Kitty Cat

Even though I work at an animal sanctuary now, I rarely will include it in this blog. Why? First off: professionalism. Since I represent another org, it feels disingenuous to use it for self-promotion. Also we’re supposed to be kid-friendly and this site often times is not. Second, though, is more obvious: this blog is supposed to be about wildlife, and discussing or photographing animals in cages is something else. So you won’t be hearing about our narcoleptic monkeys and paralyzed sloths here.

However, since this next story involves an animal taken directly from the wild and was one where I was personally involved (significantly beyond my training and pay grade, I might add), I’m doing it. Also, I got my hand chomped in the process, and I’m due some kind of recompense. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

But mostly, I’m telling this because it is a perfect example of life here–or maybe just my life in general–where an otherwise normal day was utterly thrown off the rails by the simple factor of animals being animals and the poor misguided attempts of humans to implement order in Nature’s chaos.

Make of it what you will.

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Zen disclaimer.

The day began normally, with a plan for me to accompany my boss to check out a car for sale. Our task was waylaid by a jaguarundi lying in the middle of the highway, something I dismissed as roadkill but my boss spontaneously decided to stop and investigate. Turns out, it was only unconscious, and while I left with the car owner on our original errand she called a vet friend and they both took it to a nearby clinic, with him holding the unconscious cat in his lap. Which is when it woke up because of course it did.

Please note: I was not there for this, and if I was, I might’ve mentioned that placing a seemingly inert wild cat on your lap in a closed vehicle is tempting fate. As it happens I only got the story secondhand. But I hear screaming was involved. Also several scratches. And a near head-on collision. What ended up happening was the cat fortified itself in the boot between grocery bags until they arrived and several vet techs wrangled it out with a dog collar.

But we still weren’t sure of its condition. So yesterday I was tasked with taking it to a different animal clinic for X-rays, seeing as both of our on-staff vets were on vacation. Someone phoned ahead to tell the head vet that we were bringing him a “gato.” They failed to specify what kind of “gato,” though. “Gato” is certainly what he got. About 52 kg of wild “gato,” in fact, pissed off and locked in a cage. The poor guy was out of his depth. So he called on me to assist.

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With this.

Again, note: I am not a vet. I’m a wildlife biologist, and have some experience restraining small predators. But nothing really prepared me for helping a pet vet and his poor assistant extract and hold down a hissing, biting, clawing, squirming, and scent-spraying young Tom jaguarundi from a dog kennel. The thing moved like a fluid. I couldn’t seem to grab hold of anything that didn’t bite back. One chomp went right through my gloves like a bear trap. It’s flipped around the inside of the kennel so much that the whole thing nearly tipped off the table. Eventually we got a collar around its neck and I got my hands around its legs and held them steady while the Doc got a needle of Ketamine into its quad muscle.

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Photo taken after the action was over, the drugs had kicked in, and I had taken from time to gauze my hand.

The rest was clinical. The cat dropped into a quiet, happy place within a few minutes, and allowed us to carry it out and between medical instruments for the rest of the exam. Its eyes were glazed over but still wary and judgmental in that way only cats can be while still stoned out of their minds. Results? No broken bones, no organ damage, just a slight limp. Maybe down to 8 lives.

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It was tranquilized, but fully awake, so I tweaked its nose in revenge for the bite. My animal karma is very low now, but it was worth it.

 

Kitty’s fine now. In perfect health and back to its natural fiestiness now that the drugs have worn off. We’ll hold it for a few days to monitor until we release it. Me, I’m just glad our vets have come back. It’s their problem now. I am not a cat person, and I’ve got the bite marks to prove it.

 

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Nominal Doubt (With Apologies to Australia)

It finally happened. Something that I had been suspecting and joking about for years–someone actually called me out and accused me of making up animal names.

It’s not like I can blame them. It was on a tour where I had already introduced them to a kinkajou, a coati, and a kiskadee. We heard a shrill scream overhead, and I IDed it as a Caracara.

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The bird so nice they named it twice.

Costa Rica has an interesting history when it comes to animal names. I’ve mentioned this before. Most of the fauna unique to the Tropics–the kinkajous, coatis, tapirs, and cavimorph rodents–have no reference in the Temperate zones and thus require their own unique root names. It doesn’t help that most of these names come from South American indigenous languages, where the first English-speaking naturalists IDed them. It also doesn’t help that most local bird names are onomatopoeic–there usually based off the sound the bird makes. This gives you things like caracara, kiskadee, toledo, and chachalaca.

