As a funny man once said, “I’m not superstitious, but I’m a little stitious.” I’m a skeptic with an open mind. Black cats don’t bother me unless they’re clawing at my leg for attention. I don’t carry good luck charms unless I think they look cool and I would probably carry them anyway. I don’t believe in astrology unless I’m trying to get laid. After all, I’m a scientist at heart, trained to think rationally and act pragmatically.
But I have to admit, after significant observation and data analysis, that I am under some kind of curse: Animal trouble follows me wherever I go.
No, this is not due to my line of work. Even among biologists, my number of violent, dramatic, or otherwise unusual animal encounters is an outlier. For almost every job I’ve held. In nearly every place I lived.
My first longterm Costa Rica gig, who had the army ants infest his cabin, and his alone? This guy. That forestry job in Puerto Rico? We were told that invasive mongoose were a shy and rarely encountered species, and not a realistic threat even though they occasionally carried rabies. Yet who got bitten by a rabid mongoose, right outside the dorms, no less? Read my post about that. And the monkey house? Sure, we all had our share of monkey attacks, and monkeys throwing things at us, and monkeys peeing on us, but who had a opossum crawl across his face and fuck-no-o’clock in the morning while sleeping in his own goddam bed?
It sure seems like this is a pattern. Houses where I live see an uptick of pest activity when I move in. Farms where I work get more wildlife trouble. And the animal rescue center? Oh, sweet lord. The staff commented that he’d never seen so many snakes in so little time. Monkeys raided the kitchen. The mosquitos were unusually bad. An dang ocelot moved in and started harassing the sanctuary animals.
I’m forced to confront the “why” and seek solutions. Is this karmic justice for my past as a tracker and hunter? Or my past as a wildlife biologist? Or against my general antagonistic attitude to animals who disrespect me? Have I offended some self-righteous nature god?
Either way, I should probably come with a warning label. After all, some of the places I’ve worked (zoos, large animals farms, vet clinics come to mind), the stakes were rather high concerning potential animal trouble. I suppose I should be thankful things weren’t worse. But regardless, I might want to cool it and seek some kind of understanding with the animal kingdom in general to prevent further catastrophe.
I’m going to be running a legitimate guiding outfit soon. I can’t have my past coming back to haunt me in the form of rampaging wildlife and other such close-encounters. Actually, that might be a selling point. I’ll think on this.
Working a fulltime field gig abroad like this is in some ways like living a double life. For work, I’m either outside in the forest all day getting sweaty, muddy, scratched, and bug-bitten. My clothes are drab, worn, splattered with god-knows-what, and selected for functionality. At home, I’m a recluse, spending my time recovering, catching up on sleep, processing data in an office, and generally trying to find a little peace of mind (ie, privacy). I rarely wear pants.
But this is Costa Rica. People here have a high standard of hygiene, dress, and etiquette. You are expected to spend time getting to know your neighbors and community. Social events are all day (or all-night) affairs. In some ways, it’s the polar opposite of what’s expected from a field researcher, a terrible, terrible irony. Which meant that I was faced with a significant challenge last night: the annual Tope Nacional.
Once a year, our tiny town hosts a nationwide Tope, a event that combines horse parades, rodeo, county fair, block party, and drinking. Lots of drinking. It lasts several days, culminating in a 1000+ parade of prize horses around the streets, with the riders dressed as cowboys strutting their stuff and belting out traditional songs. While I can be a bit of a misanthrope–sleep deprivation and festering chigger bites or no–and generally shy away from large crowds, I resolved to make an effort to get involved on this final night, especially since I had been invited by a local friend who I’m going to call Jorge. It would be a valuable cultural experience, and I really need to get out of the house once in a while.
Jorge took me to the start of the event, where trailer after trailer pulled up and unloaded a number of horses that dwarfed the town’s normal human population. I soon learned that it was impolite to walk around without a beer in one’s hand, open container laws be damned, and after several I was thankful that Costa Rican beer is light enough to be bitter water. We picked a spot to watch the caballeros go by, whereupon Jorge started wolf-whistling at any and all women who passed by, they did their best to ignore him, and I did my best to pretend he was a stranger to me.
