Guardian News and Media/Rio de Janeiro
Costa Rica’s decision to close its last two state zoos has been hailed as a breakthrough for animal rights, but in the short term it could mean a legal battle as well as a major readjustment for the sloths, tapirs, jaguars and other creatures that have found refuge there.
Furthering its reputation as a conservation pioneer, Costa Rica announced last month that it will no longer use public funds to keep animals in cages. This means the Simon Bolivar zoo in San Jose and the Santa Ana conservation centre will close when existing operating contracts run out next year.
The animal residents - 300 individuals from 60 species in the case of the Simon Bolivar zoo - will be released into the wild or found new homes in private shelters. The land will be used as a botanical garden.
The Environment Minister, Rene Castro, said the end of state-financed captivity would be a turning point: “With this move, we are sending a message that the state wishes to show biodiversity in its natural state, under a modern and holistic integration of space, society and natural resources.”
In an interview with La Nacion newspaper, Castro said the “no-cage rule” was influenced by the escape of his grandmother’s pet parrot: “It made a big impression on me because I thought we had taken good care of her. We fed her with food and affection - all the things that we as humans thought she liked. Yet when she had the chance, she left.”
Officials say they have “declared peace with nature” through a series of biodiversity initiatives that have won international awards, including extensive preservation and reforestation programmes funded by fuel taxes, car stamp duties and energy fees.
But while its latest step is widely hailed as progressive in principle, the details are likely to prove contentious.
The small Simon Bolivar inner-city zoo attracts more than 130,000 visitors a year, runs education programmes and has its own policy of releasing animals back into the wild whenever possible.
Fundazoo, the foundation that runs the zoos, is challenging the closure order at an administrative tribunal. The organisation, which employs 35 people, says its contract is valid until 2024.
It has also raised doubts about the wellbeing of the animals if they are returned to the wild or transferred to a private centre that may not be able to provide the same level of veterinary care and zoological expertise for its parrots, crocodiles, ocelots, snakes and spider monkeys.
“We do not understand why the government is trying to close us,” said spokesman Eduardo Bolanos. “We are more a rescue centre than a zoo. We have never bought or collected animals.”
He said almost all the animals were illegally kept pets, injured or found in the possession of poachers. The only exception is a lion from Cuba for which a home could not be found elsewhere. “These animals don’t have the capacity to survive in the wild.”
The government says it will find a solution and rejects suspicions that the closure is simply a budget-cutting measure.
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