Tucked away somewhere in Río Segundo in Alajuela, behind veiled chain link fencing and sporting nearly no signs is The Ara Project.
Between my unfamiliarity with the area and Tico-style directions it might have been easier just to roll down the window and listen. 200 macaws squawking carries a pretty long way…
Chris Castle opens the gate and I finally meet what was had been just a voice on the phone with a funny island accent (I couldn’t determine if Aussie or Kiwi). He’s upbeat, happy and thankful that someone (the gentlemen who hired me to take video) has taken an interest in the project. If you didn’t know better you might mistake Chris for a surfer. He’s tall, with piercing blue eyes, 3 days of stubble, an old t-shirt and blond dreadlocks. It takes less than five minutes of conversation to know that he’s no smoked out bum seduced by lazy afternoons in the sun and too much ‘pura vida.’ In fact he’s the accidental heir to the project after the original founders passed away.
His co-conspirator in conservation, Jenny Pettigrew, pops up a couple of minutes later, just as cheerful, though slightly less unkempt, and sporting the same accent: New Zealand we are informed. Both have degrees in biology from Kiwi Universities, and since there are no programs to study macaw husbandry anywhere I’m guessing that makes them some of the world experts on the subject.
They show us around the property and let us in the cages while explaining how they take care of the birds during the nearly year-long pre-release process, what they eat and where they finally release them. At one point as I’m filming, two young macaws begin playing with Chris’ hair (I nearly drop the camera when one decides to do the same to me) while he just keeps talking. He’s in his element, passionately so. He’s so passionate that he only takes 3 days off every 3 months in order to renew his tourist visa. Jenny does the same. They don’t make enough to apply for permanent residency despite doing this for years.
Over coffee and home-made chocolate muffins, Chris and Jenny explain how their social life revolves around the volunteers that come through (there’s never enough), that the money they make from tours to foreigners doesn’t even cover the costs of feeding the birds, never mind paying themselves properly (they have very supportive parents). They do have local support though. A prominent local family helps with funding while a Canadian woman helps find them furniture, second hand fridges and microwaves. Tico volunteers help regularly as well, one woman even cooks certain food for the birds over a fireplace on the farm.
So much self-sacrifice and dedication aren’t enough to overcome some of the problems they are facing. Their regular monthly funding will stop in March 2013 and the property that has been home to macaws for some 30 years is for sale (fortunately it’s overpriced). A hotel in Punta Islita, where they release birds, has donated land, but they need quite a bit of money to build the infrastructure for birds and humans. I guess the macaws have plenty of reason to squawk.
Maybe they just need someone to squawk and make some noise for them. If the foreign soccer players can get high-level meetings with immigration officials, surely these two should get their papers. I don’t know if the president has the power to grant citizenship for meritorious activity but at minimum I’m betting she can speed things along for residency. A little Internet shame goes a long way in a small country.
So here’s the deal, if you’re friends with an ambassador (or better yet you ARE an ambassador), have a sister-in-law in immigration, make their case known. Plus this presidency could use a win, this could be one.
We need to get more folks on board in general to help the macaw cause. As I mentioned there will be a fund-raising campaign featuring the video I took as well as an art contest called the Amistad Prize which is looking for sponsors (local artists depicting the effects of deforestation). I don’t have a ton of details on either but I will try to keep you all posted or you can stop by my website (see more pictures too!) or my Facebook and I will put you in touch. Thanks for helping if only by sharing this article.