baby spider monkey

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.


Because of the resulting deluge of pets at rescue centers, the government decided to grandfather current pet owners of now-illegal animals. According to Martin, if you owned, say, a parrot before the law changed, "you can keep it, but you have to go to the office and they'll give a permit." But many people are still giving up their pets, either because they're reluctant to do the paperwork or are worried about the possible fine.

These exotic former pets pose a different problem for animal rescues than an orphaned or injured wild animal. Adriana Aguilar of the rescue Proyecto Asis, which has taken in several species of parrots, macaws and monkeys, explains what her staff is faced with when a pet parrot is surrendered. "Most of the time they live in small cages, with their wings clipped," she says. "After 10 years, living in captivity in these conditions, sometimes their wings are atrophied and they cannot fly long distances." This presents a problem, she says, if the parrot is released into the wild — it will have no way to reach fruits that grow on high trees, for example, and could starve.

But physical problems are not the only obstacle. Martin, whose rescue recently received eight new pet parrots in one week, says they're all too imprinted to return to the wild. "We have to invest time in trying to make them a flock and give them a place to be together and have a good quality of life," she says. This will take up space and resources that would otherwise go to animals that could be rehabilitated.

The Long Term

It might seem that closing the zoo is a difficult but temporary situation: Without the zoo, this will be the last generation of animals to live in cages, and once they die, the issue will be resolved. However, that approach does not address injured animals whose lives can be saved but who cannot survive on their own in the wild.

"Most of the rescue centers in Costa Rica exhibit the animals, so all of them end up being zoos," Arguedas says. "All of them receive animals and then put them in captivity when release is not possible. And if the government doesn't want any zoos in Costa Rica, what would happen to all the rescued animals that can't be released again — should we just let them die or euthanize them?"

Like animal advocates worldwide, Costa Ricans differ about the ethics of keeping animals in captivity. Aguilar agrees with the government that wild animals should not be kept in cages for exhibition. "Wild animals are wild. They are not pets," she says. "So it is not fair for the animals to be in an enclosure without a reason, even in a zoo."

That's not the only reason to keep the zoo open, though: Access to these animals is necessary to educate Costa Ricans about the wildlife of their country. Martin explains that while Costa Rica has amazing natural biodiversity, most people learn about it from TV — or at the zoo. Arguedas agrees. "What would happen," he wonders, "with all the people and schools that can't go to other places to know and learn about native animals?"

"You can see wildlife if you hire a guide and go walking into the rain forest, but it's not like you can see it walking down the street," Arguedas adds. And there are many animals Costa Ricans wouldn't be likely to see even if they had the time and money to tour the rain forest.

Arguedas and Martin agree that captive animals — and their current home — play a vital part in Costa Rican education and conservation. "Zoos can have the power to teach people about these animals and the threats and how humans are affecting these animals," Martin says. Zoos have a role in society, she adds, especially a zoo where the animals are rescues: "Their role should be to give the best quality of life to the animals that cannot be released and to teach why these animals are kept in cages and how the public should be able to help to avoid it."

Read more Vetstreet articles about zoos, aquariums, and animal parks.