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Zoo Ave: Wildlife Conservation Park
Katie Higgins - Scientific Officer
Zoo Ave Wildlife Conservation Park is located in La Garita de Alajuela, Costa Rica. The Zoo property is 14 hectares of transitional zone between humid tropical forest and dry tropical forest. Since 1990, over 1,100 native trees have been planted on this property, transforming the former coffee and citrus plantation to the status of zoological park. The Zoo is operated by the non-profit, private Nature Restoration Foundation (Fundación Restauración de la Naturaleza), which works on the behalf of the public interest and native Costa Rican flora and fauna. Zoo Ave and the Foundation are dedicated to preserving the rich, unparalleled natural diversity of Costa Rica so that it may be understood, respected and enjoyed by future generations of Costa Ricans and foreign visitors.
Zoo Ave has been working successfully since 1990 to breed, rehabilitate and release Costa Rican fauna. By 1995, Zoo Ave was recognized by the Costa Rican government as an official Wildlife Rescue Center. Since this time, Zoo Ave has continued to grow and improve both exhibits and support facilities including a new kitchen, wildlife veterinary clinic and office which were completed in 1997. All of the animals at Zoo Ave were donated as injured, orphaned, or former pets or were captive bred at the Zoo. Every animal is evaluated for potential release. If deemed unreleaseable, every attempt is made to put the animal into the captive breeding program. When these option are not possible, animals are kept in the best possible conditions with a healthy, varied diet and with others of the same or compatible species.
Zoo Ave is open daily to the public and welcomes over 60,000 visitors each year. The Zoo encourages attendance by Costa Ricans by offering a significantly reduced entrance fee as well as picnic grounds and free entrance to some schools.
2.0 Zoo Ave Programs
In order to remain faithful to its mission of enlightening and educating
people about the importance of Costa Rican wildlife to the tropical ecosystems
As the name implies, Zoo Ave is a place for birds. Over 80 species of native avifauna are on exhibit including 13 species of psittacines, 16 species of raptors (hawks, eagles and owls), 40 species of songbirds, 5 toucan species and 4 species of cracids (guans, currosaws and chachalacas). In addition to these native birds, there are a number of exotics including non-native psittacines, peacocks, pheasants, African crowned cranes and even ostriches. All birds are housed in large, well vegetated flight cages. Enclosures are designed to both provide visitors with a unique viewing experience as well as to allow the birds a sense of natural surroundings. In addition, all birds are provided with a natural, varied diet, appropriate nesting materials and the company of others of their same or compatible species.
In addition to birds, Zoo Ave houses over 15 species of reptiles ranging from baby Mud turtles (Kinosternon scorpioides) that measure no more than 3 cm to Cornelius, the resident American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) who measures close to three meters. Six of the eight species of native terrestrial turtles are found at Zoo Ave, along with Spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodylus), Green iguanas (Iguana iguana), and various exotic tortoise species. Each group is housed in its own enclosure with ample space, natural vegetation and large pools. Visitors can marvel at these prehistoric looking beasts while at the same time learn of their natural history and role in the ecosystem.
Native mammalian species are also represented at Zoo Ave, primarily as primates. As with other types of animals housed at Zoo Ave, all of the primates come to the Zoo injured, orphaned or as former pets. Many of them were housed in deplorable conditions, i.e. confined to a small cage and deprived of contact with others of their species. These animals are cared for in our Wildlife Clinic until they are ready for exposure to others. Due to the need for extended rehabilitation and the complexity of release logistics for primates, all of these animals are housed in Zoo exibits until appropriate release criterion are met. There are a variety of primate exhibits at Zoo Ave, each designed with the animal's natural habitat in mind. The White-faced capuchins (Cebus capucinus) are in an enclosure which ensures as little human contact as possible while still allowing visitors to view them. This enclosure provides Zoo patrons with the feeling that they are seeing these animals in a natural setting. In addition to the viewing pleasure of Zoo visitors, the privacy provided these animals encourages natural social behaviors in these monkeys. This is important, as many of them will be included in future release projects. The other three native Costa Rican primate species, Mantled howler monkey (Allouata palliata), Central American spider monkey (Ateles geoffreyi) and the Central American squirrel monkey (Saimiri oerstedi), are also housed at the Zoo. Two non-native primates, the Brazilian tufted eared marmoset (Callitrhrix jacchus) and the African patas monkeys (Erythrocebus patas) can also be found at the Zoo.
