When television's fictional Simpson family visited Brazil a few years ago, their customarily extravagant adventures caused consternation. In addition to encountering hordes of street children, oversexed infants and monkeys rampaging around Rio de Janeiro, Homer was kidnapped and Bart was eaten by a snake. Unfamiliar with the concept of satire, Brazilians went nuts. The Foreign Ministry wrote a letter to the show's network, Fox; tourism officials threatened to sue; and Cariocas (as Rio residents are known) protested that Americans knew nothing about what they call the Marvelous City.
Firefighter Colonel Wanius Amorim remembers the Simpsons every time he catches a monkey in someone's front room, drags an alligator from a back porch or gingerly lifts a snake from the street. For the commander of a Rio fire station nestled in the middle of the world's biggest inner-city forest, saving wild animals is all in a day's work.
"Bart was right," Amorim says with a smile. "When foreigners say it, we get upset, but here in Rio we see alligators, sloths, snakes and monkeys all the time. To me, it's something positive, it shows that the city is alive and vibrant, that nature has survived the arrival of 6 or 7 million people."
Indeed, nature has survived and prospered in the subtropical habitats that surround Brazil's second city. Nobody actually gets eaten by snakes, but more than a few Cariocas have come across them on tile porches and asphalt highways, lost and disoriented by the sounds and smells of a modern metropolis.
Sloths are a common sight in parks and on hillside trails, and marmoset monkeys scamper along telephone lines and swing through the trees of several neighborhoods. Armadillos, hawks and skunks often invade homes, while firefighters are called to remove caimans from back gardens and swimming pools. A capybara has even startled bathers by appearing on Ipanema Beach.
"This is a city with a fabulous richness and an almost unique integration of city and nature," says Rogerio Rocco, the former head of Brazil's environment-protection agency in Rio. "People pay to go on safari to see animals close up; we here have an open-air safari on a daily basis. It's priceless."
As head of the fire department's Forestry and Environmental unit, Amorim's main tasks are saving lost hill walkers and fighting forest fires. But because his firehouse sits in the woods high above the city, every few days he gets calls from residents freaked out by fauna.
He's helped a woman chase excited monkeys from her kitchen (they were eating her cakes) and assisted a man who stopped his car at a traffic light and saw a snake writhing in the backseat. Colleagues have taken monkeys electrocuted by overhead power lines to vets, rescued sloths making painfully slow progress while crossing roads and even captured an alligator who had chased a cat up a tree. (See photos of Primates on the Danger List here).
The abundance of jungle animals is due to Rio's spectacular setting, caught between sea and serra, with the central hills and northern suburbs carved out of and still split by the Atlantic Forest. The western suburbs, meanwhile, are bordered by a swamp system whose most famous inhabitants are denoted by the area's indigenous name, Jacarepagua, or Alligator Harbor.
As the city has grown, human settlement has encroached into these once distant animal habitats, spooking their longtime residents. The animals are now coming out of the forest and lagoons looking for food, according to Amorim's colleague Lieutenant Raquel Jardim. And when they do, each species poses its own particular problem.
"Snakes are dangerous. You often don't know if they are poisonous or not, so you have to be very careful," Jardim says. "Monkeys are bold. They are reproducing quickly, and if you leave food lying about, they'll go after it. Alligators are tough to handle because they are strong beasts, so you have to immobilize them. They can get you with either their head or their tail."
Cariocas don't like to see their city portrayed as a giant tropical zoo, and not just because they think it'll scare off tourists. Thin-skinned locals also worry that outsiders won't take seriously a city filled with snakes, skunks and sloths. Amorim, however, finds that ridiculous. When locals complain, he reminds them of the natural order.
"When we take an animal away, people ask us, 'What are you going to do with it?' " he says. "And we tell them, 'Put it back as near as possible to where we got it.' They look at us suspiciously and say, 'You can't do that I don't want it near me!' And I just say, 'Listen, this is where these creatures live. They were here long before you.' "