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“As in, Boom, chachalaca?”–every tourist ever.

I hear Australia has a similar problem. Australia, the land of the wallaby, the quokka, the numbat, and the jongowumpas, names so outlandish to English ears that you probably didn’t even catch that I made one of those up.

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And I’m never telling which.

But back to Costa Rica, where some of our animals sound like rejects from Harry Potter. Lizards here have names like basilisk, or -something dragon, just adding to the mythological flair. Or Pokemon. Have you ever seen a student roll their eyes when you pointed out an olingo? Or gotten a blank stare when you excitedly explained that you could hear a Quetzal? Or heard someone actually snort out loud when you mention the high local density of Titi monkeys? I have.

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It’s pronounced “Tee-Tee” monkeys, you comedians.

Look, I get it. Guides are notorious for hating to say they don’t know an answer. And I’m sure we’ve all had the temptation to bullshit or outright lie. But please give them the benefit of the doubt. Names and sounds are relative. Foreigners might very well react the same to creatures in your backyard. In fact, I had to boot up Google to prove to a skeptical Spaniard what a “marmot” was.

And sometimes the names are important. Disbelieve at your own risk. Here, you really do need to watch out for pica-pica vine. In Madagascar, don’t laugh when they warn you about Fossa. And in Australia, beware of the cassowary, the dingo, and the dreaded furbompowhispel. And yes, I made one of those up. Probably.

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Seriously, don’t laugh about the fossa.

The Fast and the Venomous

I have been, am, and always will be the guy who is happy to deal with snakes. I like ’em. I respect ’em. I’ve had the training to safely handle them, and I’m just as happy to get them out of human areas than the other humans are. Well, maybe not quite.

I grew up pouncing on any snake I could find. Eventually I worked out the best ways to grab that involved the fewest number of bites. I worked for a summer as a rattlesnake wrangler. Helped out a few veteran herpetologists. I know what I’m doing. And I know my limits.

There’s an expression: there are old herpetologists, and bold herpetologists, but there are no old bold herpetologists. It’s the kind of job that’s self-regulating. Naturally selecting, if you will. And this is no joke. People die all the time from handling dangerous snakes improperly. I’ve known a few. Known.

There are ways to approach and handle a snake that reduce the danger. Like keeping the snake–and yourself–calm, for example. Minimizing anxiety means the snake is less likely to strike. Most snakes can detect your heartbeat, and can register excitement as a threat. There’s also the skill of being able to predict where the snake is likely to retreat to–by foreseeing where the head is, you can try to be where it isn’t. Or you can try to give the snake a bag to crawl into or a stick to hold onto–playing off its own instincts. It’s easy, once you get the hang of it.

And then there’s the snake that breaks all the rules.

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Mark this one, and mark it well.

I’ve mentioned the Fer-de-lance before, in one of the pages above. It’s the one whose title is a disclaimer. This is the viper responsible for the most bites–and the most deaths–of any snake in the Americas. The venom is potent, its camouflage makes it almost invisible, and it gives no warning before striking. When bothered, it can do a tricky little maneuver where it starts to crawl away and then reverses, whipping around towards you. It can jump, climb, and swim. Oh, and it can squirt venom when it’s really pissed.

But its the unpredictability that really makes this thing dangerous. It’s one of the snakes I don’t play with–I avoid when I can and urge others to leave them in peace. But that’s not always an option where we are. See, the South Pacific Coast of Costa Rica boasts one of the highest concentrations of terciopelo, in part improved by the widespread plantations of African Oil Palm that create the all-time ideal habitat for them. We see them often, and often in our living spaces.

Last week, I got called to remove one from our animal rehabilitation area where interns spend many hours after dark. I was happy to oblige, but when I saw the snake even I balked a little. It was an adult female over 5 feet long. Probably pregnant. Very angry. Especially after I dragged her out of her little hollow stump by her neck using an extendable grabber claw. A claw that proved to be weaker than she was, since she twisted her way out of the grip several times. She also anchored her tail on a sapling, so to get her into a bin I had to clamp down with both hands and lift her over my head so her tail couldn’t touch the ground. That’s how we got her length.

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Pictured here, post-release, from a safe distance. Because I didn’t allow anyone close enough to film during the action.