The majority of annual Zoo patrons (95%) are Costa Rican nationals. At
least 26,000 of these visitors are children. School groups between the
ages of 5 and 15 are a common sight in the Zoo throughout the school year.
Due to the numbers of Costa Ricans which visit the Zoo, the opportunity
for conveying information about conservation on a local level is enormous.
Educational displays and handouts help to promote better understanding
of Costa Rican native fauna and the habitats in which they live. Educational
coloring books and a new self-guided tour booklet are offered to visitors
in order to enhance their enjoyment and understanding of the zoological
park. Issues such as the pet trade of wildlife within Costa Rica are addressed
through displays such as our domestic bird enclosure and informational
signage throughout the Zoo. The majority of the native animals
In addition to Zoo Ave's existing educational pamphlets and displays, a new education center is currently being designed. This area will contain information on all of Zoo Ave's programs. The center will be designed to convey information to both children and adults. However a "kid pit" will also be designed in order to give children a more multi-media experience. This area will include several games and projects which will allow children to better understand different animals and the way they interact with their environment.
Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation
Also located on Zoo grounds is the Wildlife Veterinary Clinic. Our Rescue and Rehabilitation Program allows the public to be directly involved with Zoo Ave's conservation efforts. Zoo Ave accepts orphaned, injured and unwanted pet animals at the Clinic. In addition to public donations, Zoo Ave receives confiscated wildlife in its capacity as an official Wildlife Rescue Center for Costa Rica. Our release site in Playa San Josecito in the Golfo Dulce region is another location where Zoo Ave accepts confiscated wildlife. In 1999, we have already accepted over 600 animals at our combined locations.
Clinical cases (injured) and orphaned wildlife are cared for at the Widlife Clinic under the combined care of staff biologists and veterinarian students from the National University of Costa Rica (UNA). The Zoo's consulting veterinarian is Dr. Mauricio Jim_nez Soto. Dr. Jiménez is also a professor at the Small Animal and Wildlife School of Veterinary Medicine at UNA and supervises the efforts of these students. Staff biologists work closely with the students to perform routine examinations for quarantine, exhibit, breeding and release animals. This arrangement allows for a heightened level of professional care for animals as well as providing hands-on experience to the students. The time students spend at Zoo Ave is of utmost importance, allowing the opportunity to work with wildlife, including psittacines, songbirds, raptors and other birds as well as reptiles and monkeys. This wildlife experience may help them decide between becoming a simple small animal verterinarian or a much needed wildlife veterinarian.
The vast majority of donated animals (77%) are birds, primarily psittacines. The most common species donated include Red-lored amazons (Amazona autumnalis), Crimson-fronted conures (Aratinga finschi) and Orange-chinned parakeets (Brotogeris jugularis). Other species of parrots donated include Scarlet macaws (Ara macao) and a variety of other amazon and conure species. Additional birds donated include a number of owl species including Tropical screech (Otus choliba) and Ferruginous pygmy owls (Glaucidium brasilianum) and various song birds.
Almost another 19% of donations at our Clinic are reptiles, primarily Green iguanas (Iguana iguana), Boa constrictors (Boa constrictor) and a variety of turtle species. A great majority of these reptile are wild caught individuals that have arrived at someone's house or barn. In these cases, the animals are given an examination and released at a nearby site. Animals that cannot be released for one reason or another (injury, etc.) are retained at the Clinic until they can be placed on exhibit or in a captive breeding situation.
The remaining 4% of donations are mammals, including monkeys, sloths and squirrels. Orphaned baby Mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata) are one of the most commonly accepted primate species. These animals require an enormous amount of care and attention. Eventual release of these orphans depends on appropriate diet, adequate exercise to assure the necessary agility required for arboreal locomotion and socialization with others of the same species. Zoo Ave staff are dedicated to providing all of the necessary elements to adequately prepare these orphans for eventual release.
