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Zootopia in Costa Rica

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

If you take the world’s happiest place, mix it with sloths plus a half million other forms of wildlife, you might get a location that combines the concept of Utopia with a plethora of animals: Zootopia. Not the Disney animated vision, but a real country called Costa Rica. The Happy Planet Index once rated Costa Rica as the happiest country in the world (verified by National Geographic); on top of that, about 500,000 different kinds of wildlife live there, including a Zootopia highlight, the sloth. Remember that sloth scene? In a city where talking animals rule, the perennially hyper rushed bunny Judy Hopps finds herself stymied at the DMV (Department of Mammal Vehicles), run by sloths.

Of course, the joke relates to sloth behavior, and the Spanish name for sloths translates to perezoso, or lazy. I take umbrage with any denigration of sloths and instead see positive traits in their celebration of sleep and the way they avoid rushing with a “do-it-now” attitude. Get a good rest and live the Costa Rica motto, Pura Vida, or the pure life.

But even laid back Costa Rica threatens slothful behavior, which explains how the start of my trip to the country included a surprise request to check luggage (I prefer carry-on). Since sloths see little difference between trees and power lines, they often get injured (speeding cars cause problems too). Eco friendly organizations like the Toucan Rescue Ranch nurse injured sloths back to health, but supplies prove hard to come by in Central America, especially considering high shipping rates.

My online inquiry about visiting the Toucan Rescue Ranch led to another Disney allusion, “It’s a small world.” A friend told me about the ranch; I posted an inquiry with my Reno address; the ranch owner once lived in Reno and has a friend there who collects supplies, plus she knew another of our Lahontan Audubon tour attendees. All these links resulted in the question, could we help the ranch avoid excessive shipping costs by bringing along luggage packed with supplies?

To rephrase the question: Do I want to help sloths? And toucans, tayras, owls, and whoever else shows up at the ranch? Do robins like worms? Actually, worms make me nervous, but the feathered version in my backyard believes the adage about early birds so our answer sounds the same: “Of course!”

As a result, my trip preparation included finding an old suitcase that could stay in Costa Rica, then setting a meeting to transfer goods in Reno. Toucan helper Terrie loaded my bag with bandages and sloth blankets. These circular warming pads help regulate temperatures for the animals, whose lack of speed reflects an extremely slow metabolism.

And so I headed off well prepared for a Costa Rica tour, bringing along proof of Covid-19 vaccinations, hand sanitizer, a few rapid tests, a camera, and plenty of sloth blankets.


…of course, I also prepared by watching programs linked to Costa Rica:

1492: The Conquest of Paradise, 1992 with Gérard Depardieu setting foot in a new world that includes Costa Rica. Never shy of grand scope and big budget, director Ridley Scott explores his view of how Christopher Columbus changed the world. Despite Columbus’s setting sail on water, Scott’s history lesson often feels dry. Still, lavish production values, the director’s visual sensibilities, and excellent actors enliven the project. Besides French favorite Depardieu, Scott’s Alien heroine Sigorney Weaver steps in as the woman who sets Columbus out on the waters, Queen Isabella. Though the title refers to a single date and aimed at celebrating the 500th anniversary of the official voyage, the film

covers 20 years of Columbus’ adventures. Even so, the story necessarily includes less than festive events with the exploitation of indigenous peoples as an Eden sinks to Hell. The movie’s Costa Rica filming locations include La Fortuna de San Carlos (near Arenal Volcano) and Sarapiquí by Lake Arenal, popular tourist destinations. As often happens on screen, Costa Rica represents other areas, though the connection makes sense historically. The explorer hit shores in 1502, describing the area as a “rich coast” since locals presented him with golden objects. It turned out the country provided little in mineral value so evaded the high level of destruction faced in other Latin American regions, a background that helped it earn top rankings from Happy Planet Index. Unlike many Latin American countries, Costa Rica maintains no standing army and shifts military spending toward education.

Congo, 1995 with Tim Curry challenging gorillas to see who can chomp up the most African scenery at Costa Rica’s Volcán Arenal. With nods to two kings—Kong and Solomon’s Mines, writer Michael Crichton envisioned an old-fashioned, action packed jungle adventure highlighted by top-notch computer effects for giant, ferocious gorillas. After all, technology helped turn his Jurassic Park book into a box office phenomenon just two years earlier. But the detail required by re-creating fur flummoxed mid-90s computer graphic experts, and Congo hit the market with old-fashioned puppetry, plus people wearing animal suits. The top-of-the-line costumes came from no less than effects wonder Stan Winston, but nonetheless, appeared less fluid and natural as the real thing. This gives Congo a cheesy look despite its respectable (for the time) $50 million budget. Ham goes with cheese, so perhaps that explains Tim Curry’s enthusiastic use of a mysterious Romanian accent that inadvertently adds to the movie’s camp qualities. Director Frank Marshall let Curry run wilder than gorillas. Marshall also grants Ernie Hudson lots of freedom, which proves a plus point. Often relegated to parts like the fourth Ghostbuster, Hudson uses his starring role to ladle on charm and humor, well aware that little in the movie fits into a real world. This includes locations. Set in Zaire, the film features beauty shots from Kenya and Tanzania, though the story’s key volcano looks like one found in Costa Rica. The production team spent two weeks in the country, using the San Carlos Puerto Viejo de Talamanca region and Volcán Arenal. Rising 5,437 feet, the volcano

highlights a national park about 90 miles north of the country’s capital, San Jose. Another Crichton/Costa Rica link comes with Jurassic Park. Set on a fictious island off the coast of Costa Rica, the movie opens with a brief shot of the country’s Isla del Coco before Kuai steps in and provides most of the movie’s locations.

