Costa Rica Closes Zoos—Where Will the Animals Go?


Kip Patrick, National Geographic – TRANSCEND Media Service

Influx of captive animals has wildlife-rescue centers strapped.

At the Monkey Park wildlife-rehab center near Tamarindo, Costa Rica, volunteers clean animal cages, wash dirty dishes, and even prepare the animals’ meals.

“It’s a labor of love,” said Cinde Jeheber, a California native and frequent volunteer at the park. One of her duties might be cutting up fruit for the white-faced monkeys or slicing beef parts to feed to the resident ocelot.

“To be surrounded by all these amazing animals that might someday be released back into the wild—I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she said. “Plus, I get to feed an ocelot!”

Yet Monkey Park and other such facilities are facing an unprecedented crunch as Costa Rica struggles with how to care for its captive wildlife, most of which will soon be without a home.

In July [2013], the government announced controversial plans to close the country’s two public zoos, citing concerns about animal captivity and welfare. More than 400 animals currently residing in the zoos will be transferred to private animal-rescue centers around the country, where those that are able will be rehabilitated and released back into the wild.

“We are getting rid of the cages and reinforcing the idea of interacting with biodiversity in botanical parks in a natural way,” Environment Minister René Castro said at a press conference to announce the planned closures in July. (See pictures of seven energy-smart zoos and aquariums.)

“We don’t want animals in captivity or enclosed in any way unless it is to rescue or save them.”

While animal-rights groups have praised the government’s decision, a new law that makes keeping wildlife as pets illegal has resulted in the inundation of many of the same animal-rescue centers that will be receiving the zoos’ former residents.

Already in 2013, the rescue centers have taken in more than 2,000 new animals—that’s more than they usually get in a year.

“We have received so many animals this year that we have been forced to turn away animals,” said Maria Pia Martin, wildlife veterinarian at Kids Saving the Rainforest, a rescue center near Manuel Antonio National Park. (See rain forest pictures.)

“The idea of turning down an animal is quite difficult. But we need to prioritize who we can save in order to do the best for them.”

A female ocelot awaits lunch in a Costa Rica rescue center. Photograph courtesy Kip Patrick

A female ocelot awaits lunch in a Costa Rica rescue center. Photograph courtesy Kip Patrick

Rescue Centers Strapped

Most of Costa Rica’s animal-rescue centers are nonprofits that receive little to no government funding. Many operate with limited budgets and have a finite amount of space, making expansion difficult.

Officials from the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), which oversees the country’s zoos and rescue centers, say the planned zoo closings and the new law are further steps to ensure the long-term health of the country’s incredible biodiversity—Costa Rica is home to 5 percent of all animal species on the planet. Yet, those same officials also recognize they have a serious problem on their hands.

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.

Since the no-wildlife-as-pets law passed in December, MINAE has created a loophole that allows longtime pet owners to keep their pets, at least for now. The government is also working with wildlife experts and conservation groups, including Humane Society International, to write protocols that will help establish best practices for the facilities.

“The government has recognized the crisis and is trying to educate the public so they don’t further inundate the rescue centers,” said Cynthia Dent, regional director of Humane Society International, which is working through a U.S. State Department agreement to establish model rescue centers throughout Central America.

“We’re also in the process of evaluating the more than 200 facilities around the country that house [wild] animals.”

Making Do With Little

In the short term, however, the overcrowded rescue centers continue to struggle, coping as best they can with limited resources.

For example, many are turning to volunteers: These short-term, unpaid staffers, who can range from high school students to retirees, pay a fee in exchange for food, housing, and the opportunity to get up close and personal with some of Costa Rica’s most adorable—and often endangered—species.

Other centers are making room for more critters. “Since the law took effect, we’ve had to build three new cages to host the new animals because we don’t have a place to relocate them all,” said Adriana Aguilar Borbon, marketing manager for Proyecto Asis, a facility in the Arenal region.

“We have eight acres—it’s a large property, but not big enough. It’s going to be even more difficult finding a place for all the animals from the zoos.”

While Costa Ricans try to figure out the most effective way to move forward, everyone seems to agree that the country’s wildlife is their priority. (See more Costa Rica pictures.)

Said the Humane Society’s Dent, “The more effective the rescue centers are at rehabilitating and releasing the animals, the better opportunity visitors will have at catching [a] glimpse of Costa Rica’s wildlife in its natural environment.”

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