The encounter left me exhausted. Dealing with theses things is a hell of rush followed by a hell of a crash. But later that night I was woken by a call about another snake–this one in the kitchen. This fer-de-lance proved to be a young male, but that just meant he was small and quick enough to hide under all the available spaces in a restaurant-size kitchen. I shooed everyone out, then spent the next fifteen minutes chasing that little bastard around, out from under stoves and in between cabinets. But he must have tired before I did since I got him to coil around my stick and plopped him into a box.

I released the snakes across a river a little ways into the forest. Made sure everyone got a look so they knew what to watch out for. Because it’s March. Birthing season for fer-de-lance. And where there’s one, there’s easily more. I’m going to be busy.

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My patented release technique of kicking the bin over and yelling, “And don’t come back!”

But to reiterate my first point: I’m not stupid. I’m not a showboat. I treat these snakes with the respect the threat deserves. I plan ahead and know what to do if someone does get bit. I don’t mess around and I keep people safe. It’s why I’m still alive. I’m neither old nor bold. Well, maybe a little.

The Salamander Enigma

As I’m writing this, our little sliver of jungle is being blessed with the first true rainfall of the year. It’s no rainstorm–not even close. It just doesn’t have the staying power. But it’s a real, good-‘ol tropical downpour that has all the poor volunteers scattering for cover and the ones who were planning a beach day cursing their bad luck. Me? I’m chuckling to myself. Mostly because I work indoors now.

But also because rain means wet, and wet means amphibians. We’re sure to fall asleep to the operatic chorus of millions of frogs in a few days, as they come out of Dry Season dormancy and begin their courtship. Soon, they’ll come out of the holes and hollows and collect around bodies of water, from streams to ponds to tiny little pockets of bromeliads.

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Singin’ in the rain.

In fact, it’s almost like they’ve been expecting this to happen. I’ve been seeing an usual amount of frog activity lately, as if they’re preparing for the big party. What’s even more strange is another group of amphibians who have consistently made their appearance: tropical salamanders.

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These.

Anyone from Central California or the East Coast may be confused. Up North, Salamanders aren’t really unusual, and actually quite diverse. But salamanders and newts (Order Caudata) have the distinction being perhaps the only Clade of any living thing where species diversity is generally lower in the Tropics than in the Temperate zones.

Take birds, for example. For every species of hawk, or pigeon, or hummingbird, chances are there’s at least three times as many species the closer you get to the equator. Same goes for rodents. Or reptiles. Or plants. Forget about plants.

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Don’t actually forget about plants.

It’s a good biogeographic rule of thumb: Tropics equals abundance equals niche diversity equals species diversity. Add a little intermediate disturbance and multiply by species packing. Don’t forget the migration factor. It’s basic math. There. I’ve just given every biologist and mathematician reading this an ulcer. But you get what I’m saying.

But salamanders are the exception. Why? There are theories. Some say that they’re outcompeted by frogs and lizards, who have over-specialized in microhabitats. That with their short little legs, salamanders don’t operate as well in a complex environment. That they don’t reproduce fast or successfully enough to adapt. That they’re stupid and no one likes them.

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That last one’s not true. I love these guys.

Whatever the reason, neotropical salamanders remain relatively rare and poorly diverse. I’ve only ever seen one before coming here, and I spend a lot of tiny looking for little slimy things. Which makes it all the more unexpected to see so many here, in the peak of the Dry Season, some right out in the open perched on leaves and slow to crawl away.

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You. You’ve had millions of years of evolution. Would it kill you to have articulated digits?

Funny little guys. Like someone was trying to build a lizard and gave up halfway through. The ones here are probably some kind of Worm Salamander, with primitive limbs and terrestrial lifestyle. Probably slightly toxic, which would explain the sluggish behavior. But still special to see. And with the rains beginning, we’re sure to see more.

Plan Bee

About 70 years ago, beekeepers in South America tried to breed the perfect honeybee. They took European Apis mellifera (which produced good honey but were slow to spread), with an African-strain Apis mellifera scutellata (which didn’t make much honey and were aggressive). However, the resulting cross-breed displayed none of the good traits and both of the bad ones–it made little honey and were very aggressive. They also reproduced insanely fast. When the resulting colony was accidentally released, it immediately began to spread and take over, outcompeting naturalized honeybee hives. To this day, Africanized or “Killer” bees are spreading northward, their range increasing every year.

