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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Closing of Mayagüez Zoo is major loss for western region

Natural and Environmental Resources Secretary Anaís Rodríguez Vega

By The Star Staff

The Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) will not be able to convert the site where the Mayagüez Zoo is located into “something else” because the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) lent the agency the land in “usufructo” (use and enjoyment) to build the zoo and will not allow other uses, the spokeswoman for the Save the Dr. Juan A. Rivero Zoo Foundation told the STAR.

Linnette Matos said Monday that she was at a recent meeting in which UPR officials said they will try to get the land back if the zoo is closed. UPR officials only said to the STAR that they do not have access to the zoo.

DNER Secretary Anaís Rodríguez Vega said in a radio interview that the agency will permanently close the Dr. Juan A. Rivero Zoo and transfer all animals that are in good condition to different sanctuaries in the continental United States.

Rodríguez Vega said the agency decided to develop a “new concept” in the space occupied by the zoo.

“There is going to be a reconstruction and recovery project and, with that, a completely new concept, where it is envisioned not having animals,” Rodríguez Vega said.

She did not provide reasons for the closing, but Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia said they wanted to avoid problems with federal officials. Federal agents and personnel from various agencies and veterinarians visited the facility over the weekend.

“Because we want to avoid unnecessary controversies. There have been accusations [for animal cruelty)] for a long time,” the governor said in response to questions from the press. “The same federal authorities had made accusations in the past. Among others, the [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service, and the federal Department of Agriculture. At one point, during the past administration, there was even a special commission that made findings and recommendations to us.”

Pierluisi said action will also be taken with the animals found in the Cambalache area. Those who can be moved to other places will be moved; those who cannot will remain in the facilities under veterinary care and if the federal authorities authorize it, some of them may be euthanized.

He noted that officials are coordinating efforts with a sanctuary in the state of Colorado.

The area will be turned into an educational or recreational facility, he said. Matos, the zoo foundation spokeswoman, said the government can’t do whatever it wants with the property because it does not own it. She also said there have never been any criminal charges brought against the zoo.

Opened in 1954, the zoo sits on about 86 forested acres in the town of Mayagüez. About 600 species of animals made it their home. It eventually featured everything from an aviary to arthropods.

Over the decades, its quality declined. By the early 2010s, unhappy visitors complained about dirty bathrooms; small, unkempt cages; undernourished animals; an ostrich missing its feathers; and lions with open wounds.

In 2017, a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture made certain observations. The document noted that the zoo’s fencing was inadequate, it was storing expired medication for its animals, and observers had spotted evidence of rodents.

Then, in September of that year, hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Puerto Rico, battering the zoo’s protective fencing, toppling trees, uprooting asphalt and cement, and wrecking the fiber-optic network, security cameras, air conditioners, power poles and inflicting other damage.

The zoo shut down and has not reopened in five years.

The decision to shutter the zoo forever came after different animal rights groups protested in front of the zoo, demanding the closure of the “cruel place.” The island Legislature is also evaluating a bill that would virtually ban zoos in Puerto Rico.

“At Vínculo Animal PR, along with other animal organizations, we have not stopped pointing out the horror of this place and we have presented innumerable alternatives for sanctuaries so that all animals can have a dignified life,” said Sahir Pujols, president of Animal Link PR. “For this reason, beyond protests and press releases, we also participated in the public hearings in favor of [Senate Bill] 1041 held last week where evidence was found that the DNER does not have the capacity to maintain the zoo.”

Matos defended the zoo caretakers against allegations of animal cruelty.

“The caretakers have always taken care of the animals,” she said. “We have never seen any mistreatment.”

The closing of the zoo represents the loss of a significant research, educational and tourism facility for the region, Matos added.

The Foundation has always been available to provide medication and veterinary care to the animals. However, the DNER has rejected help from the Foundation since March of last year, Matos said.

Nonetheless, she was surprised by the government’s decision to close the zoo permanently because the Foundation has provided alternatives to the agencies, including establishing a public-private partnership with UPR and the Foundation to operate and maintain the zoo.

Matos noted contradictions in what the DNER secretary said because on the one hand, she said there will not be a zoo but on the other, they will also keep animals.

“It appears that they don’t know what they are doing,” Matos said.

Mayagüez’s interim mayor, Jorge Ramos Ruiz, said he learned of the closing through the media.

He said La Fortaleza Chief of Staff Noelia García told him that they are still in the process of evaluating each and every one of the species, and then making an individual determination on how to proceed with each of the animals.

“The Mayagüez Zoo has always been an axis of economic and tourist development in the region, so sustainable alternatives should be sought to continue using existing facilities,” Ramos Ruiz said, “this always taking into account the well-being of our animals. The Municipality of Mayagüez and this mayor, we have always been and we will be willing to collaborate in that effort.”

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