ALEJUELA, Costa Rica— Grecia the toucan has a lot to smile about these days. She’s got a fancy new beak, a large custom-built home, and she’s about to get fixed up with an eligible young toucan from a nice family of pretty plumage.
Grecia also enjoys fame and fortune. Adoring fans wave and take pictures of her as she preens and prances about, and she has a full-time support staff that brings her food and cleans her house.
Overall, it’s a pretty cushy life for a bird that probably wouldn’t survive for long in the wild.
“She loves to pose for pictures and listen to people talk about her,” says Magali Quesada, administrator of Costa Rica’s Rescate Animal ZooAve, as Grecia bounces over to greet us at the front of the cage, flashing her pearly white smile. “She’s a real flirt.”
Things weren’t always this good for Grecia. In 2014, the young toucan was savagely beaten and left for dead. The top half of her beak was hacked off, which should have been a death sentence for a bird in the wild. Grecia couldn’t eat or defend herself, so she had no choice but to go seek help from the humans—the same animals that had beaten her to within an inch of her life.
Luckily for Grecia, not every member of our species is bad. When she was brought in to Costa Rica’s largest animal rescue center, the good people there took her in, cleaned her wounds, and devised a way to feed her where she could use the bottom half of her beak to scoop and guzzle mashed fruit off an inclined dish.
But to give Grecia a legitimate shot at returning to a normal bird life, the toucan needed a prosthetic beak. The only problem was, that had never ever been done before—in Costa Rica or anywhere else—so the people at ZooAve had to get creative with 3-D printing technology.
“We didn’t want to euthanize him. I could tell he wanted to live,” said veteran animal clinic director Alyeda Méndez, who is the only person who refers to Grecia as a him (in truth, Grecia’s sex is still undetermined, which will make matchmaking efforts interesting).
Méndez has 10 years of experience helping seriously abused wild animals. She’s performed reconstructive facial surgery on an anteater that had its snout hacked off by a lunatic with a machete, and amputated burned limbs from sloths who were electrocuted on power lines.
But Grecia was a new challenge altogether. And one that became even more nerve-wracking when the whole world started watching. The Discovery Channel learned of the case and bought exclusive rights to the bird’s recovery story. So if Méndez and the other Costa Rican vets failed in their efforts to give Grecia a new beak, everybody would see it on Animal Planet. No pressure.
After experimenting with different prosthetic makes and models, the technical experts decided on a super lightweight and durable nylon beak that attaches in two pieces with glue. The original idea was to affix the beak to Grecia’s stump with pins or staples, but the Costa Ricans decided that was too invasive and instead consulted an orthodontist on the best type of denture adhesive.
But Grecia couldn’t Fixodent and forget it. The denture glues didn’t hold, and the beak fell off after a few weeks. Each time that happened, Méndez cleaned off the fallen beak with a toothbrush, then started experimenting with different types of adhesive. Finally they seem to have found a glue that will hold; Grecia has now gone five months without dropping her chomper.
But the ZooAve vets know it’s only a matter of time before the beak falls off again. So they keep a close eye on Grecia’s cage, and two spare beaks in the office.
They also decided to keep Grecia’s new beak white, as a reminder of the abuse the bird suffered at the hands of bad people. Méndez says Grecia has become “the face of animal abuse” in Costa Rica, and they don’t want to hide that trauma behind fake Fruit Loop colors.
But an albino beak presents its own challenges in nature. Méndez says other toucans will most likely view the abnormality as a weakness, and could try to attack Grecia. In fact, one toucan already has.
“There’s another toucan that lives free in this area, and it has landed on Grecia’s cage several times and tried to peck him through the fence,” Méndez told me. “Grecia tried to fight back, because toucans are naturally territorial and aggressive.”
Toucan pugnacity is a problem. Grecia’s beak was made for eating fruit, assorted seeds, and dog food (a good source of protein), but not for toucan tussles. Grecia, however, apparently didn’t read the user’s guide, so the humans have to make sure she/he doesn’t get into fights with other birds. Because dropping your beak in battle is like dropping your sword and shield.
The 3-D printed beak is, however, strong enough to attack human foreheads, as the guy who brings Grecia’s food has learned.
Socializing Grecia will take some time. The Discovery Channel deal had her out of the public eye for a long time, which turned out to be a mixed blessing. On one hand it made Grecia into an international Animal Planet celebrity, but on the other hand it hid her/him from the public eye in Costa Rica for more than a year, limiting her contact with school kids just as she was becoming the face of anti-animal abuse campaigns in Costa Rica.
Now that the show has aired, Grecia is easing back into her public life and her growing role as an animal rights activist. Her prosthetic smile inspired a recent legislative initiative against animal abuse, and her face continues to help raise funds for Central America’s first wild animal hospital, which is scheduled to open in December.
“Thanks to Grecia, soon we’ll be able to help a lot of other animals in need,” Méndez says.