San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

High Court Orders Improved Zoo Conditions

The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) has ordered the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) and the nonprofit Foundation for Zoos (FUNDAZOO), which manages the country’s two public zoos, to take immediate measures to lessen the risks to which animals at these zoos are exposed, Judicial Branch spokeswoman Sandra Castro confirmed this week.

Sala IV justices also ordered the two agencies – which are in the midst of a zoo management contract dispute – to protect the lives of staff and visitors who interact with the animals at the Simón Bolivar National Zoo, in downtown San José, and the Santa Ana Conservation Center, west of the capital. Castro told The Tico Times the ruling was handed down June 2.

FUNDAZOO president Yolanda Matamoros told The Tico Times yesterday that until the foundation receives official notification of the ruling and its lawyers study it, she will not comment on it.

Luis Diego Marín, president of the Association for the Preservation of Wild Flora and Fauna (APREFLOFAS), who filed the lawsuit that led to the Sala’s order, told The Tico Times that a case of leptospirosis reported in a Simón Bolivar Zoo employee earlier this year is an example of health risks at the park (TT,March 10).

After zoo employee Luis Villalobos contracted leptospirosis, a bacterial disease that can affect and, in some cases, kill animals and humans, and was hospitalized for more than a month, representatives from the Public Health Ministry visited the San José zoo and found it had inadequate sanitary conditions and lacked necessary health permits (TT,March 24).

The ministry ordered the zoo to obtain the permits or face closure. The zoo subsequently passed a Health Ministry inspection that found employees wearing adequate protection.

FUNDAZOO’s Matamoros said leptospirosis cases emerge everywhere in Costa Rica, and added there are groups who call themselves “environmentalists” but members are actually politically motivated.

Marín said he wonders whether somebody has to die as a result of the zoo’s unhealthy conditions before the government takes measures.

“It appears this is the way our ministries work,”Marín told The Tico Times this week, criticizing FUNDAZOO and the government’s slowness in improving zoo conditions.

The legal department of the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), the part of the Environment Ministry that oversees the FUNDAZOO management contract, did not return Tico Times phone calls by press time regarding plans to improve the zoo.

The Tico Times also tried to contact Yolanda Matamoros, FUNDAZOO director, but received no response to phone and email messages.

FUNDAZOO and the Environment Ministry have been disputing the zoo contract for years.

In 2003, the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) decided to not renew FUNDAZOO’s 10-year contract and tried to find a new administrator. FUNDAZOO, however, argued that MINAE failed to give proper notice before the contract was automatically renewed.

Early in 2005, an arbitration court ruled in favor of the Environment Ministry, and ordered FUNDAZOO to turn over the zoo in nine months (TT, Jan. 28, Feb. 4, 2005).

However, FUNDAZOO appealed to the Supreme Court’s Civil and Administrative Law Branch (Sala I), which ruled to annul the arbitration court’s decision on a technicality, claiming that MINAE’s representative during arbitration failed to comply with legal requirements (TT, April 21).

To date, FUNDAZOO continues to manage the zoo and conservation center.

Matamoros said as far as she knows, no change in administration is scheduled anytime soon.

Marín said in the meantime, the zoo’s condition will continue to negatively affect Costa Rica’s image as an eco-tourism destination. “In a country where 25% of the land is protected territory, when (tourists) arrive and find this pigsty of a place, where primates rip their hair off and felines turn in circles (in their cages) like they are mad… this cannot help the (country’s) image,” he said.


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