OH My Gosh! I go on an Earthwatch expedition to tag Howler Monkeys.

My job as a teacher took me on various adventures through the years. Direct research during these great trips enabled me to use new lessons I had learned to teach my students another view of science, geography, environmental awareness, and mathematics

Streets and markets of San Jose – girl swinging down the street – museums – Indian flute – several lifelong friends and professional colleagues – programs, formal environmental awareness teaching 1988 environmental education curriculum introduced

PROLOGUE – Oh, my gosh! How in heaven’s name did I end up on the jungle floor of the hot Costa Rican Rainforest surrounded by hot steams wrapping around my body from ground vents, and me holding a heavy 10’ x 10’ steel-enforced capture net for catching Howler Monkeys, with Susan, my partner of the day?             

Then, without warning, a barely visible thirty inch furry body attached to an equally long tail, some sixty feet up in a tropical tree with torturously entwined limbs, dropped a full load of white, sticky feces onto my upturned face. Talk about stink! 

To my right, and at least a dozen feet from the line of fire, mammalogist, Herr Doktor M – as I had not quite fondly dubbed him to myself at our introductory orientation the previous night, lifted his tranquilizer dart gun from his shoulder, grinned from ear to ear and shouted, “Only three weeks more, Liz! Only three weeks more before you go home.” He chuckled, then stopped grinning and spoke rapidly, “When they release their feces, it means they’re about to become unconscious. She’s about to fall from the tree!”

            A moment later, he shouted again. “Here she comes!  She has a baby on her. Don’t let them hit the ground! The Howlers are an endangered species!”

Well, gee whiz, it was something we KNEW. Susan and I dodged spiked plants, huge crawling beetles, a yard-wide stream of leaf cutter ants, other nameless large insects, bottomless potholes, slippery rain forest fruits lying on the ground, and tangled protruding roots as we zigzagged around a two yard square area of the littered jungle floor with the heavy net, trying to place it under the oncoming monkey. Of course, we couldn’t look down because we had to watch out for the hairy, black, long tailed projectile rapidly falling. Why do rainforest plants have such vicious spines? I thought to myself.

Herr Doktor was shouting directions at us, frantically and loudly worrying we would be unable to catch the oncoming missile now performing graceful somersaults, launch onto higher limbs, and then into temporary entanglements. Heretofore, none of our crew of eight could recall ever seeing a monkey fall up or fall sideways,.  “She’s out!” shouted Herr Doktor. “She’s out!” He wasn’t referring to the tree. He meant the monkey had succumbed to the tranquilizer and was now unconscious. By some miracle we caught the mother monkey and her baby safely about a yard above the jungle floor.

            I threw up.

            Herr Doktor came up to me, tenderly washed off the feces, and patted me on the back. “* was well done! I really didn’t think an elementary teacher could do *. Tomorrow you’ll be helping Dr. Dan, our dentist, take dental impressions.”

            The previous night he had tried to embarrass me in front of our crew. “And this is Liz Anderson, the first elementary school teacher to be chosen for this honor by Earthwatch. I hope you are all kind to her and will fill in her scanty knowledge base.” The other crew members – all of us were volunteers on an Earthwatch Expedition to study Howler Monkeys, were high school and college teachers. Actually, they were very nice to me, and were embarrassed by the attacks. I said little and wondered what I had gotten myself into. I was so far from home! Herr Doktor said we would have to write accurate daily reports he would have to approve. “But, I’ll go easy on you, my dear little Elementary School Teacher.”

            I am not “little” and I was seething. Before I could answer, two other crew members stood up. One was a former science professor of mine, and the other was a high school teacher I knew professionally. They looked at the crew. Then they looked at me and both gave me an exaggerated bow. As if they had rehearsed it, they said in unison, “Let him have it, Liz.”

            And I did. I dug in my backpack for my tattered resume, and handed it to him, remarking quite acidly, “We can work together, my dearest Herr Doktor Michael.”. He winced. “Yes, Herr Doktor Michael, be aware I am actually on a doctorial track. I suppose reading resumes is boring, but you really must just my published works’ list. I’m sorry it is not complete. Oh, and I came five days early so I could connect with the Environmental Minister, who took me to various schools so I could tell the teachers and children about myself.”

He gaped. “How? How did you make  connection?”

And thereby hangs the tale.

Herr Doktor and I, it should be noted, quickly made peace and enjoyed each other’s company.


In 1986, I was chosen to be an Earthwatch Scholar to spend three weeks in Costa Rica on a Howler Monkey Expedition. The Science Supervisor in Mt. Laurel, where I taught 5th grade,  suggested it two days before the application deadline.

“Apply for a full scholarship through the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation here in New Jersey. What have we got to lose? They’re only accepting high school and college teachers who are teaching science, but I’m sure you’ll talk them into it, Liz. You’re not shy. I’ve lost enough arguments with you   I know how persistent you can be. We need to put Rainforests into the Elementary School Science Curriculum.”

