How an injured, bionic toucan joined the fight against animal cruelty

Grecia, a Costa Rican toucan with no upper beak, has become the face of new anti-abuse legislation.

When animal rescuers found Grecia, a gravely injured Costa Rican toucan, they feared the worst.

Grecia’s upper beak had been beaten clean off. She was weak and unable to eat on her own. And her attacker wasn’t some jungle predator, but a group of humans. Then, a team of rescuers, activists and scientists banded together to give the bird a new beak – and a new shot at life.

Now, Grecia has become the face of a new legislative push to offer new protections for wild animals and harsher punishments for their abusers.

Most tropical birds could not survive without their beaks. Toucans use their large, curved bills to clean themselves, defend against predators, make mating calls and regulate body temperature. So when Grecia arrived at Rescate Animal Zoo Ave, a zoo and animal rescue center in Alajuela, Costa Rica, caretakers thought she would have to be euthanized.

But Grecia held on. So caretakers decided to find her a prosthetic beak, enlisting the help of dental and nanotechnology experts. 3D Systems, a 3D printing company from Rock Hill, S.C., volunteered to build the prosthetic.  

“Everybody was working for free, all the group of scientists,” filmmaker Paula Heredia, who tells Grecia’s story in the Animal Planet documentary “Toucan Nation,” told NPR.

Zoo Ave caretakers decided not to paint the synthetic beak, which will remain a ghostly white reminder of Grecia’s past abuse.

Now, a large banner hangs over the entrance to Zoo Ave. Visitors are greeted by two photos of Grecia, taken before and after her recovery. The banner reads: “Digamos NO al maltrato animal.” Say no to animal abuse.

In recent years, animal rights activists have had some success in influencing Costa Rican legislation. In 2012, the country passed a sweeping ban on sport hunting. But under current law, animal abusers are subject only to a small fine.

But now, galvanized by stories of Grecia’s plight, activists are rallying in support of a new anti-abuse bill. The law would impose harsher penalties to animal abusers, and offer new protections for wild animals. Last Sunday, activists marched through San José, petitioning for the bill's passage and chanting "no to animal abuse."

"Grecia motivated and moved our entire country to do more," animal rights activist Juan Carlos Peralta told NPR.

Costa Rica isn’t the only nation that has taken a tougher stance on animal abuse. In January, the Federal Bureau of Investigations announced that it would begin tracking animal cruelty crimes throughout the US. The move isn’t just a win for animal rights activists, but a new approach to preventative law enforcement: according to the New York Humane Association, up to 70 percent of people convicted of violent crimes began their criminal careers with animal cruelty.

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