket, whom she’d carried over to the Sanctuary on the boat two weeks prior in the pouring rain. In the end, the anteater was too weak to survive, but the amount of care she took to preserving its life is the reason why so many more are saved.
Carol has big plans for the future of the Osa Wildlife Sanctuary. They recently received permission to build a learning center, as many professors want to bring students there to teach short classes on ecology, wildlife rescue, animal welfare, and other related subjects. The proposed learning center would help to bring in additional funding. She adds, “I also plan to offer classes for students outside of Costa Rica. I have over 20 years of experience that I would like to share.”
I’ve never met a woman with more grit, dedication, and compassion than Carol Patrick. Last May, she turned 70 years old and started running 5K races, placing within her age category. She further exclaimed, “I stay mentally fit with all the research and reading that I do. Again, working your passion is very stimulating!” Purpose is hard won, but she moves through the jungle with the air of someone who has found theirs, reinforced by the wild eyes of the creatures who—on the day of their release—reclaim their own place in the nature of things.