San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Modern life vs. wildlife

Simona lives in a basket. Her platter of food is always full. She gets lots of loving attention. In fact, she gets the best care a sloth could possibly get.

It’s not because she’s spoiled. It’s because she was electrocuted while crossing the road on a high tension electrical cable. As a result of that mishap, she received such serious burns that she had to have one paw amputated. Another paw was severaly damaged, and she has burns on her face and back. Her life has been saved and assured at Zoo Ave, the animal rescue center in La Garita, Alajuela.

This was not the first time that Simona got injured crossing the road. Nor is she the first animal to be injured by power lines.

“Sloths, racoons, squirrels, monkeys and other animals that move through the trees are killed or injured,” says Victor González, veterinarian at Zoo Ave. When Simona’s burns are healed, she will join several other sloths that live in the park. Simona is one of 4,000 animals turned over to the rescue center so far this year. González attributes the increase in animals to the pending wildlife protection law, which will prohibit keeping wild animals in homes.

Zoo Ave’s goal is to return wild animals to the wild where they belong. For this mission, the park maintains two farms, one in the northwestern province of Guanacaste and one on the Osa Peninsula, where animals are introduced to the wild but monitored to see how they adjust. Simona, unfortunately, will not be released. She can still climb trees with three paws, but life along today’s highways is just too dangerous for a three-legged sloth.

It isn’t just tree climbing animals that suffer from encounters with modern human settlements.  Highways kill and injure thousands of wild animals a year, including pumas, ocelots, anteaters and snakes. Near a national park this year, a wildcat mother attempted to cross a road with her cubs and all were struck and killed by moving cars. A study of the road between Jacó and Herradura showed that every day animals are killed. Areas around national parks and reserves are the most vulnerable. 

Nighttime is nightmare for animals and environmentalists. Nocturnal animals are blinded by lights from cars. Twilight and dawn are also dangerous, as this is when animals begin and end nocturnal prowls.

For environmentalists, the claim that Costa Rica is a green country is a lie. Highways are expanded to four lanes. More movil phone towers have been errected. More dams are built which affect river populations and ecosystems. Both veterinarian González and Maria Elena Fournier of the Environmental Club Yiski lament how this “progress” makes life harder for animals. 

Fournier is critical of the plan to unite the countries of Central America with super highways across the isthmus, more infrastructure and more power plants. He knows it will destroy birds, fish and other animals and disrupt biological corridors that environmental groups have created.

“The country needs to make a committment to the environment,” González says.

The Costa Rica Electricity Institute is working to make some areas safer by covering electric lines and transformers, and cutting back branches and bushes so that animals can’t leap onto lines. The agency is also separating electric wires so animals don’t traverse on two lines. Private groups are also working with various ministries to build bridges (for monkeys) and tunnels (for tapirs and larger animals) in populated areas.

For highway safety, groups are workingon a campaign “Yo Freno por las Animales” or “I brake for animals.” Bumper stickers and billboards remind drivers to be careful. Another suggestion is that the Transport Ministry lower speed limits around national parks and reserves, while also advising drivers to flash lights or blow horn should animals appear. The McKee group in Jacó initiated the bumper sticker campaign and is providing the stickers for taxis and buses.

For Simona, it’s too late. But her younger cousins will have a better chance.

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