Rio is crawling with wild creatures

Brazil: Bats, monkeys, sloths and alligators are among the animals making themselves at home in this South American city.

June 27, 1999|By Laurie Goering

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Chicago, I'll admit, has no shortage of wildlife. .....Raccoons rattle the garbage cans in back alleys. Beady-eyed opossums take up furtive residence in garages. Occasionally, the odd coyote makes a wrong turn off the banks of the Chicago River and ends up skulking through Lincoln Park.

Nowhere, however, does the urban wildlife match that in Brazil. And if you think living in the country with the world's greatest biodiversity is a treat, wait until it all sneaks into the living room with you.

One evening as I was sprawled on the couch, chatting on the telephone, an enormous black creature the size of a raven swept in through the sliding glass doors and began flying panicked laps of the living room, looking for a way out. Eventually, I spotted a furry face -- a bat!

Loop after loop, it darted straight for my head, dodging only at the last minute when its sonar indicated I was in the way. I ducked and fled. After what seemed hours, it found its way back out to the castanhola tree, but by then I was hiding in the bathroom, peering out a crack in the door in fascination.

Other neighbors, whose high-rise apartments sit among Rio's green hills laden with rain forest, do regular battle with monkeys. Tiny mustachioed tamarins and larger black cebus monkeys are quick to find open kitchen windows and do their worst, eating whatever they can find and escaping with whatever seems interesting, leaving the kitchen looking like a camp mess hall after a midnight raid.

Even more trouble, in some ways, are the sloths. Recent dry weather on Rio's hills has reduced the food supply for the slow-moving pale creatures, who, in turn, have slowly, slowly made their way hand-over-hand through open windows and toward kitchen fruit bowls.

Unlike monkeys, sloths are hard to evict. Their enormously powerful claws give them an iron grip on the refrigerator door handle or the window grating, and unless you can find a trained specialist, you're stuck with a new house pet until the papayas ripen on the hills outside.

Near the aptly named suburb of Jacarepagua -- "valley of the alligators" -- a resident recently wrestled into submission and tied up one of the large reptiles after it marched one time too many into his home and gulped down four chickens and a pet dog. "He was always in here," the owner told newspaper reporters. "It was just today that I managed to get him."

The 6-foot gator turned out to be an endangered species and was strapped to a paramedic's rescue backboard and hauled off to the zoo by the Municipal Guard.

The Rio zoo, in fact, has become something of a depository for misguided wildlife in recent years. Its exhibits include an ever-growing colony of penguins who, year after year, get caught in the wrong ocean current off Antarctica and end up washing up among the surfers on tropical Ipanema Beach, thin and confused.

Life hasn't been any easier for the workers at the Justice Ministry in Brasilia, Brazil's capital, where a family of rattlesnakes has taken up residence recently.

Office workers say the rattlers, who seem to have entered through an air conditioning vent, have been sliding along the walls and through the holes of the false ceiling, creating a work environment less than conducive to concentration.

"You don't know what it's like to work in a place with snakes moving around over your head," a secretary complained to reporters.

My worst problems with wildlife have come with what surely qualify as animals in Brazil -- cockroaches. One night I walked into the bathroom and flipped on the light to find two monsters of the ancient race skittering proprietarily around the bathtub.

Normally, I am not afraid of cockroaches. These, however, were not your normal roaches. I walked into the hall, grabbed the cat -- who normally takes great delight in dispatching bugs -- and tossed him into the empty tub.

For a moment, there was stunned silence. Then the cat, sure this was the prelude to an unwanted flea bath, set up an unearthly howl and scrambled to leap from the tub. The cockroaches, terrified, fled as well and whizzed around the bathroom with the howling cat. I leapt onto the toilet seat amid the roachy chaos and let out a good yelp myself until I finally thought to open the bathroom door and let everyone escape.

A friend says the really big roaches fly into open windows at night.

I'm keeping mine shut from now on.

Laurie Goering is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, in which this story first appeared.

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