 Well, obviously, I argued effectively with both Earthwatch and the Geraldine Dodge Foundation after they turned down my first request. I got the scholarship. Later, I was told I was the first elementary school teacher picked to go on an expedition of this high quality, but was warned the chief researcher had serious doubts about having an elementary school teacher amongst “real scientists”. He and I became fast friends in the course of those three weeks, and stayed in touch until he died many years later.

 I had done my homework in the three months preceding the expedition. Although the 4th grade students and myself were able to learn passable basic Spanish from a new student in my 4th grade class, my detailed research of what to expect was inadequate. I was not prepared for the overwhelming invertebrate populations living in great profusion in the rainforest. Killer Bees in nests twelve feet high patrolled their area, buzzing ominously. The other six and eight leggers were everywhere. The creatures stung, bit, buzzed, attacked, burrowed under skin, sprayed poison, burrowed into bedding, and generally acted in a definite anti-social manner. Several members of the expedition needed emergency medical care after being attacked. I used native remedies and recovered in no time. After we arrived and settled in, I told my roommate, “Apparently the human animals who had invaded their rainforest are considered intruders and need to be dealt with.”

During the confrontation the first evening, I didn’t tell the crew the full story of the Secret Service. Six days previously, when I arrived in San Jose and checked into the hotel, the clerk turned out to be an Israeli. He looked at my passport, and suspiciously asked what I was doing in town without a man. He wanted to know if I knew anyone in Israel. I, in turn, told him it was none of his business. When he asked for my luggage, all I had was my borderline carry-on bag and a huge pocketbook. I was not travelling for a month on a science expedition to a foreign country with luggage  could easily get lost or stolen. Then I casually mentioned my relatives in Israel had told me about the far-reaching tentacles of the Mossad, but had not been aware they were needed in Costa Rica. He glared at me, grabbed my passport, and told me he would be watching me.

Before 7 am the next morning, I went for a walk to check out downtown. Vendors and their wares hastily stuffed into their suitcases were fleeing. A full fledged riot was developing, and the streets were rapidly filling with some very angry people screaming, carrying red flags, and putting up street barriers, some very angry secret service men, and many angry, fully-armed soldiers. I took pictures because I figured when they found my body, they would know what had happened. I was scared, I’ll tell you. Oh, my gosh! How did I get here?

By happenstance, I noticed a speakers’ platform over the heads of the swirling protestors, being put up across the street, and went over to it. As I stood there, wondering would happen, a twenty foot long four by four slipped out of the carpenters’ hands and headed straight for the head of a man standing a few feet from me. I was stronger in those days, and caught it, saving his life. He started chattering at me in Spanish, grateful tears pouring from his eyes. His friends cheered me loudly. In my broken Spanish I gave him my blessings. Silence. Then, in a incredulous tone he asked me, “La Gringa?” It is not a nice way of saying “American”.

“Nada! Nada!”  and pointing to myself, I purred, “La Paloma” – the dove.. In those days the peace dove was a Communist symbol. Then I smiled broadly. A wave of approving laughter rippled through the corner where we standing.

            He grabbed my arm, pushed the crowd aside and asked which hotel. I told him. He dragged me through the maelstrom to a quiet corner beyond the riot. There were some stores about two blocks from my hotel. The crowds thinned out. My new friend placed me in front of a store beyond the tumult. Then he pointed to the Levi Jeans sign on the front door. In Spanish, he told me I would safe here by the American jeans. Then he grabbed me, kissed me on the mouth and ran back to the revolution.

            Ten minutes later I got back to the hotel, and nodding curtly at the clerk, went to my room. It was a shambles: someone had gone through everything I owned. Flashing anger, I tore downstairs and confronted the clerk. He pointed to a well-dressed gentleman standing there and said, “CR Secret Service.”

            Swinging around I said to the agent, “The monster from Mossad is a pain in the ass!”

            The agent introduced himself, showed his id and my passport, and asked me to come downstairs to the bar. “I don’t drink liquor. It gets me drunk. Do they have Coke?”  He assured me they did and he would pay.

            During the next forty five minutes I answered all his questions truthfully and told him who I was and where I was going.  I also told him the name of my researcher friend who turned out to be Herr Doktor’s boss. My statement made an impression on him. He said the clerk had turned me in because I had no luggage like most American women, and no man. After I explained my horrors of carrying unnecessary luggage, which caused him to laugh heartily, I then told him my opinion of Mossad agents. He apologized profusely and wished me Godspeed. We hugged, and when the clerk saw us come up arm in arm, his jaw dropped. “Make sure she gets her passport back,” growled the agent. “She’s one of us. She will be visiting with the Prime Minister of Environmental Education and needs no extra companions.” Then he turned and winked at me.