When the event started, I learned that the riders would march their horses together grouped by the province or town they represented, and stop their horses at outdoor bars for drinks along the way. The riders and the horses, that is. Yes, most cowboys would down a quick rum, while shotgunning a cold brew into their horse’s foaming mouth. The streets soon became a mess of fallen cans, and the gutters ran with a mixture of spilled drinks and horse piss.
Jorge and I ended up in a crowd, backed against a bar by a phalanx of thirsty riders and thirstier beasts. He knew the bartender, and she let us behind the bar to avoid the crush. However, in the chaos, someone grabbed my shoulder from over the bar, and I turned to see a cowboy-hatted man waving a bill in my face and gesturing to the drinks. I served him, but he was immediately replaced by someone else. So I ended up inadvertently tending outdoor bar to a bunch of cowboys and their horses. No one seemed to mind, and I got a few free cold ones.
My energy didn’t last long. I met up with some coworkers and we hit up the street food and music scene. We drank some more, and I think I lasted about 5 minutes on the dance floor while the party started to spin around me. Priding myself on at least making an effort to be social like a normal human being, I clocked in around 11, far past my normal working bedtime.
And you know what? I had a good time. Living the double life of a foreign field naturalist means sacrifice and occasionally getting out of the comfort zone. One annual equine fiesta isn’t too much to ask, and I played it safe, not drinking too much or staying out too late to be ready for fieldwork again and all that nature could through at me. I drifted off to the lingering sounds of the party a few blocks away, fulfilled and content.
At least, that is until around 4am when I felt cold paws and matted fur climb over my forehead in the dark. Fearing rats–or, illogically, mongoose–I jumped up and spent several minutes with my disturbed roommates trying to find the culprit. When it started knocking over things on the shelf, I was only slightly relieved to find that it was not a rat but rather a baby possum, although God knows how it even got inside the house, let alone on my bed.
I grabbed it by the scruff and while it drooled and played dead, my thoughts were as follows: What the hell, nature? I make an effort to be human and this is what you do to me? Send vermin into my own room, for Christ’s sake?
I mean, what’s the point? Why pretend? Did I enter some kind of dark pact with wild animals at some point? Is this revenge from the primeval gods? Can’t I just get one night of peace, one night to indulge the culture in which I live, that tolerates my animal-related behavior the rest of the year?
I threw the possum into a box, taped it up, and left it out in the kitchen for my housemates to find. I’ll release it later. Let it get out of its comfort zone, and maybe lose some sleep. Serves it right.
It’s coming up on the end of my third month here in the Monkeyverse. After all this time, all those long, grueling hours in the field, I can now add monkeys to the list of animals that I am intimately familiar with. I know their general life cycle, natural history, behavior, and can read body language. I can often tell individuals apart. I can track their movements and predict their actions with some confidence. Other animals on that list include dogs, cats, ravens, coyotes, octopus, wild pigs, moray eels, snakes, damselflies, sheep, horses, bees, and army ants. It’s been a…colorful career.
But back to monkeys. In these past few months, I have seen more of the little tree-climbing, branch-dropping creeps than I had ever wanted. I have been witness to more bizarre and horrible actions than I had ever thought possible. I expected to learn a lot from this job, but not like this. My perceptions of monkeys has not been altered so much as reinforced.
I’ve said it before: monkeys combine the worst qualities of humans with the worst qualities of animals. Like us, they are greedy, selfish, irritable, cruel, and manipulative. They are also aggressive, dirty, clumsy, impatient, and ignorant. They show the predictive capability to plan out acts of mayhem for no apparent reason (ie, dropping a branch on an unsuspecting human or horse), but also the unawareness to foresee the consequences of their actions (ie, that standing on that same branch would cause them to fall as well). They show the logistic processes to acquire resources (using a shield to protect from wasps to raid a nest), but absolutely no empathy (using their own baby as the shield). They also seem completely ignorant of the concepts of life and death.
