Anyone who has observed animals in a zoo and then seen the same animals in the wild will agree that there in no comparison between the two. In his renowned book The Human Zoo Desmond Morris remarked that if you observe baboon behavior in the zoo you would come to the conclusion that all they do is fornicate, masturbate, and fight. But to observe them in the wild you will see them as the noble species that they really are. For that reason I love to observe wildlife in it’s natural habitat, not in a cage. However, it isn’t necessary to cage an animal in order to affect its behavior. All you have to do is get it to depend on you for a free handout. Once it starts eating food that you provide, it is no longer free.
Let’s have a look at a tragic example that took place right here in the Costa Pacifica of what can happen when wild animals become dependent on free food. About 10 years ago before the coastal highway was built, there was a fruit stand at the edge of the highway just north of the Barú River bridge, adjacent to Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge. The owner had the bad habit of throwing all the fruit that went bad in the weeds at the edge of the road. A few coatis and raccoons discovered it and started hanging around the area to eat the discarded fruit. When cars started stopping to watch the animals the owner of the stand got the bright idea of selling bananas to the people to give to the animals. More and more coatis were lured to the fruit stand where they just hung out waiting to be fed. The situation got to the point where almost any time of the day you could find coatis and raccoons at or near the location.
There were times when I was driving from Hacienda Barú Lodge to Dominical and couldn’t make it to the bridge. Cars, people, and animals had the road completely blocked. One time I counted a dozen cars and upwards of 25 people feeding bananas to a group of 50 to 60 coatis. There were incidents where people were bitten and scratched by the animals, but everybody just kept on feeding the coatis. When there got to be so many coatis around the fruit stand that there wasn’t enough food to go around some of the animals discovered that they could move down the road several hundred meters and beg, sitting up on their haunches just like a dog begging for a tidbit. The coatis quit foraging for food in their natural habitat. Their diets consisted 100% of bananas, organic garbage, and human food that they were able to beg or steal. Coatis and raccoons started arriving at the restaurant at Hacienda Barú, three kilometers from the fruit stand. Troops of raccoons invaded at night, and we had to fortify the kitchen to keep them out. At first the security guard tried to chase them away, but they held their ground and became aggressive. I once saw a raccoon climb up on the bar, run over to the snack rack, grab a bag of chips and escape the same way it came in while the restaurant full of people watched in disbelief. The population density of the two species grew to many times the normal level and their nutritional status diminished severely due to the lack of a varied natural diet. These conditions are perfect for the spread of disease and many coatis and raccoons began losing hair in big patches and large, red, bare spots appeared all over their bodies.
About the same time puma sightings became more frequent in the area, and coatis and raccoons are among these big cat’s favorite prey animals. Populations of both species plummeted. A combination of predation and disease finished them off. Prior to the big die off coatis were one of the most often sighted animals at Hacienda Barú. Afterwards I didn’t see a single one for six months.
A few did survive, most certainly the smartest and wariest ones who never visited the fruit stand. Today, 10 years later, we again have a healthy population of coatis and raccoons at Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge, but they no longer come around the hotel to beg for food or invade the restaurant. Mother Nature generally straightens out messes made by humans as she did in this case, and her methods are often harsh. There are many lessons that can be learned from all of this, but the main one is: Don’t capture and cage or feed wild animals. Let them be free to fend for themselves.