The population is already well-established in Costa Rica, which means that any honeybee hive must be approached with caution. After all, there is no way to physically distinguish an Africanized bee from a non-Africanized, and by the time you’re close enough to realized that your resident bees are psychotic, it’s usually too late.

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If you’re close enough to take this photo, it’s too late.

The name killer bees is no joke. The sting is exactly the same as an ordinary honeybee, but the sheer number of stings you will suffer if you disturb the nest is literally fatal. Killer bees attack without restraint or mercy, and the attack pheremones released from the stings only incite more to join in the kamikaze onslaught. There is no way to fight them off, and they will chase an intruder for up to a kilometer. It’s one of the few cases where you are perfectly reasonable in simply running and screaming. In fact, I encourage such a response.

So when several volunteers announced that there was a large number of bees outside the dorm, I decided to investigate. However, upon arrival, I was immediately sure that the bees in question were not Africanized since the volunteers were standing well within attack distance, and there was no running and screaming yet. Furthermore, the bees were clustered in a tight ball hanging under the stairs, surrounded by a small buzzing cloud. They were swarming.

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“…welcome home?”

See, when a hive gets too large for a queen to regulate, she flies off with about half the workers to establish a new hive. Beforehand, all the bees slurp up as much honey as the can, and spend a few idle days bloated and content until a new nest is established. During this time, they are completely docile since they have no honey or eggs to guard. They will rarely attack, and can be approached. Since I seemed to be having difficulty convincing my volunteers of this, I demonstrated by walking up and sticking my hand into the pile of living bees.

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I wore gloves. Safety first.

It’s hard to describe the texture of bees, exactly. The bees themselves are fuzzy, of course, and act like grains of sand with little legs, but the swarm functions almost like a collective object. It’s sticky. The bees cling to each other, and the bee ball can stretch like cotton candy. Then there’s the buzzing.

Standing in a middle of a swarm of bees–with or without an outstretched hand immersed in he tiny insects–is an experience that is impossible to describe. The buzzing permeates the air. It goes through you. You feel it in your chest and between your teeth. It’s less of a sound and more of a sensation.

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Pictured: the closest I get to a religious experience.

And it can be a little freaky if you’re not used to it. Which is probably why several people asked that the bees be removed. I offered to try to collect the queen and relocate her, hoping the swarm would follow. I did this by the old, tried-and-true method of snatch ‘n grab.

But the bees had arranged themselves under a 3rd-floor balcony in a position where I couldn’t reach down. I had to reach up. I had to stand right under them and scoop around with gloves hands for the queen, with startled bee blobs raining down on my face. Several went down my shirt, so I just whipped it off. But it started to get dark.

 

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She also didn’t go for my dustpan technique. Maybe it was too undignified. She is royalty, after all.

So there I was, standing on a balcony, shirtless, arms upraised and covered in bees as the last rays of sun lit up this spectacle for all the volunteers to see. I must have looked like a loon. And it didn’t even work. Soon it got too dark, and then a poor confused bee flew into my ear and stung me out of panic. It was time to throw in the towel.

As it turned out, the swarm moved on the next day. But we hope they’ll settle down nearby. Always good to have pollinators, and there’s talk of building bee boxes to see if we can get our own honey.

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“It’s been real. Let’s do it again sometime.”

 

So we hope this swarm will show up again and we’ll have more to show for this ordeal than a few poor photos. Except me, that is. Because this morning I woke up with my ear swollen shut and looking like a piece of bacon. Turns out, I may have developed a spontaneous allergic reaction to the sting. I spent the rest of the day strung out on antihistamines, and a hospital run is on the books if I don’t improve.

Just to recap: bees are only safe when they’re swarming. And don’t mess around with the Africanized ones. They will straight-up kill you. Don’t approach any bees unless you’re sure. I’ve dealt with bees before and knew what I was doing. At least, this is what I told me boss, after they learned I’d exposed the volunteers to bees. What can I say? I got an earful.

 

Excuse Me, How Do You Feel About Giant Spiders?

Check this out: the Golden Orb Weaver.

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You may begin screaming now.

That’s an adult female in all her glory. Smallish specimen, a little smaller than my hand with her legs stretched out. Here’s another, with my hand as close as I felt comfortable for comparison.

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The things I do for pageviews.

