Costa Rica Plans to Close Zoos

baby spider monkey
Photo courtesy of Proyecto Asis
A baby spider monkey in one of the Costa Rica zoos.

The government of Costa Rica has announced that it plans to close down the country's two state-funded zoos, turning them into botanical gardens or urban parks. The Simón Bolívar Zoo in San Jose is scheduled to close in May of 2014, while the closure and transformation of the Santa Ana Conservation Center is still under discussion. The closings are not financially motivated, though. Environment and Energy Minister René Castro has said that the government's objections are purely ethical. "We do not want to educate future generations that it is OK to put a tapir or a jaguar in a cage or bring an African lion just because we want to enjoy seeing it."

While this may be a laudable goal, getting there isn't going to be easy, and not just because the Simón Bolívar Zoo is posed to fight a legal battle to stay open. Animals used to being in captivity can't necessarily fend for themselves in the wild, and it turns out this is particularly the case in Costa Rica, where the zoo animal population is different from what we are familiar with in the United States.

Wild Animals in Need of a Home

Dr. Randall Arguedas, a veterinarian at the Simón Bolívar Zoo, explains that except for the much-photographed lion, the current animals all came to the facility because they were injured or orphaned or were illegal pets who were removed from their owners. "We release the ones that are in good condition after the treatments or surgeries, but a lot of them can't be released because they keep some condition that hampers their ability to survive in the wild," Arguedas says. "So the ones we keep in captivity are, therefore, animals that can't survive in the wild."

So what happens if the zoos are closed? The expectation is that the animals will go to one of Costa Rica's wildlife rescue centers where, says Pia Martin, veterinarian at the Kids Saving the Rainforest wildlife rescue, they will continue to be cared for in captivity.

"They are used to being inside a cage and being fed by people," she says. "They are what's called imprinted — they are not afraid of people anymore. They lose many instincts, so they are not able to defend themselves if they were sent back to the wild."

There has been controversy over conditions at the Simón Bolívar Zoo, although it's unclear whether this factored into the decision to close it. The facility opened to the public in 1921, and some of the cages are small and old-fashioned, although Martin says that in her professional opinion, the animals are well cared for. "They have a full-time vet — which I don't think any other zoo or rescue center in Costa Rica has — and a full-time biologist, and their diets were prepared especially by a wildlife nutritionist."

But whatever conditions the animals are living in now, Martin says, "the fact is that these animals are going to be moved from one enclosure to another. It could be a better enclosure, it could be a bigger one, or it could be the same or worse."

Effect on Wildlife Rescues

There are no government-funded rescue centers in Costa Rica; only the Simón Bolívar Zoo provides those services. The country's rescue centers are all private nonprofits, and they are already burdened by another government decision: Laws against keeping wildlife as pets are being strictly enforced, and the fines have become quite high. "Now the fee can be a thousand dollars; in Costa Rica that's a huge, huge fee," Martin says.

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