Down to Earth with Zac Efron, 2020, joining the grown up High School Musical star on a worldwide search for better ways to live. The Netflix travel series sends Efron and wellness guru Darin Olien to various locations that highlight healthy lifestyles. Season 1, Episode 3 includes a trip to Costa Rica, where eco friendliness includes taking care of injured wildlife. Efron and Olien go to the Jaguar Rescue Ranch, with goals akin to the Toucan Rescue Ranch. Videos show how power lines confuse animals who like to climb—monkeys and sloths—leading to injuries that need attention. A likeable performer in such hits as The Greatest, Efron makes positive use of his fame to let viewers know about good causes. Working with a small crew, he gets high quality images of isolated places and fun activities, like zip-lining. The Costa Rica episode includes such locations as the Punta Mona Farm.

Spy Kids 2, Island of the Lost Dreams, 2002, with the title characters heading to the title location, played by Costa Rica. That title lets you know what audience director Roberto Rodriguez wants—kids instead of the R-rated loving fans of his other projects like Grindhouse and Machete. Rodriguez slips from R to PG smoothly, reveling in gadgets needed by young heroes willing to do whatever it takes to preserve their family’s honor. It takes a lot for them to complete their mission, which involves a voyage to a wild place full of bizarre, experimental creatures. Rodriguez maintains the light, whimsical touch that made the first Spy Kids a big hit. Though his youn

g actors seem stiff at times, he flourishes with

the movie’s adults, including Antonio

Banderas, Carla Gugino, Alan Cumming, and Steve Buscemi.

Zootopia, 2016 with Judy Hopps aiming to improve society by becoming the first bunny cop. Aside from sloths, the movie bears no link to Costa Rica, other than the desire to create a positive, happy world. The amalgamation of the words utopia and zoo means animals living in an ideal society where no one eats each other. The play on words probably bypassed the targeted kid audience, but adults found much to enjoy including the realistic look at a DMV (Department of Mammal Vehicles) run by sloths. Adults could also appreciate when lead character Hopps proves herself no dumb bunny by performing a quick accurate math calculation. She explains her skill easily: “If there’s one thing we bunnies are good at, it’s multiplying.” Featuring furry creatures in lead roles, the animals knock off a good supply of adult observations, mitigated for kids with cute furry faces and wiggly noses as a fox and bunny engage in buddy-cop antics similar to Forty-Eight Hours. The movie’s overall visual style suits the project, using bright colors, smooth moves, and enough ties with the non-animated world to make its portrait of everyone getting along seem like a realistic possibility. The talented vocal cast includes Raymond Persi as Flash the sloth, along with Gennifer Godwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, and Octavia Spencer. The 55th animated feature film from Walt Disney Pictures managed to capture an Oscar in its category.


Once in Costa Rica, our sloth blankets attention when a customs official pulled us over to open our bags. His face bore a puzzled look as he stared at bottles of Pedialyte and pulled out some warming pads.

“Para los animales,” we said, hoping that explained everything. It proved good enough, and we moved on to our adventures that included nine days of birdwatching combined with lending support to such organizations as the Cabanisi Project, the Costa Rica Conservation Foundation, Ecocentro Danaus, and the Toucan Rescue Ranch. Though not part of the official group itinerary, the Ranch visit proved a rewarding start for the five of us who went on our own.

We joined a public tour of the facility’s permanent residents, various creatures unable to make a go of it in the wild. This included the ranch’s first sloth to arrive. Called Millie for short, she showed up more than a dozen years ago and earned the Spanish name Milagra (miracle) after she defied expectations and survived. Lacking skills to make it in the wild, Millie seems content with her surroundings. During our visit, Millie preferred to sleep under her blanket (sloths do that) until ranch director Leslie Howle showed up to say a few words. Leslie’s voice inspired movement. Resembling a magician’s trick, the blanket slowly rose straight in the air, going up about a foot before Millie’s cute little head emerged to smile at Leslie.

Cute? Smile? It sure looks like it. Happy sloth images now flourish throughout Costa Rica, though the animals historically got a bad rap. Back in 1749, French naturalist Georges Buffon criticized sloths for “slowness, habitual pain, and stupidity.” Costa Rica’s biggest museum shows how Pre-Columbian cultures celebrated many animals with artistic reproductions—but not sloths. Today however, sloths decorate all forms of tourist destinations and trinkets, big eyes highlighting a rounded face and upturned mouth. Sloth structure includes what looks like a built-in smile, an endearing quality occasionally found with other lovable creatures like dolphins (though my photos of Costa Rica’s crocodilian reptiles called caimans show them smiling, too, and few people want close interactions with those guys).

Sloths mostly keep to themselves, but human encroachment on their habitat means people like Leslie come into their lives. She and staff at the Toucan Rescue Ranch do their best to minimize contact with sloths and other animals going through a rehabilitation program to release them in the wild. “Don’t get attached” makes a good mantra.

But remaining aloof proves difficult, and we five visitors melted into choruses of “Awwww” when Leslie showed us two motherless baby sloths that arrived a couple of days earlier. Grasping their Snuggle blankets in their two-toed paws, the sloths looked up at us with wide, round brown eyes and presented faces that defined innocence. Despite urges to hold and cuddle them, we kept respectful distances, knowing that ultimately they need as little human contact as possible. We want to promote the trait that drew us to our Costa Rica exploration of wildlife—wildness.

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