The largest number of government confiscations are accepted during Holy Week (Semana Santa), the week before Easter. Because this vacation time coincides with the presence of neonate animals in the wild, this is also when much of the illegal poaching for the pet trade takes place. After confiscation, these animals are brought to official Wildlife Rescue Centers for care and release. Zoo Ave received over 200 animals (between two locations) during April 1999 due to Semana Santa confiscations. The majority were again psittacine birds, primarily Orange-chinned parakeets, Half-moon conures (Aratinga canicularis) and Red-lored amazons. The majority of these birds were taken from the nest at a variety of developmental stages ranging from a few days old to near fledging. Most of them required extensive care after they were brought to Zoo Ave. About half required hand feeding until weaning age. The other half, while fully feathered and eating on their own, had badly clipped wings and tails. These birds are housed, browsed and fed until they grow proper flight feathers. Observations are made daily to assure the continued health of the birds.
Appropriate care for donated wildlife may vary from a few days, to several months or even years for some species. However, once an animal has been determined healthy and capable of living on its own, the next step is to introduce it to an appropriate prerelease regimen. This also varies depending on the species. For raptorial birds such as owls and hawks, one of the primary release criteria is that the animal can hunt and kill live food. Therefore, physical and behavioral evaluation for these individuals is based on this necessity. For psittacine species, the criteria for release are much different. These are highly social animals which spend the majority of their time browsing for a variety of fruits, nuts and vegetation. As the Clinic receives both wild and semi-domesticated parrots, one of the first behavioral evaluations is an animal's ability to socialize with conspecifics. In addition, the avoidance of humans and the ability to recognize appropriate food are vital to the ability of a parrot to survive in the wild (Wiley et al. 1992). These and other release criteria are evaluated for each animal once it enters the post-clinical phase of rehabilitation.
Zoo Ave has successfully bred and/or released over 40 species of native Costa Rican birds, reptiles and mammals. Breeding efforts are focused on threatened, endangered or otherwise vulnerable species such as the Scarlet macaw (Ara macao), Great green macaw (Ara ambigua), Green iguana (Iguana iguana), and Central American squirrel monkey (Saimiri oerstedii). However all of the animals housed at the Zoo are provided space, appropriate nesting material and nutrition to successfully breed and rear young. Through the captive breeding of native Costa Rican bird species, Zoo Ave contributes to the conservation of wild genetic variation and the growing body of avicultural knowledge.
A new breeding facility was constructed in July, 1998 and now has the potential to house over 40 pairs of breeding psittacines, including: Scarlet and Great green macaws, Yellow-naped amazon (Amazona auropalliata), White-headed pionus (Pionus senilis) and Aztec conure (Aratinga nana). During the first full year of activity in the new facility 14 pairs have attempted and eight pairs have succeeded in producing young. Successes include three active pairs of Scarlet macaws and two active pairs of Great green macaws.
Our Scarlet macaw breeding program is designed to provide birds with sufficient genetic variability to establish a reintroduced population at our San Josecito Release Site. Breeding Area monitoring is designed to determine what pairs are successful and which birds may need to be paired with a different individual to produce a successful match. Re-matching of birds will not occur until each pair has been given at least two years in the new compound, as previously successful pairs have yet to make an attempt after the move. DNA fingerprinting will also be used in determining appropriate nesting pairs of macaws. Newly donated birds are added regularly to the breeding stock as well as directly to our release program, thereby potentially increasing genetic variability to released populations.
Captive macaw breeding at Zoo Ave involves a combination of artificial incubation, with hand feeding and parent reared chicks. To encourage multiple clutching, the first eggs of the season are usually pulled from the parents and the chicks are hand raised. Subsequent clutches may also be pulled due to problems or poor parenting abilities with some pairs. However, efforts are made to leave at least one clutch per season with the parents. As parent-reared young make better release candidates than those which are hand fed (Kleiman 1996, Wiley et al. 1992, Wemmer and Derrickson 1987), the goal is to leave the majority of young with their parents. Captive breeding of other psittacine species, while not as regimented as the macaw program, is monitored closely. Chicks are usually parent raised but may be pulled for various reasons (such as sickness or poor parenting) and hand raised. As with all of Zoo Ave's captive breeding efforts, these chicks are placed in appropriate conspecific groups and released into appropriate habitats.
In addition to psittacine breeding, several raptor species housed at Zoo Ave have also successfully hatched and fledged young. Many of our owls including the Spectacled (Pulsatrix perspicillata), Common barn (Tyto alba) and Ferruginous pygmy (Glaucidium brasilianum) owls have fledged young for several consecutive years. Our White hawk (Leucopternis albicollis) pair have hatched three young over the last two years. While two of these young had to be pulled and hand reared, the pair's third attempt in May 1999 has resulted in a beautiful, parent-reared chick. Supplemental feeding was provided for the first two weeks after hatching, and the weight was recorded every other day. After the first two weeks, the female was able to take care of the chick on her own.
