Earl Crews has a monkey on his back at work. But it’s just that—an orphaned spider monkey named Winky, who hangs from his gray hair and has a tendency to doze off in the middle of his presentations. As the co-founder with his wife, Carol, of an animal sanctuary, the 54-year-old is describing to visitors how grumpy toucans can be. Seemingly affable, they’re untrustworthy backstabbers who’d eat your young. “There’s nothing nice you can say about them,” Mr. Crews says, as if everyone hasn’t worked with someone like that.
In the rainforest of Costa Rica, the couple realized one of the few universal fantasies of a nonsexual nature: fleeing corporate culture. The Crewses, both once independent lumber traders, now rescue monkeys and macaws at their Osa Wildlife Sanctuary Foundation (www.osawildlifesanctuary.org2) on the black-sand shores of the Golfo Dulce.
But a day at the beach isn’t always a day at the beach. Paradise is itchy. And among the animals they nurse for release back into the wild, there’s plenty of office echoes: territorialism, bottle feeding, ankle biting, the lightning theft of unguarded lunches and, most reminiscent, a lack of adequate socialization. The office isn’t a civilized departure from the jungle, it’s a re-enactment.
In the lumber industry, Mrs. Crews used to hear comments like, “I wasn’t expecting a broad in the boards.” And Mr. Crews recalls one bumper sticker in a mill office: “I like spotted owls—fried.” There were sloths in that former job, too, only those laurel-resters smoked cigars. Referring to a two-toed sloth, he says, “Rhonda smells better.”
The steady ravages of business-induced stress, working 80-hour weeks with their own money on the line, left Mr. Crews “absolutely burned out,” he says. “I could literally lose my house overnight.”
In Costa Rica, he did lose it. When the couple was renovating a cabin, a pair of opportunistic scarlet macaws, Ramona and April, seized it. Because the birds have the bite of a German shepherd, the couple moved to another cabin rather than risk it. (The macaws will clip an adversary’s wings to keep it from flying. Sound familiar?) “When I go in and check on something,” Mr. Crews says, “two people will go with me with gardening rakes.”
The couple’s transition into animal rescue was accidental, happening after they had decided to leave the lumber trade to open a bed-and-breakfast. They sold their house near San Francisco and moved to Caña Blanca, where they had found a 700-acre parcel. Within a year, they opened an inn with three airy cabins. When an employee gave them a red-lored parrot named Chico, they refused to clip its wings, developing reputations “as crazy gringos who let their birds fly around,” Mr. Crews says. Locals started giving them other birds, and so a new career began.
The Crewses don’t draw a salary, instead paying their employees with revenue from sanctuary tours. They keep their own expenses—cellular and Internet services, and the same scrambled eggs and fruit the animals eat—low enough to be covered by donations.
They rescued and released birds for seven years. Then came the mammals four years ago, when government officials seized Papi, a young spider monkey, from a poacher and gave her to the couple rather than to an overcrowded zoo. She stirs up trouble, freeing other animals prematurely. “She’d make a great shop steward,” Mrs. Crews says.
Papi is also complicit in nepotism. Mrs. Crews is high in the monkey’s social circles. That’s good news for Mr. Crews, whose association with his wife means Papi spares him the fanny-biting she reserves for rivals. Even here, Mrs. Crews notes, “It’s who you know.”
So much for escaping the office. Sweet Pea, another spider monkey, steals other people’s food and water bottles. Guapo, a former abused pet, suffers mood swings that once led him to rip a toilet from the floor. And the nocturnal Marta, a kinkajou, just sleeps all day, but she is held dear because of her eager-to-please attitude—not unlike some administrative assistants, Mrs. Crews says.
Humans don’t get to sleep late in Paradise. Mr. Crews’s day begins at 4:30 a.m. He and the sanctuary’s six workers prepare vast quantities of food, lead animal-rehab exercises, conduct tours, dole out care and maintain cages and cabins. The work day ends at 8 p.m.
They keep the white-faced capuchin monkeys’ cages strewn with Fisher-Price toys because anything less stimulating doesn’t satisfy them. It’s an age-old managerial challenge: “You have to keep them interested,” Mr. Crews says.
The hardest task is coping with sluggish government bureaucracies and strict requirements for handling wildlife, from having a permit for every bird to monthly inspections. The couple must develop release protocols for each of 28 species and meet rigid international standards for endangered species.
Still, in his old job, “the only reward was money,” and there was little fun, Mr. Crews says. Despite the grind, the reverse is true in Costa Rica. “If I had a bad conscience in my life as a trader—I bought and sold enough [lumber] to cut down several forests—this is my way of giving back,” he says.
Share your stories about leaving the corporate culture behind. Write to Jared Sandberg at email@example.com