For the last month, Jennifer Miller has woken up at 5:30 a.m. to the sounds of howler monkeys and macaws outside of her jungle campsite in the Islita Peninsula of Costa Rica.
Miller, a lifelong animal advocate and owner of Charleston’s vegan cafe Mission Savvy, just returned from a month-long volunteer assignment for The Ara Project, a conservation organization.
“The Ara Project helps re-establish threatened native parrot species by placing them back in the wild,” she explained.
“They also accept rescued parrots previously held in captivity or by people as pets.”
In Costa Rica, Miller said, many of the beautiful, exotic birds are treated poorly in captivity and suffer from lack of proper nourishment and habitat. Two years ago, the country banned ownership of macaws, and many are slowly making their way to sanctuaries. By the time some of them reach a treatment facility like Ara, though, they are struggling to survive and likely wouldn’t live if they were simply released.
Prior to becoming a business owner, Miller worked as an emergency relief responder for the International Fund for Animal Welfare and research assistant for the Orangutan Health Project. Though she is happy with life in Charleston, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was needed in the field.
“About three months ago, I got a loud wake-up call to get back into the wild, and just like the nature of these things happening, when you listen to your inner guide and say ‘yes’ to your purpose, doors begin to open,” she said.
That wake-up call launched what Miller refers to as her “rewilding journey,” and led her, after extensive research, to volunteer with The Ara Project (Ara is the genus name for a number of macaw species).
“Ara resonated with me. There was something about the project, something about the birds, something about already seeing myself working there. I knew I needed to go,” Miller said.
“I sent an email, and one month later I was offered a position. I knew I had to get to Ara, because there is so much work to be done in undertaking animal cruelty. For me, launching a rewilding platform for the world begins here in Costa Rica, helping these parrots get their home back.”
While at Ara, Miller assisted with the daily care and rehabilitation of great green macaws and scarlet macaws.
“One of the most rewarding experiences I had was watching a newly introduced scarlet macaw — a rescued parrot named Jeje — meet her new flock of friends in the large flight aviaries,” she said.
The large flight aviaries are the first stage in conditioning the birds for release into the wild.
“In just two hours, Jeje found herself a partner, they preened each other all day, ate together, whispered to each other and were, overall, just really happy. As their human observer, nothing could have made me more happy as well. Jeje will never be captive again.”
As is often the case with such a journey, Miller’s trip has led her down a path that is not surprising, according to Dr. Marc Bekoff, author of “Rewilding Our Hearts and Minds: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence.”
“I look at rewilding as becoming reconnected and re-enchanted with nature,” he said.
In other words, it’s not just about helping the birds take flight. It’s also helping volunteers and staff to, well, soar.
“It’s a personal transformation,” Bekoff said.
Now that she is back in the States, Miller plans to raise awareness about The Ara Project by holding lectures on parrot conservation.
“I also plan to return to the field in the near future to assist with the program as it evolves its release conditioning and wild parrot behavior and tracking initiative,” Miller added.
She’s also working on a website based on rewilding. “The focus will be on exploring our lives with animals,” Miller said.
“What is important to me and to my work is that animals gain more protection than they currently have. It is time that we begin to make room for them in the wild where they once were, and it is time that we begin to act more kindly to all animals. This is all part of rewilding. Once we can begin to compassionately coexist with our planet and each other, we will find more peace in our own lives.”
For more information on Ara, visit thearaproject.org. Contact Jennifer Miller at email@example.com.