The other day, I watched an alpha male raid a woodrat nest. Or maybe they were possums. Either way, he reached into a large bunch of dead leaves and pulled out a squirming, mewling pink baby. First he bit off the face. Not the head–the face. I know this because it continued to move and breathe while he skinned it and ate the rest from the stomach outward. The baby kept squirming but was unable to make any noise. The alpha took his time. It was a long couple of minutes.
Most predators will be sure to kill their prey before eating to ensure it does not escape. It’s not out of mercy–it’s simply easier that way. They understand that when food stops moving, it’s time to eat. But monkeys–with all their cognition and mental functions–can’t seem to tell when something is dead or not. I mentioned before how a few were confounded by a dead snake, still wary even though it was headless and covered in ants. But from what I hear, they generally keep food alive while they’re eating, especially when eating other mammals which they eat soft-parts first. Maybe they prefer food that’s still moving.
My point is, we’re witness to some pretty horrific acts on a regular basis. Even for the animal kingdom. Even for the jungle. Forget red in tooth and claw–this is red all over. Red on the face. Red in the hands. Red in our traumatized minds as we go home after watching a family of squirrels get eviscerated, screaming all the while. I can usually distance myself from the animals I study, generate a kind of cognitive dissonance, but this is hard to do when the purpose of your study is literally Anthropology.
Here, we’re not supposed to distance ourselves completely from the animals. We’re supposed to make connections. We’re supposed to project, even to anthropomorphize. It’s tricky, it’s chilling, and it’s dangerous. The monkeys are too human. I feel like I’m having some kind of Heart of Darkness-ish epiphany all over again, staring at these little bastards all day long.
After putting the monkeys to bed one evening, I was walking back through an open pasture in the dark when up ahead I caught some eyeshine. It was bright yellow-orange, low to the ground, and perfectly still. It had been a slow week, and I was practically salivating at the thought of some big juicy exotic megafauna, so I crept closer, flashlight in front and camera at the ready.
Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a rabbit. Specifically, an Eastern Cottontail, the exact same species I used to chase out of vegetable gardens back in the Eastern US. Practically identical to the Desert Cottontails I used to see all the time in California.
Something similar happened again when we were staking out monkeys near some ripe fruit trees. I heard a crash and looked up just in time to see a White-Tailed Deer trot into the brush. I stared for a minute, unable to process that I had just seen. After all, this is Costa Rica, home of wild jungle animals, and I had just seen a perfectly normal deer.
Which is, of course, utter bullshit. Wilderness familiarity creates a kind of bias in our minds. I’ve mentioned before how most Ticos treat monkeys as–at best–distractions, or–at worst–pests–to the disbelief of tourists. The opposite is also true. To me, harkening from North America, I think of deer as rats with antlers. Where I’m from, they’re more of a traffic hazard than an actual animal. Rabbits are little better.
But to see familiar species here is almost surreal, especially in combination with characteristically tropical flora and fauna. The same applies to plants. Several days now, I’ve followed monkeys to large, knobby trees with brittle, serrate leaves. The first time, I squinted to identify the fruits they were eating, until I looked down at the familiar crunching sound beneath my feet. Acorns! The trees were oaks.
Oak trees? In the tropics? Covered in monkeys? My brain couldn’t parse that. To me, an oak is something you find in a temperate grassland, surrounded by sage scrub and willows. It’s not supposed to be draped in epiphytes and parrots.
It’s important to keep in mind that terms like “tropical” and “temperate” don’t define specific boundaries. All ecozones are gradients, and species can have any sort of distribution. Nothing says that they have to stay in their designated culturally-biased region, according to perceptions of confused naturalists. And the local abundance can vary. Deer may be car-stopping antlered vermin back home, but here they’re the second-largest land animal, hunted to near extinction. Rabbits are still rabbits, though.
