Sign Up for Our Daily Newsletter
Phoebe looped in and out of a metal jungle gym with practiced ease, pausing only to peer back at the gaggle of iPhone-wielding paparazzi that suddenly surrounded her.
Despite the sudden interruption to playtime, this two-toed sloth seemed to enjoy the spotlight. So much so, in fact, that she took the opportunity to inch down the metal bars until she reached the ground, picking the perfect spot for her weekly bathroom break (an event that was met with a chorus of “oohs” and “ahhs” from her new audience).
As both a human spectator and longtime sloth-lover, meeting Phoebe was a highlight of my trip to Costa Rica last month — I was elated to finally see one of my favorite animals up close.
Although both two- and three-toed sloths are commonly found in this Central American country — and many reside in Manuel Antonio National Park — sloths can be quite difficult to spot from the ground and, due to the threat of predators, will rarely venture from the canopy to the forest floor (unless, of course, it’s for the aforementioned potty break).
But at Kids Saving the Rainforest (KSTR), a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center located near Manuel Antonio in Quepos, Costa Rica, clients don’t need to scan the treetops to spot this gentle and majestic creature. Rather, they’re more likely to find sloths snoozing together in man-made hammocks or — in Phoebe’s case — maneuvering around a jungle gym.
KSTR, which was started in Quepos in 1999 by two 9-year-old girls, is home to more than just its nine resident sloths. The center is responsible for rescuing approximately 200 Costa Rican animals per year, and more than 75 species have passed through the sanctuary. Short- and long-term guests have included two- and three-toed sloths, squirrel monkeys, kinkajous, coatis, marmosets, tamarins, orange-chinned parakeets and more. The center is run by eight staff members — including one co-founder’s mother and stepfather — in addition to volunteers that come from near and far to care for the animals and promote the center’s mission of rainforest education and conservation.
I visited KSTR with a group of about 10 travelers, all of whom were fellow passengers onboard Windstar Cruises’ Star Pride luxury yacht. (The cruise line offers this sanctuary visit for $135 per person — an added excursion to the line’s Panama and Costa Rica itinerary.)
Animals are brought to KSTR for a variety of reasons, according to our guide, Michelle Peralta, who serves as the volunteer coordinator for KSTR. Some are injured in the wild — either by other animals or by humans — some are abandoned by their mothers shortly after birth, and some are confiscated after being illegally owned as pets.
Although the on-site clinic aims to release the animals back into the wild, about 50 percent of the animals — including Phoebe — are not fit for release and will remain at the sanctuary to help educate and inform visitors about the importance of conserving the animals’ natural habitats.
Jennifer Rice, president of KSTR and mother to Janine Licare, one of the 9-year-old co-founders, believes that the organization is an empowering force for tourists, no matter where they live.
“Our passion remains the same after all these years,” she said. “We’ve saved the local wildlife, reforested more than 7,000 trees and are starting to plant 94,000 more. We’re empowering kids to be the generation that saves the planet.”
In addition to viewing many of the rescued animals in their on-site habitats, our visit included a guided walk through the property and an educational talk, which was followed by a game-show-style quiz on everything we had learned about sloths. (Prizes included sloth towels, sloth stuffed animals and children’s books.)
Sanctuary tours are offered Wednesday through Monday from 9 to 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 to 4 p.m. Private tours are available by appointment. The tour costs $60 for adults and $45 for children under 12. Kids ages 3 and under are free.