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For Critter Watching, Head to the Local Trash Heap

Harmony Hotel, Nosara, Costa Rica. 

Growing up in rural Rappahannock county, VA, bear sightings were surprisingly uncommon (at least for these eyes). Throughout my childhood, I saw exactly two, one eating the peaches right off a tree, and the other dead on the side of the four-lane. This scarcity of bear sightings was not always the norm though. My dad tells of a time when families would drive their station wagons into Shenandoah National Park for nighttime bear watching. They’d pull over on the roadside, kill their lights, and wait. When the silence of the park was broken by urgent rustling, they would flash on their headlights and feast their eyes on heaps of bears feasting on heaps of trash.

Improperly managed landfills, dumpsters, and other waste sites are notorious for attracting hungry wildlife. It’s like an all you can eat buffet of super caloric super ripe food that doesn’t require hunting or gathering. Somewhere I have a vintage postcard with a picture of Nantucket’s dump, a.k.a. the Madaket Mall, thronged by seagulls, with the message, “Greetings from Nantucket” cheerfully emblazoned on it. (At one time the population of seagulls who dined at the dump numbered 25,000). In Manitoba, Canada, dumpster-diving polar bears attract curious tourists who prefer the proximity of the local trash heap to venturing into the tundra to view wildlife “au natural”.

At the Harmony Hotel in Nosara, Costa Rica, wildlife in the trash heap is simply the bi-product of operating a sustainable hotel in the jungle. The hotel’s raw food waste is composted for use as fertilizer around the grounds and in the cocktail gardens where ginger, lemon grass, and basil are grown as ingredients in smoothies and house-made flavored vodkas. Every morning, the organic refuse is heaped onto “pile number one,” where it decomposes for four weeks before moving onto pile number two, three, four, until it is put to the earth worms to digest. “It makes the most beautiful compost” says the hotel’s Sustainability Director, Vanessa Diaz.

For me, pile number one is the most exciting pile in the several month process because this is where the local coati population (pizote in Spanish) convenes for breakfast. Every morning around 7:30 or so, after the leftovers arrive, the banded tails of fifty or sixty coatis sway frenetically as the critters jockey for position on the compost heap.

Or so I’m told. The day I went to watch the pizotes feasting, they seemed to be of light appetite. Maybe they had had a big night out in the jungle and weren’t feeling too ravenous. They may have also been a bit timid around the gardeners who were working in the area that morning. Who would have thought pizotes were so particular about their dining ambiance? I did get to see a small heap of them feasting on some leftovers a bit behind the compost site. As you can imagine, it totally made my day.

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