Free the animals! Costa Rica’s cage-free wildlife ambitions extend beyond public zoos

March 17, 2014

Both celebration and concerns followed the Costa Rican Environment Ministry’s (MINAE) July announcement that officials will free most of the animals from the country’s two public zoos. Now, according to Environment Minister René Castro, the measure could affect more than just the two zoos slated to close in 2014.

“As the state we are setting an example, showing that it can be done,” Castro told The Tico Times. “It is a gradual process, but eventually we hope that there will no longer be animals in cages anywhere in the country.”

Cage-less “bio parks” will replace the two zoos currently owned by the state. According to Castro, the same requirements will apply to other parks or lands acquired by MINAE in the future, including INBioparque, which due to financial troubles will be acquired by the ministry sometime in the next few weeks. Although no new regulations are yet on the table, the minister told The Tico Times he eventually hopes to eliminate caged animals in the private sector as well.

While there is debate among biologists about whether or not certain animals, particularly large mammals, can return to the wild at all, MINAE’s wildlife director, José Calvo, said that nearly all of the zoos’ 400 animals will be released immediately after zoo contracts expire. MINAE also will release some of the zoos’ largest animals back into the wild, including jaguars, which Castro said are young enough to readapt to the jungle.

MINAE is now encouraging both private zoos and citizens to release their caged animals into the wild if possible and to send injured wildlife or former pets incapable of surviving outside of captivity to rescue centers. According to MINAE, one in every four Costa Rican homes keeps a formerly wild animal as a pet, often illegally.

“Animals need to be in their natural habitat,” Rafael Gutiérrez, director of the National System of Conservation Areas, told the press during an event for National Wildlife Day. “We cannot continue thinking that pizotes [coatis], monkeys and iguanas are domestic animals because they’re not.”

A large number of the animals at Simón Bolivar Zoo in San José were injured or kept as pets before arriving there, said zoo spokesman Eduardo Bolaños.

“Some of these animals cannot return to the wild,” Bolaños said. “We are very confused by the ministry’s statements that they will send those animals to rescue centers. In many ways, we are a rescue center.”

For MINAE the distinction between a zoo and a rescue center is very minute, and the definition of a cage very specific. Like a zoo, rescue centers can still exhibit animals, they can still charge money, they can still keep animals that will never be able to return to the wild and they can still put those animals behind fences and barriers.

“What we have are not cages, they are habitats,” said Sheirys Jiménez, the head biologist at La Paz Waterfall Gardens, a rescue center 30 miles northwest of San José in Vara Blanca, Alajuela. “Our animals are in much better condition than at the zoos.”

Castro gave Simón Bolivar Zoo a solid B- grade during his interview with The Tico Times, and said its condition was one of the primary reasons for the change. The ministry is only considering locations that can provide at least 1,500 square meters of territory for animals and include ample vegetation.

“We want all rescue centers to be considered a temporary home, an animal hospital,” Castro said. “Once the animal is better it will leave the hospital, or if it needs to remain in the hospital it can, but we will treat it just as well as we would treat a person in the same situation.”

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