San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New Hope for Change At Much-Criticized Zoo

The Environment and Energy Ministry MINAE) and the nonprofit Foundation for Zoos (FUNDAZOO) this week signaled the end of a fierce legal battle at a celebration marking the 90-year anniversary of the Simón Bolívar National Zoo.

Zoo critics, however, see little hope on the horizon for the approximately 400 animals that inhabit cramped cages at the antiquated zoo in Barrio Amón, a historic district in northern San José.

Vice-Minister of Environment Jorge Rodríguez and FUNDAZOO president Yolanda Matamoros said Monday their organizations are working together to resolve their differences and improve conditions for the animals. The foundation manages the much-criticized public zoo with the help of government funds.

Rodríguez said both are organizations making the welfare of the animals their first priority, and working out their problems internally after years of lawsuits and arbitration cases related to the zoo contract.

The new administration, which took office May 8, is taking a more conciliatory approach toward FUNDAZOO.

“The country is not going to gain anything if we keep fighting,” Rodríguez told The Tico Times.

Matamoros agreed there is “good will” between the ministry and the foundation and problems between them are “being resolved” with discussions and information-sharing. Rodríguez admitted he is still concerned about conditions at the zoo, which he described as “not the most appropriate.”

A new study by veterinarians and biologists on how to improve conditions for animals should be ready within a month, he said.

The ministry is also examining options to resolve financial disputes with FUNDAZOO.

In March,Matamoros said MINAE owed FUNDAZOO ¢322 million ($627,700) in back payments for funds related to managing the public zoo (TT, March 24).

“If we work together, the legal problems will be minimized,” the vice-minister said.

In recent years, MINAE has harshly criticized the zoo, which conservationists describe as a “prison.”

A 2004 report by the ministry concluded a lack of shelter, space and toys at the 2.5-hectare zoo have been detrimental to the health of its animals (TT, Jan. 28, 2005). Matamoros has responded to repeated criticisms by saying FUNDAZOO has done as much as possible with the funds available.

She says the zoo meets national and international standards.

MINAE ignited a full-scale conflict with FUNDAZOO in 2003 when it took steps to take the zoo back from the foundation, which has administered the park since 1994.

In May 2003, MINAE decided not to renew FUNDAZOO’s 10-year contract. FUNDAZOO refused to accept the decision and took the case to arbitration court, claiming that MINAE had improperly terminated the contract. In January 2005 the court ruled in MINAE’s favor, and gave FUNDAZOO nine months to return control of the zoo to the ministry (TT, Jan. 28, 2005).

After the arbitration court decided in MINAE’s favor, FUNDAZOO brought the case before the Supreme Court’s Administrative Branch (Sala 1). Sala 1 decided in the foundation’s favor in April, ruling that one of the arbitration judges had insufficient experience to participate in the case (TT, April 21).

In June, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) ordered MINAE and FUNDAZOO to reduce risks to which animals and zoo workers are exposed (TT, June 16).

In March, a zoo worker was hospitalized after coming down with leptospirosis, a bacterial disease that affects humans and animals and can cause death in rare cases. After the occurrence, the Ministry of Public Health threatened to shut down the zoo. The threat was withdrawn after a repeat investigation found improved sanitation (TT,March 24).

When pressed, Matamoros this week said she is not satisfied with zoo’s infrastructure.

To improve the situation, FUNDAZOO is working toward the goals outlined in the zoo’s development plan.

Goals include finishing construction on walkways, enclosures, and an auditorium, she said. The foundation is “looking for funds” to complete these projects.

At the 90-year anniversary celebration Monday, pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the Venezuelan Embassy pledged some support.

Over the course of the coming year, Pfizer will donate about $5,000 worth of animal medications, said Cristian Naranjo, an animal specialist for the company.

The company is willing to give more if it is needed, he added.

Rafael Velásquez, advising minister for the Venezuelan Embassy, said the embassy may help the zoo with projects such as printing educational materials. He could not estimate the value of any possible assistance, however.

But neither assistance from Pfizer and Venezuela nor the new relationship between MINAE and FUNDAZOO are likely to help the animals at Simón Bolívar, according to conservationists.

“Imagine you are in prison without trial and they bring you medicine … It’s a nice gesture, but is not enough for the animals,” said Gerardo Huertas, director of Latin American activities for the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). “Just having a new administration doesn’t change anything,” he added.

The WSPA and Costa Rican environmental organizations such as the Association for the Preservation ofWild Flora and Fauna (APREFLOFAS) and the Special Unit for Animal Protection and Rescue (UESPRA) have long criticized the conditions at the Simón Bolívar Zoo.

Many enclosures are small patches of concrete surrounded by metal cages. Animals are placed in visual contact with visitors, and have little space to move, hide or play.

In a special feature on the zoo that aired Monday night on TV Channel 15’s environmentalist show “Era Verde,” cameras showed rats scurrying around enclosures and walkways.

APREFLOFAS has a permanent campaign against the zoo, organization president Luís Diego Marín told The Tico Times.

Marín is calling for the ouster of FUNDAZOO and asking people to refrain from visiting the zoo. The tight, barred cages give children the wrong idea about conservation, he said, and proceeds from visits allow the zoo to keep operating.

Marín is among activists who say the best possible solution would be to move most of the zoo’s animals to the 50-hectare Conservation Center in Santa Ana, southwest of San José, also managed by FUNDAZOO.

In the decades since the parcel was purchased by MINAE, various proposals have been submitted to relocate Simón Bolívar’s animals there. Matamoros said some animals have already been moved to Santa Ana.

However, funding shortages have consistently stalled large-scale efforts (TT, Feb. 4, 2005). Huertas, a staunch critic of the zoo, said neither FUNDAZOO nor MINAE deserve all the blame for the zoo’s problems.

“It depends on political will and priorities,” he said. “We have more pressing things in Costa Rica than to spend $200 million on a zoo, and that is a fact.”

In this context, Huertas sees a bleak future for the zoo’s animal inhabitants. One realistic option would be to try to move some of the big animals to a better zoo and limit Simón Bolívar’s species to small animals that can comfortably reside in the limited area, Huertas said.

But making the change won’t be easy. Because problems like the ones at Simón Bolívar are common in Latin America, it would be extremely difficult to move animals to other zoos, Huertas continued. And because big animals such as lions draw the most visitors, limiting the zoo to small animals like amphibians would require good marketing to keep visitors interested, and educational campaigns to convince them that avoiding large species is more humane, he said.


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