They’re harmless, of course. Just…big. Like, really big. The largest I’ve seen were almost the size of two hands held together. And their webs are massive, too. Continuously built upon, and can last for days. This species has a funny habit of slinging them across open spaces like archways and paths, and is the reason that–in a previous job–we nicknamed the unlucky bastard who chose to hike in the front of the group the designated “Spider Eater.” It was a job that often fell to me, and some mornings I would run into a web so big and strong that it would stop me in my tracks while I asked my friends to please find the enormous spider affixed to my body somewhere.

In fact, the webs are so strong that the Golden Orb is one of the only spider species to be farmed for its silk. The fiber–a lovely natural yellow color–is stronger than steel by weight, and is being produced as a Kevlar substitute for bulletproof fabric. Spider farms are pretty much what you’d expect–fields upon fields of spider webs strung between frames, something you’ll be picturing in your nightmares for several weeks now.

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You’re welcome.

What is it about spiders that we find so terrifying? For most people have an immediate, almost gastrointestinal reaction to that arrangement of crooked radial legs around a little body. Experts argue back and forth as to whether this is socially reinforced–a symbol that we warn each other from a young age to fear, and fear well; or innate–a hereditary behavior influenced by genes. There’s much to be said for a genetic disposition towards avoiding spiders. Some really are dangerous. Your impulse to shriek and run is actually a survival instinct. Or at least a relic of one.

But some people go a step further, and one of the most well-known phobias is Arachnaphobia, the fear of spiders and a terrible horror movie. Common, powerful, and transcendental of culture and society, it’s one I’ve come to respect and sympathize for, especially here in the tropics. Conveniently enough, it’s also the same word in English, Spanish, French, and Italian.

I know the last one because I just welcomed some guests from Italy, one so arachnaphobic that he asked me to remove a Golden Orb from outside his cabin, saying that he couldn’t sleep knowing it was there. Outside the cabin. I obliged, but later one of his friends approached me with a worried look. She explained that she had arranged a two-day hike and camping trip into Corcovado National Park, the largest and densest rainforest in Costa Rica. Also the same place where I earned the name “Spider Eater.”

When she asked if spiders were going to be a problem, I just took a deep breath. That, and my expression, told her everything she needed to know. It didn’t even need translation into Italian. I tried to follow up by saying that, months from now, when her arachnaphobe friend was speaking to her again, he would look back on it as an adventure. But the damage was done. I never even got to tell my Spider Eater story.

It’s just that spiders are everywhere. Especially in the Tropics. You literally cannot escape them. It’s a good rule of thumb that wherever you are in the world–jungle, city, or Italy–a spider is watching you. Only here, it’s more like several hundred spiders. And some are rather large.

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And we’re due to have many more of them, since I found this egg sac. Also a lovely yellow color.

One last thing: that Golden Orb Weaver from before, remember how I knew that was a female? Well, here’s a male for comparison.

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No, not that–the little brown smudge up and to the right a little.

The males don’t produce silk, and squat in the web of a female, stealing bits of her food. His small size is an adaptation–any bigger, and she might try to eat him. He lives, hides, feeds, and mates, all without her even noticing. How’s that for an innate fear?

 

Quotes from the Field

Note: I’ve been saving these up for months. Only now that I’m not under NDA can I safely publish them.

 

“Do you see any monkeyballs? We can’t go home until we see monkeyballs.”

 

“Until your paperwork comes in, under no circumstances are you allowed to touch poop.”

 

“If you die out here, can I have your stuff?”

“No.”

“Oh. Okay. Then don’t stand on this rock.”

 

“This’ll be the third hospital visit in as may days. Do we get some kind of loyalty discount?”

 

“You have a praying mantis on your face.”

“Yeah, well, we’ve all had that morning.”

 

“If some random person walks in on us right now, they’re going to think we’re some sort of cult.”

 

“Focal monkey threatens me, poops, then threatens his own poop.”

 

“What do you suppose is the most efficient way to kill every last one of these monkeys. I mean, hypothetically, if you had to.”

 

“Have you ever tried not getting things stuck in your eye?”

 

“That monkey’s glaring at me.”

“He’s also masturbating.”

 

“Are you alright?”

“It’s okay. I have two wrists, so I can afford to break one.”

 

“Focal out of view. Abort follow. Comment: I am wet, covered in ants, and reevaluating my life choices.”

 

“How long do you think a dead human body would last out here?”

 

“What’re your plans for vacation?”

“Drink until I stop seeing monkeys when I close my eyes.”

 

Me: “Hey.”

Partner: “Yes?”

Me: “I just sat on a cactus.”