            I had told the agent about my adventure in the street earlier. He suggested I watch the evening news on tv. To my surprise, I briefly appeared on Costa Rican television as the camera panned past me standing in front of the Levi’s sign.

Costa Rica turned out to be one of the most fascinating adventures in my life. In addition to Herr Doktor, the chief investigator, there was a full crew of well-known American scientists spending the entire summer, observing and testing and marking two tribes of Howler Monkeys. A dentist and his assistant were present with their ten year old son. A well-known botanist was building a collection of over three thousand plants, and finishing a complete plant list he had been working on for the past four summers. A medical doctor performed blood tests on samples from the monkeys, and I cannot forget the artist who taught us all the correct way to tattoo numbered codes on each individual monkey’s rear end. He also taught us to draw the skin patterns of each animal’s limbs, hands, ears, face, and rectal orifice. There was a Jane Goodall type who sat under trees, being devoured by insects, and keeping voluminous notes about the behaviors of the tribe of twenty two Howler Monkeys

Our daily rotating jobs kept us busy on a six day schedule. We were housed in a resort complex two hundred feet from the Pan American Highway. Well, resort might indicate luxury. Sharing a cold shower with three to six full grown iguanas was fascinating. Don’t you believe they are vegetarians! Those monsters eat meat, dead or alive, and are willing to defend their meals against real or imagined threats with a mouthful of sharp teeth.

Our quarters had concrete floors and beds. There were neither screens nor air conditioning. An antiquated overhead fan slowly sprayed resting insects onto our beds. The mattresses were alive, but not with the sound of music. I quickly discovered  an eighteen inch wide by four inch deep moat around the bed to be filled with water at night to keep out the six and eight leggers. It worked. The iguanas drank there, but didn’t try to crawl into bed with us. Since they are cold-blooded animals, I assumed rightly we were too warm for them. They did keep the place clear of mice and occasional rats.

Bed linens and towels depended on the state of mind of our laundress. She and I adored each other, because unlike the other participants, I washed my clothes of the daily blood, urine, feces, and personal vomit  accrued to them.

Rutted, unpaved roads and constant heavy rain were not my idea of luxury. At least we weren’t in tents. There were no other guests except our expedition. We shared the twenty concrete cabins, the dining room, and Great Room. Casual tourists were non-existent. The owners were Swiss citizens who had arrived twenty five years earlier and became citizens of Costa Rica. In those years, I spoke fluent German, some Russian, some Italian, as well as broken Spanish, and was soon adopted by the international potpourri of foreign workers. I still treasure the ceramic toucan given to me as a parting gift.

Our schedule was filled out with daily predawn orientations, nighttime courses, and no social life. Net catching was day 1. Dental impressions were Day 2. Tattooing was Day 3. Skin pattern sketching was Day 4. Observation with “Jane Goodall” was Day 5. Botanical collection, identification, and pressing of specimens was Day 6. On Day 7 we became tourists that travelled from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans, to the Nicaraguan Border and its revolution, up volcanic flanks, paid visits to Quaker Communities that had moved to Central America to avoid arrest as Conscientious Objectors in the USA, and generally looked at a rainforest country inch by inch.

Tropical birds were on the ground, in the trees, on the roads, and on the roofs of houses. My  life list of new birds almost doubled.

Grazing cows were everywhere we went. These animals were not the Elsies of the United States. Rather, these were East Indian cattle who were acclimated to the hot, wet heat. Unfortunately, the milk was totally devoid of fat, so Costa Rican parents who wanted to feed young children either had to rely on wet nurses or Carnation canned milk so their children would not starve. It was one of the situations the rioting Communists were incensed about.

The previous year, however, the Swiss couple who owned the resort had a brilliant idea. Coconut “milk” was rich in nutritious fats. So they convinced the government to begin adding coconut milk to regular Indian bovine milk. Within a year, Carnation sales had dropped 95%, and the Costa Rican children thrived. It is a system that has spread to rainforest countries throughout the planet.

The Communists, however, decided to complain anyway, but were generally ignored.

Oh, my gosh, what a great adventure I had for three weeks! Among other ventures, I had the pleasure of sharing environmental education with the girls at a local house of prostitution in the middle of San Jose, doing a program about my job and personal life to a classroom of rapt fifth graders, and joining Herr Doktor and the rest of the crew on Sundays, happily exploring historical and scenic parts of Costa Rica on Sundays.

When I got back, I was so inspired by my experiences in Central America, I became a successful presenter and author of standard environmental curricula. Even better, over the years, I was stimulated to turn my own students’ thoughts to the dangers developing in Rainforests, and most of them eventually became defenders of that ecosystem by the time they reached high school and college.

Oh, my gosh! Why didn’t other elementary teachers go on those trips?


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