You have to know how to cater any tour to the age and interests of your group, and this is especially true when dealing with kids. Even more so for young kids. This has been quite the week for that, with a couple munchkins running around on any given day or so. Not sure why, but my guess is that this is the time of year that families are out traveling, and it’s becoming more common for young couples to take kids and even babies out on hikes. At the moment, we have two families, each with a baby that gets carried around, papoose-style, reacting to exotic wildlife with either an excited gurgle or a nap.
But night hikes have been tricky. On those, the key is to move as quietly and slowly as possible, two things easily forgotten by an intrepid toddler experiencing a jungle at night. It can be either too daunting, or so overwhelming that they lose focus and burst out with questions when they’re not running ahead at a firefly or giant moth. And then there’s the issue of bedtime. You see more wildlife the later out you can go, but the little ones tend to melt down quicker and the parents can end up trying to carry their offspring with one arm and aim a flashlight in the other.
But night hikes are when the best animals come out at eye level, and can be the most valuable for children at that delicate age when they don’t know how their supposed to react to certain things. What I’m saying is that most people are taught from childhood that bugs are icky. Spiders are scary. Snakes are dangerous. Things like that. But exposing them to these things early, while they’re still impressionable, can change their impression of animals for the rest of their lives.
And anything can be special if you react with enough enthusiasm that they catch on. Case in point: last night we saw a rat of some kind cross the trail and freeze in our lights. Had we seen it around a building, it would be considered vermin. But I spoke in an excited, hushed tone, let them take pictures, and the little girl ended up happier than when she first saw a coati.
The parents are the key. I have had some who were clearly not interested in the hike, and that apathy was picked up by their kids. I have had many who acted scared of insects or spiders, and their kids reacted similarly. But these ones were cool. They made sure their kids followed my directions and learned about what we saw. They told me what animals they were most excited about, and so I adjusted the hike based on where we could find those particular ones.
What impressed me most was a moment later on that same night. After the little girl started nodding off, the dad took her to bed while the mom continued on with the baby, fast asleep in a bjorn. We went a little further along the roads to a frog pond, and on the way I spotted a four-eyed opossum in a tree. However, while we moved closer for a better look, I also noticed that we were standing in the middle of a swarm of army ants.
After some panicked dancing and brushing, we got them off our shoes and legs without too many bites, and the mother calmly asked us to direct our lights toward her so she could check her baby. He was fine, and we laughed it off. She wasn’t mad or even too upset after nearly exposing her infant son to hordes of biting insects. Come to think of it, I reacted worse than she did, but you already know my thoughts on ants.
We have so many guests here that we’ve had to adopt a practice of having tours and activities at set times with multiple groups. We’ve been full before, but it used to be with only a few large school groups. Multiple couples and single travelers means juggling up to eleven different schedules and room assignments, reservations and tours. We’re all busy, and I’m exhausted.
But that’s what coffee is for. I hate to waste my time here, and there’s never a dull moment. Especially with so many new people with so much to learn. There’s no shortage of things to talk about. And you don’t even have to try very hard.
I think one of the most fascinating aspects of this area, especially to visitors from the North, is the amount of diversity and activity on the micro scale. Some of it right under your feet. Just the other night, I was poking around our main station building and found a scorpion with the better half of a centipede hanging out of its mouth. Impressive, and it drew a crowd. Right off our main porch, no less.
The only downside to having this many groups and daily events is that everyone is comparing stories, and the better ones stand out. Night hikes–the ultimate crapshoot of wildlife viewing–can range from exciting (Mouse opossum!) to ordinary (We saw…mostly a lot of spiders). This can lead to high expectations and potential disappointment.
But we try to treat everyone and make sure no one gets left out. A family had an animal-poor trip? I’ll walk ’em around a little after dark on a little unofficial tour. A couple who really want to see a certain bird? I can drop them some hints on where to find them on their own.
Got a talk to give in a few hours, and caffeine levels are getting low. That’s all for now.