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Published on August 8th, 2013 | by Erin Raub

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Environmental Conscience: Costa Rica to Abolish Public Zoos

Geoffroy's Spider Monkey in Costa Rica

Swing free, spider monkey!

In case you haven’t heard the good news, Costa Rican officials announced in July that the nation’s public zoos will close and the animals will be set free. That’s a big declaration, as it directly affects hundreds of animals, as well as San José’s landmark Simón Bolívar Zoo, which first opened its doors in 1921. The Santa Ana Conservation Center, which spans 128 acres, is also slated for closure.

Even better than the news itself was the local reaction, which reflects a major shift in public opinion: conservation and animal welfare is important to Costa Ricans. By and large, we in Costa Rica celebrated the announcement. As Rene Castro, Minister of the Environment, explained, “We don’t want animals in captivity or enclosed in any way unless it is to rescue or save them.” Indeed. In Costa Rica, animals belong in the wild.

A Shift in Public Opinion
For decades, local organizations have emphasized the importance of animal freedom. Alajuela’s Zoo Ave, a rescue center for the country’s injured wildlife, has long been a champion of animal welfare. As part of their efforts, Zoo Ave launched campaigns to educate the public on serious topics like turtle egg poaching (thought to improve sexual performance) and keeping wildlife as pets (like parrots, caught and caged). These efforts are reinforced by public policy; for example, it is now illegal in Costa Rica to keep any wild animal as a domestic pet.

Policy is one thing but public opinion is quite another. For years, conservationists have fought an uphill battle. After all, it is difficult to challenge tradition and culture. But in recent years, things have changed. As Costa Rica’s environmental policies have evolved, so has Costa Rican opinion. Which brings us to 2013, when this latest announcement was met with support and encouragement.

Where will the animals go?
The only two facilities to close are the Simón Bolívar Zoo and Santa Ana Conservation Center, which house a combined 400 animals now scheduled for release.

The animals’s release habitats will be determined based on each individual’s circumstances and abilities. Animals that have been permanently injured or are incapable of surviving solo in the wild will be entrusted to private reserves and rescue facilities; capable animals will live in the wild. Notably, some citizens are concerned over the specifics of where – private centers only have so much space and so much funding.

What is certain is that the Santa Ana Conservation Center will become a natural park, while the Simón Bolívar Zoo will be repurposed into an urban botanical garden. My only question is, where are they sending the lion?!


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