Other successful avian breeding here at the Zoo includes newly fledged young from a pair of Emerald toucanets (Aulacorhynchus prasinus), a recently released juvenile Crested caracara (Polyborus plancus) and various songbird species. Additionally, four new Gray-necked woodrails (Aramides cajanea) were recently hatched on Zoo grounds.
Release and Reintroduction
While preparation of release candidates is similar for both release and reintroduction, there are some key differences which should be clarified. According to the World Conservation Union's IUCN/SSC Guidelines for Re-introductions section 1.a., reintroduction is "an attempt to establish a species in an area which was once part of its historical range, but from which it has been extirpated or become extinct," (1995). A release, on the other hand, is usually considered a liberation of an animal into an environment with an extant population of the same species. For Zoo Ave, a release is usually associated with an animal or group of animals which have gone through our Rehabilitation Program or came in as government confiscations (although there are exceptions). Whereas our Scarlet Macaw Reintroduction Program is carried out with a significant number of birds specifically bred for the project, and rehabilitated or confiscated animals are added only as deemed appropriate. Although these differences are important, due to similarities in the preparation and post release monitoring of both release and reintroduction candidates, both will be referred to as release candidates in the following discussion.
Both release and reintroduction are controversial practices and should be approached with the utmost care and scrutiny. There are several limiting factors to releasing a captive animal into the wild. Some of the most important of these include: 1) the risk of spreading disease to wild populations, 2) existance of appropriate habitat, 3) release of animals within an appropriate geographical area, 4) reduced survival potential for captive raised versus wild individuals and 5) human influence (Wemmer and Derrickson 1987, Wiley et al. 1992, Kleiman 1995, Sanz and Grajal 1998). Zoo Ave's release and reintroduction protocols are designed with these factors in mind.
Disease Control: One of the primary concerns when introducing either captive bred or wild birds which have been held in captivity is the potential for disease to spread from the captive population to resident wild bird populations (Kleiman 1996, Wiley et al. 1992). To reduce this risk, rigorous quarantine proceedures are enforced at Zoo Ave which include a six week period of holding in which two general physical exams (one on entry and one on exit of quarantine period), three fecal exams (parasite screening) and daily observations are performed on each individual before consideration for release. Additionally, Scarlet macaws are subject to full blood screening for infectious diseases including avian influenza, psittacosis, avian polyoma virus, and Newcastle disease (Sanz and Grajal 1987). A variety of professionals are involved in the design and implementation of these health screening protocols, including Zoo Ave staff biologists, Dr. Mauricio Jiménez Soto of UNA, Dr. Gerry M. Dorrestein DVM, PhD. (Dept. Vet Pathology, Utrecht University, The Netherlands) and veterinary students from UNA.
Release Protocol: Once an animal has completed Zoo Aves quarantine process, a decision is made as to what program it is best suited. For psittacines, if an animal is physically well, the next step is placement with a group of conspecifics. By placing donated parrots into a large flight cage in a group situation, and offering a wide variety of foods and natural browse, determination can be made as to the behavioral fitness of a bird for release. In addition, this type of housing helps prepare these animals for possible release by allowing time to socialize, learn to recognize natural foods and to improve physical fitness by allowing room for flight and providing branches for improved climbing dexterity. If an animal displays one of several unacceptable behaviors such as excessive aggression towards other parrots, feather chewing, an unacceptable level of interest in human contact or an unwillingness to browse on natural foods, these candidates will be removed from the release program and placed in either a breeding situation or on exhibit within the Zoo. As some of these behaviors may change, if a parrot is given enough time, an extended screening period may be advantageous over immediate dismissal from the Release Program.
In addition to behavioral and health screenings, an attempt is made to release each animal in the appropriate geographical region of the country. As there is little or no geographical variation in most native Costa Rican psittacine species, this can be difficult. The only species known to exhibit morphological differences over its geographic range is the Red-lored amazon (A. autumnalis salvini). This subspecies of Red-lored amazons occurs from Honduras or Nicaragua to SW Colombia and NW Venezuela. Within Costa Rica, northern populations tend to exibit more yellow in the malar region than those in the southern part of the country, although yellow-cheeked individuals have been identified as far south as Panama (Juniper and Parr 1998). Members of the public who donate pet birds do not know or are often not willing to reveal the exact origin of the bird. Therefore, a priority is put on geographical range and existance of appropriate habitat rather than on identifying the specific origin of each bird. Zoo Ave currently operates three release sites within Costa Rica: 1) the zoological garden in La Garita de Alajuela (Central Valley), 2) Playa San Josecito in the Osa region (southwestern Costa Rica) and 3) Bosque Escondito in the Nicoya peninsula (northwestern Costa Rica).
