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Sunday, October 7, 2012

World Animal Day

Keel-billed Toucan
Wild animals should live and die in the wild, and not in cages. Photo by Gordon Evans.
October 4 marked World Animal Day. When we think of animals, we usually think most of dogs, cats, other pets, or perhaps of cows and other food animals. There are some awesome animals who have not co-evolved with humans, however, many of them in the jungles of Nicaragua! One of them is the Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus). Several months ago, we were entrusted with the care of Tookie, the now-famous bird who has been a pet for some years.
Ramphastos sulfuratus
Tookie the Keel-billed Toucan in his enclosure in Estacion Biologica. 
es. he is the kind of bird depicted on the Froot-Loops box. Tookie has waited patiently for his time to fly free, and we coordinated his liberation date to coincide with World Animal Day. We worried, however: Would he fly away, or just come back? Would he find food and shelter, or starve immediately?
Tookie has been caught and is being placed in a cage for transport to the liberation site in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Photo by Pablo Somarriba.
We knew that Tookie was not hatched in captivity, however. He has a broken toe which surely came from his capture. He started his life in the wild, and we wanted to see that he end it in the wild, too.
Jeffrey removed his splint to retrieve Tookie from the enclosure! Photo by Pablo Somarriba.
The Keel-billed Toucan eats mostly fruit, and Tookie was prepared for his life in the wild by finding lots of nancites (Byrsonima crassifolia), tiguilotes (Cordia dentata), jobos (Spondias mombin), wild papaya (Carica papaya), and chiles (Capsicum annuum). Hopefully, he has learned some of the fruits to seek in the forest.
Tookie became nervous when first placed in the cage to transport him to the liberation site. Photo by Pablo Somarriba.
Even for a toucan, Tookie is a gorgeous bird. He has amazingly vibrant colors. He is also particularly well-mannered, for a toucan. Toucans do not usually take well to life in captivity, and they often become very mean. They often die from the diet provided them in captivity, because they can not eat just anything, as do other birds such as parrots. Keel-billed Toucans are relatively common in parts of Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve.
Tookie relaxed once his cage was placed in the vehicle and was covered. Photo by Pablo Somarriba.
The transportation to Tookie's liberation site went easily. Once he was placed in the small cage and loaded into the car, he felt at ease. He was left an hour in the cage on the grounds, where he could assimilate his new surroundings above. He had already become accustomed to the forest around him, because his pen at Estacion Biologica was ample with views above and all around, and even has a fig tree growing inside it. His enclosure was very natural, but still restricted, and he wanted to be free.
Dennis helps Elmer unload Tookie from the car. Photo by Pablo Somarriba.
The site for Tookie's liberation was carefully chosen. Keel-billed Toucans are not frequently observed near Estacion Biologica, but they are common on the western side of the lake. We learned that Tookie likes water very much, and he would drink fresh water every day. He also loved to take baths, and he even liked the rain. His liberation site was chosen, in part, because water is near, and other toucans are always found in the area.
volunteer in Nicaragua
Vera takes another look at Tookie before he goes free. Photo by Pablo Somarriba.
The Masaya Delegation of the Ministry of Natural Resources organized our little event, which included participation from the Procuraduria (the Public Defense office) and the Ministry of Education. Students attended from the Escuela Luis Alfonso Velasquez which is located inside Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. And the volunteers from Movimiento Ambientalista Guardabarranco in Masaya came, and our staff, interns and volunteer group, too. Tookie's return to the wild was well-attended, so we were even more nervous. What if he does not want to go to the forest?

Laguna de Apoyo Ranger Dani Nicaragua helped to document the event. Photo by Pablo Somarriba.
Our message in this event was simple: Wild animals should life free, not in cages. Tookie is a beautiful bird, and well-behaved (for a toucan!), but he was not born in captivity and will never be completely tame. Toucans are not like dogs; they did not co-evolve over millenia in the intimate presence of humans. They don't even make good pets, because they don't show much affection, they are usually even mean, and they have specific dietary needs that are not easily met in captivity. Most toucans in captivity die unnecessarily.
Ramphastos sulfuratus
Tookie is relaxed as his moment of liberty approaches. Photo by Ilse Diaz.
What is humane treatment for a wild animal that is caught and then conscripted to the pet trade? The new Law for the Protection and Welfare of Domestic and Domesticated Wild Animals is not completely clear. What is clear is that all animals must be treated with dignity and their welfare must be prioritized. We argue that wild animals which do not easily domesticate should remain in the wild. and whenever possible, should be re-integrated into wild habitat. 
Representatives of the Public Interest Defense office and the Ministry of Natural Resources  discuss the event with the young people before Tookie is set free. Photo by Ilse Diaz. 
Obviously, not all people here agree with us. Many homes in Nicaragua have monkeys, macaws, and even wild felines in cages and on chains. None of these animals are ever happy in cramped quarters, without the freedom to move and interact with other animals in the way their ancestors did for thousands of years. Will we have to wait until the last toucan in Nicaragua is in a cage?
Jeffrey explains how Tookie was once a pet and now will be able to return to the wild, from which he came. Photo by Ilse Diaz. 
Lots of folks have come by Estacion Biologica Laguna de Apoyo in the past several months and they have seen Tookie in his relatively ample enclosure. Commonly, the visitors would ask to take him, instead of having us let him go into the wild. Tookie is beautiful and naturally, we want to acquire him. But Tookie is not an object, he is a live animal, a sentient being, and he needs to be where he is happiest. 
Tookie looks very calm after being transported to the liberation site. Photo by Gordon Evans.
Tookie likes people. He is comfortable with people near him. We were concerned whether he would fly away or whether he would seek us and stay nearby.
Jeffrey removes Tookie from his cage and prepares to let him fly. Photo by Gordon Evans.
But he flew immediately and sought a limb to perch. From about eight meters up, he slowly gathered in all around him, both at his level and above. The canopy remained far above, reaching some twenty meters height. He never looked down again. After several minutes, he flew again, this time further upward, where he stayed another half hour. Eventually, Tookie was gone in the forest of Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve.
Tookie's first perch after being set free. Photo by Gordon Evans. 
The participants in his liberation all watched intently, wondering if he would return. He was glorious, high in the trees, with his bright beak clearly visible. He remained near enough for us to watch, but he never looked down upon us again. His sights were set for the jungle!
pet trade
Tookie is observed as he adapts to his new home in the forest. Photo by Gordon Evans.
Tookie has demonstrated clearly to all of us that wildlife can be returned to its natural habitat, given a number of conditions are met. Tookie today is living with other toucans where he deserves to live and die. 

The wild animal pet trade has been extremely damaging to wildlife populations in Nicaragua. We can respond to their threat by confiscating animals that should not be allowed in captivity, and in some cases, we can prepare them and then release them back to the wild. 

Would you like to help us rehabilitate wild animals? Please contact us if you have time to volunteer or resources to donate. All kinds of things are welcome, from money, to food (dog food works for lots of animals), to office supplies, old computers, and even old pet cages. 
Click on the "escudo" to contact us.

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