San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Environment Ministry Hopes to Improve Zoo Conditions with New Contract (Part two in a two-part series about Costa Rica’s zoos)

WHEN the nonprofit Foundation forZoos (FUNDAZOO) signed a contract tooperate the country’s two zoos in 1994,hopes were high the organization wouldbring improved conditions to the zoos’more than 500 animals.Eleven years later, government officialssay that while FUNDAZOO has madesome improvements, it hasn’t beenenough. The organization was recentlyasked to leave (TT, Jan. 28) and officialsare again singing the same optimistic tuneabout a new future administrator.A scathing report written last year bybiologists of the Ministry of Environmentand Energy (MINAE) recommends declaringSimón Bolivar National Zoo, in downtownSan José, and Santa Ana ConservationCenter, west of the capital, in “astate of emergency.”FUNDAZOO officials denounce theMINAE report, and say international evaluations,including one by the director ofthe Saint Louis Zoo in the U.S. state ofMissouri, have found no harm has beendone to the animals’ well being.THE ministry has not gone so far as todeclare an emergency; but bolstered by anarbitration court’s confirmation last monththat the current manager must hand thezoo’s reigns back to the government innine months, officials hope to start acceptingbids for a new administrator by earlynext year.The ministry, through its NationalSystem of Conservation Areas (SINAC),has been working for years to develop aformal request for a new administrator thatwill make Costa Rica’s zoos, “a model,”said Vice-Minister of the EnvironmentAllan Flores.The eviction of FUNDAZOO is not anissue of whether it has complied with itscontract; rather, Environment MinisterCarlos Rodríguez is looking for greaterimprovement, Flores added.“WE are looking at things on a macrolevel,” he said. “Our job is to protect ournatural resources. And what is the best wayto protect…? Environmental education.And zoos can do that, but in conditionswhere a child can see a jaguar in its naturalplace, not a cage. We can tell childrenhow the jaguar is being threatened, andwhy it needs to be protected, and how weshould protect Corcovado National Park.”Flores said the request for bids woulddefine ideal conditions and develop a strategythat would make the zoo contract attractiveto bidders internationally.HOWEVER, FUNDAZOO isn’tready to walk away without a fight.Organization officials say their managementpractices follow national and internationalstandards for zoos, and they plan toappeal the arbitration court’s decision.The dispute between MINAE andFUNDAZOO is based on the interpretationof what the contract terms the “ninth year,”the deadline by which time either party hadto terminate the contract before it automaticallyrenewed.The arbitration court sided withMINAE by a vote of 2-1.FLORES said that if the dispute continuesin court, MINAE will use the time tocontinue defining the ideal conditions for afuture zoo contract.SOME animal-rights groups haveadvocated closing the zoos altogether, particularlythe 2.5-hectare Simón Bolivar.“You can’t just point fingers at the zoo(administrator). Such a small place cannotpossibly provide good environments foranimals, unless they build 10-story enclosures,”said Costa Rican Gerardo Huertas,regional director for Latin America and theCaribbean of the World Society for theProtection of Animals (WSPA).Flores said closing both zoos is out ofthe question, and closing Simón Bolivar isnot desirable, although he said it is a possibilitySINAC will have to study.FOR years, proposals have been made to transfer the animals at the crampedSimón Bolivar to the 50-hectare facilitiesin Santa Ana, a more rural area west ofSan José. Huertas and other animal rightsactivists say zoos such as those inDominican Republic and Mexico City canserve as examples of developing countriesproviding wide-open spaces for animals.In Costa Rica, funding constraints prohibitedthe development of the Santa AnaConservation Center until 2001 (TT, April20, 2001).FUNDAZOO officials have complainedin the past of limited financialresources. One of the problems is theyhave not received the required financialsupport from MINAE, spokesman RoynerMena told The Tico Times this week in awritten response to questions.Under the contract, MINAE isrequired to pay the zoos’ electricity, waterand telephone bills, and salaries for 14jobs, or pay the equivalent to FUNDAZOO,Mena said. MINAE has neglected tocomply with this last requirement, he said.Vice-Minister Flores said he is notsure whether the positions are being paidor not.FLORES said MINAE will have to becareful about how it defines its financialrole in a future zoo contract.“The financial state of the ministry isnot the best right now,” he said. “We stillcan’t just go administer a zoo.”This is what worries some animalrights advocates.“It is a complicated situation,” Huertassaid. “You can blame the foundation, andtake them out. But I’m not sure the alternativeis going to be any better. We need astrong commitment, otherwise we shouldjust get rid of it.

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