After release, birds are offered food at established feeding stations (Chacón and Janik 1999) to facilitate their transition to the wild. Birds are monitored closely until it has been determined that they have dispersed and commenced foraging on their own. Monitoring consists primarily of feeding station observations. However, as nestbox augmentation is also used on several releases including the Scarlet Macaw Reintroduction Project, data such as nestling weight and measurements, fledgling success and general nestbox observations are also recorded. Additionally, radio telemetry is being employed for the release of Scarlet macaws.
Zoo Ave contributes to the conservation of Costa Rican wildlife through its educational efforts, captive breeding practices and the release and reintroduction of native fauna. The Zoological Park is designed to introduce visitors to a variety of different wildlife species in Costa Rica as well as instill an awareness of pertinent conservation issues. The Rescue and Rehabilitation Program allows the public to participate directly in our conservation efforts by giving them a place to bring orphaned and injured animals. Wild animals which have been held in captivity as pets are also accepted at the Widlife Clinic. While many of these tame animals are non-releaseable, they are placed either on exhibit or in the Captive Breeding Program.
Zoo Ave's breeding efforts contribute to the both the conservation of genetic variability of Costa Rican avifauna and to the greater body of avicultural knowledge. Data is collected on all hand reared psittacines, raptors and songbirds. All parent raised birds are closely monitored throughout the natal period and until fledged. Growth information on captive reared Scarlet macaws and other psittacine species is well documented. This and other data is currently being stored and analyzed for future publication.
The Scarlet Macaw Reintroduction Program is currently underway at Zoo Ave's San Josecito Release Site. In addition, rehabilitated and confiscated birds are regularly screened and prepared for release at the San Josecito Release Site or the other aforementioned Zoo Ave sites. Release candidates are thoroughly tested for both physical and behavioral shortcomings before release. All releases are closely monitored to determine survival, successful adaptation to natural food sources and any reproduction attempts. As the release or reintroduction of captive psittacines is controversial (Wemmer and Derrickson 1987, Wiley et al. 1992, Association for Parrot Conservation 1994 a and b, World Conservation Union 1995, Kleiman 1996), these data are vital for determining their validity.
Association for Parrot Conservation. (1994a) Policy statement on cofiscated parrots. Association for Parrot Conservation, Arlington, Virginia.
Association for Parrot Conservation. (1994b) Policy statement on reintroduction for parrot conservation. Association for Parrot Conservation, Arlington, Virginia.
Chacón, G.S. and Janik, D. (1999) Técnicas de liberación gradual para avifauna nativa en La Garita, Costa Rica, in Drews, C. (ed.) Rescate de Fauna en el Neotrópico. Washington D.C.: Humane Society International. 415-425.
Juniper, T. And Parr, M. (1998) Parrots: a Guide to
Kleiman, D.G. (1996) Reintroduction Programs, in Kleiman, D.G., Allen, M.E., Thompson, K.V.,and Lumpkin, S. (eds.) Wild Mammals in Captivity Principles and Techniques. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press. 297-305.
Sanz, V. and Grajal, A. (1998) Successful Reintroduction of Captive-Raised Yellow-Shouldered Amazon Parrots on Margarita Island, Venezuela. Conservation Biology, Volume 12, No.2. 430-441.
Wemmer, C. and Derrickson, S. (1987) Reintroduction: the zoobiologist dream. Am. Assoc. Zool. Parks & Aquariums Ann. Proc. 48-65.
Wiley, J., Snyder, N., and Gnam, R. (1992) Reintroduction as a Conservation Strategy for Parrots. In S. Beissinger and N. Snyder (eds.) New World Parrots in Crisis: Solutions from Conservation Biology. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. 165-200.
World Conservation Union. (1995) The World Conservation Union Re-introduction Specialist Group Guidelines for Re-Introductions. Gland, Switzerland.