A large green bird spots its owner, Richard Frisius, approaching slowly with a cane. The creature lets out an eerie laugh, in three high melodic beats.
“That’s my mother’s laugh,” says Frisius’ daughter, Carol Stanley, 63, who walks a few paces ahead of her father.
Frisius nods his head in agreement. The bird has a way of channeling the sound of Frisius’ wife, Margot, who passed away a few weeks ago (TT, Oct. 31). “Some of the birds miss her,” he says.
Richard and Margot Frisius, who founded macaw conservation and breeding organization Amigos de las Aves in 1992 (TT, Dec. 23, 1994), arrived in Costa Rica in 1980 and decided to retire here, more or less on a whim. Richard, from California, and Margot, German-born but raised in the United States, were already world travelers, having lived in Afghanistan, West Africa and Guyana because of Frisius’ migratory job with the now-defunct Pan American airlines.
After starting with only three birds, Amigos de las Aves today boasts more than 300, including the world’s most extensive collection of great green macaws, a highly endangered species native to Costa Rica.
The operation breeds both scarlet and great green macaws in captivity – something experts thought couldn’t be done, Frisius says – and releases scarlet macaws in small groups in three strategic locations around the country. At its main release site at Punta Banco, in the southwest corner of the country, the organization has had a 93 percent survival success rate since its first release in 2002, a figure Frisius says is unprecedented.
The group has released more than 40 birds in total, and some of these hand-raised macaws are now breeding in the wild (TT, May 16), something no one else has been able to achieve, Frisius says.
The bird lover is visibly proud when he remembers a conversation with a woman who thanked him for helping to bring back macaws to Costa Rica. The woman had seen macaws as a little girl, Frisius says, but had little kids who had never seen one.
Then one day, they saw a flock of macaws passing over their house.
Frisius, who turned 89 the day The Tico Times visited him for this interview, could talk about the delicate trial-and-error process of breeding and releasing macaws all day. In the indoor aviary in his home in Río Segundo de Alajuela, northwest of San José, his eyes light up when a few smaller birds – mostly abandoned by owners who had to leave the country – perch on his shoulder or nuzzle into his full white beard.
He has a harder time talking about the state of his beloved organization. Amigos de las Aves, despite its incredible success in breeding and releasing macaws, as well as providing refuge to abandoned birds of all stripes, is in trouble.
“If I don’t raise the funds, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Frisius says. “We just have to get the funds raised.”
Despite a steady influx of donations, the growing organization needs more to survive.
Frisius estimates the operation costs about $5,000 to $6,000 a month to run. Donors offset some of the costs, but Frisius says he is watching the balance on his bank statement inch ever lower. For a man who knows the ins and outs of living on a fixed income, the situation seems critical.
“I’m 89 years old today, and I’ve got another 15 to go,” he says.
Frisius hopes he might be able to find corporate sponsors in the coming months. Marti Everett, an English zookeeper who has been working for Amigos de las Aves for seven years, says she has trouble getting by on her salary of $350 a month. She is one of the few employees the organization can afford to pay. For manpower, the group relies on international volunteers who pitch in for a week or several months.
Sporting about 10 bird tattoos, Everett speaks of great green macaws with a loving reverence. The green macaws are kept in a separate complex, and the organization relies on a pack of more than 20 abandoned dogs to protect the land, as it can no longer afford to hire guards.
Frisius’ attitude is playful when he enters the 100-foot-long great green macaw cage.
“Good-looking kids, aren’t they?” he asks, smiling. “They look just like me.”
He spots a leaking water faucet and nudges it with his cane, sighing.
“Constant maintenance,” he says.
While the organization is like a family, with employees like Everett standing by it with a fierce loyalty, it has outgrown itself over the years and requires more resources to keep its facility running. Stanley says the family doesn’t want the operation to change dramatically or to hand over the reins of the successful project they built from nothing just to get funding.
“It’s not that we’ve hit the bottom yet, but we’re looking at it,” Stanley says. “It’s a blow that Mom’s gone, too.”
Asked how it’s been running things without his wife, Frisius responds quietly, “It’s been terrible.”
Frisius formed the Hatched to Fly Free Trust this year, which guarantees that none of the macaws can be sold and separated from each other for 100 years; macaws, which can live 60 to 80 years, mate for life. Frisius is now seeking funding to back up the trust.
“We are looking for funding so that we can continue the program because we’ve been so successful,” Stanley says. “With more birds, naturally it is growing beyond where one family can support it with ease. So this is why we are asking for help.”
How to Help
To find out how to help, visit www.hatchedtoflyfree.org, call Amigos de las Aves at 2441-2658 or write the Hatched to Fly Free Trust, c/o Richard Frisius, Apdo. 2306-4050, Alajuela.