Safarick’s walk-through aviary lets visitors observe some of its residents. // © 2016 Zorianna Kit
Feature image (above): Sloths are the No. 1 animal rescued in Panama. // © 2016 Zorianna Kit
Just hours after landing in Panama, I found myself part of a group of good Samaritans who stopped their cars in the middle of a busy road to help a sloth cross to the other side.
Later, when I visited with the country’s wildlife rescue groups, I learned that in Panama, sloths are the animals most in need of help. As the slowest mammal on the planet, they are especially vulnerable to being run over when trying to cross the street. A three-toed sloth, such as the one we came across, moves at a speed of only 0.15 miles per hour.
With a potential disaster averted, our sloth encounter set the tone for a wildlife-filled adventure, thanks to The Westin Playa Bonita Panama and its tour-operator partner Gamboa Tours.
About a 40-minute ride from the busy metropolitan capital of Panama City, the oceanfront hotel high-rise is tucked away from all the hustle and bustle of the city. Surrounded by water, lush green grounds and rainforest, it sits on a former U.S. Air Force Base and hasn’t overdeveloped its land, which has helped to create the feeling of a secluded oasis.
Gamboa Tours crafted an itinerary for me that combined both an aquatic and rainforest adventure. We began with a boat ride through the historic Panama Canal to Gatun Lake; once there, we visited several small islands, each one home to a different monkey species, such as capuchins, howlers and tamarins.
The closer we got to shore, the more these primates noticed our presence. But instead of retreating, they scampered to the edge of the island to say hello, often hanging from branches above us.
Gatun Lake is also home to the illustrious Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, where scientists study biological diversity — including various monkey species — in what is essentially one giant outdoor lab.
While being in the thick of things is fascinating, getting a wider perspective of Panama is equally important. Gamboa Tours’ Rainforest Resort Aerial Tram lifted me through the forest and past the treetops, up about 280 feet. The vegetation was beautiful, and my tram guide made sure to point out and identify the various species of trees and flowers as we passed by. Just one of many incredible sights were the large iguanas who, lounging on precarious perches, have mastered the art of sunbathing in the treetops.
At the forest base, I encountered a wild coati, a member of the raccoon family, who casually wandered over. His long snout twitched as he sniffed around me. He could tell I had food in my backpack — I was busted. I opened a bag of crackers, and he took some morsels ever so gently from my hand. This coati was sweet and clearly not afraid of humans. Unfortunately, humans are actually his biggest threat, as deforestation and unregulated hunting are causing a decline in the coati population.
It’s always wonderful to find groups who want to make a difference in the vulnerable animal kingdom. Asociacion Panamericana Para la Conservacion (APPC), a Pan-American conservation association, introduced me to the rescued sloths in its care, including an 18-month-old orphan. Once APPC rehabilitates the animals, they are released back into the wild.
Yet most impressive to me was Safarick’s Zoologico, which opened its doors to the public in 2014 with the purpose of rescuing and rehabilitating injured or orphaned animals.
The company works with the Panamanian government and its animal rescue services to house wild and exotic animals such as monkeys and ocelots that have been confiscated due to trafficking or illegal captivity. It is also a safe haven for animals orphaned and abandoned as a result of deforestation and poaching.
Safarick’s also treats sick and injured animals and releases them back into the wild.
Unfortunately, since many of the monkeys at Safarick’s have already spent years in captivity living as someone’s pet before arriving at the Rescue and Rehabilitation Zoo, releasing them back into the wild is often not an option, as they simply do not have the skills to survive. Fortunately, Safarick’s owners, Antonio Purificacao and Rita Helmlinger, practice what’s called “animal enrichment” — keeping the animals’ lives as stimulating as possible despite their enclosed environment.
For example, the company hides and disperses food in the monkey enclosures to encourage the primates’ natural foraging instincts. This is more ideal than making the residents dependent on set feeding times with cut-up food already placed in bowls. Items in the enclosures — such as toys, swings and platforms — also get switched out regularly to keep the environment as stimulating and refreshed as possible.
Back at The Westin Playa Bonita, I stood on the balcony of my suite overlooking the Pacific Ocean, watching cargo ships waiting their turn to enter the Panama Canal. I wondered if the crews ever got the chance to step off their boats and stay in the country for a while. I hoped so because, as they did for me, The Westin Playa Bonita and Gamboa Tours would give them the gift of their own special enrichment program.