Costa Rica to Shut Down Its Zoos—But It’s Not Going to Be Easy

Recent progress in Costa Rica’s animal rights movement creates new challenges.

costa rica zoo shutdown
The closure of Costa Rica's two zoos next year creates a conundrum for the country's overbooked rescue centers. (Photo: Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters)
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In a country teeming with wildlife, the Costa Rican government has decided to close its last two government-funded zoos, citing, among other things, that the animals within live in cramped cages, and that, “They have so much contact with humans, they are in a constant state of stress.” 

The news comes to us through Costa Rica’s English-language newspaper the Tico Times, in which the country’s Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINEA) joined “a contingent of detractors,” declaring that in May 2014, Costa Rica will begin rehabilitating and releasing approximately 400 animals, including 60 different species, to rescue centers. Once the animals are removed, one zoo will reopen as a public park, the other as a botanical garden. 
 
Animal rights activists are praising Environment Minister Rene Castro’s decision, saying that for years, conditions at the zoo have been “a point of contention,” and that as a country renowned for its wildlife and natural beauty, the very existence of a zoo damages its image. 
 

But not everyone is happy about the decision. The Tico Times reports that the zoo’s operator, Fundazoo, has already filed an appeal. In what seems like a logical statement, Fundazoo spokesman Eduardo Bolanos asked Castro’s Ministry, “Where are they taking these animals? Why do they want this to stop being a zoo? Where are people going to see Costa Rica’s biodiversity if they close down the country’s most easily accessible public zoo?”

But the Tico Times reports that in Fundazoo’s “near 2-year reign” as administrators, there have been numerous complaints filed against the zoos for poor conditions. In 2006, a zoo employee came down with a case of leptospirosis, an infectious bacterial disease that can cause liver and kidney damage. That same year, the paper reports, “Association for the Preservation of Wild Flora and Fauna (APREFLOFAS) filed a lawsuit against the zoo, and the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ordered the [Environmental Ministry] and Fundazoo to improve the zoo’s conditions.”
 
At a press conference to announce the closures, Environment Minister Castro responded, “We are getting rid of the cages and reinforcing the idea of interacting with biodiversity in botanical parks in a natural way.”
 
Yet while this is great news for animal rights activists, according to Cynthia Dent, regional director of Humane Society International (HSI), it comes on the heels of another decision that is already putting strain on Costa Rica’s wildlife rescue centers.

Last December, keeping wildlife as pets became illegal under a strict new law created by “society submission,” meaning that a sufficient number of Costa Ricans requested it for the law to be enacted. According to Dent, the country has a long tradition of keeping wildlife as pets, and in a study carried out in 2000, it was determined that one in four families engaged in the practice. It’s a deeply set attitude that will take some time to change, but Dent says that in the long term the law will provide “stronger background” for ensuring that people stop purchasing wildlife—a practice that has always been illegal. But already an enormous number of animals need new homes.

According to National Geographic, “Jose-Joaquin Calvo, wildlife manager for MINAE’s National System of Conservation Areas, calls the situation an ‘emergency’ and said his organization and others are working to house the animals.” But as people flock to centers, these places are becoming overwhelmed with snakes and sloths and (who knows what else?) ocelots. In a response to the problem, the government has now created a loophole in its December law, which allows current owners of wildlife to keep theirs until more rescue centers can be created. 

Meanwhile, organizations like HSI are stepping in to provide support. According to Dent, HSI Latin America is working with rescue centers across the continent to help them improve their infrastructure and protocols. These protocols are tweaked according to the specific facility, but Dent says that HSI is helping governments create protocols for “biosafety, animal intake, quarantine, emergency, rehabilitation, release, and euthanasia.”
 
Currently, the Costa Rican government is also working with various rescue centers to house the influx of returned wild beasts. But many of these facilities are woefully underfunded. As a result, HSI Latin America is asking concerned parties to donate to its Protect Wildlife Campaign, which “works to end wildlife abuses around the world and to maintain longstanding protections for animals where they already exist.”

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