Could Costa Rica’s Zoo Closures Hurt Animals?

Caged animals will be a thing of the past in Costa Rica, if the country’s Environment Minister, Rene Castro, gets his way. He wants to close the country’s two government-funded zoos. However, not everyone thinks that it’s such a good idea.

Beginning in May 2014, the Simon Bolivar Zoo in San Jose is slated to become a botanical garden, while the Santa Ana Conservation Center will become a forest reserve. Between them, these two zoos house some 300 animals representing 60 different species, including a lion, a tapir, jaguars, sloths, monkeys and crocodiles.

Many have criticized these facilities in the past for their cramped cages and generally unsanitary conditions. The Tico Times reports that numerous complaints have been made about both facilities’ poor conditions.

A quick look around the Internet reveals loads of commentary from travelers about the sad state of these zoos. Have a look for yourself in this YouTube video:

According to La Nacion, Castro’s motivation for freeing captive animals harkens back to a watershed moment he experienced as a young boy as a result of his his grandmother keeping a parrot as a pet:

“One day, she let the parrot out to the patio and a bunch of wild parrots flew by,” Castro told La Nacion. “Our parrot flew with them. And it affected me tremendously, because I thought we cared for it well, we gave it food and love, all those things that as humans, we believed that she liked. But when it had an opportunity, it escaped.”

The Greenest, Most Animal-Friendly Place on Earth?

Costa Rica is blessed with an incredible abundance of biodiversity. An amazing five percent of all animal species on Earth live there. Its waters are home to 3.5 percent of all marine species. The government has reserved 26 percent of its land for conservation purposes, and may be on track to become the first country to meet its global conservation goals. In 2007, Costa Rica announced its intention to become the first carbon-neutral country in the world.

Costa Rica has taken a number of animal-friendly steps in recent years:

  • 2002 – Costa Rica banned circuses that use wild animals
  • October 2012 – Shark finning was prohibited in Costa Rican waters
  • December 2012 – Costa Rica became the first country in the Americas to ban sport hunting
  • December 2012 – Keeping wild animals as pets became illegal in Costa Rica

Why Would Anyone Oppose Freeing the Animals?

Fundazoo, the foundation that runs the two public zoos, wants an administrative tribunal to block the closures. They say returning to a blissful wild existence is not really what will happen for most of these animals.

“These animals don’t have the capacity to survive in the wild,” Fundazoo spokesman Eduardo Bolanos told the Guardian. Almost all the animals in the zoos are “rescues” of a sort, he says. They are mostly illegal wildlife kept as pets, injured animals and wildlife seized from would-be poachers.

“We do not understand why the government is trying to close us,” Bolanos said. “We are more a rescue center than a zoo. We have never bought or collected animals.” He says the two zoos are the only facilities that have an animal nutritionist and a veterinarian trained to deal with forest species.

“If they close it down, none of the animals here could be released,” Simon Bolivar Zoo veterinarian Randall Arguedas told Teletica. “Most have permanent injuries. Even though they have been treated, these injuries prevent them from flying or seeing well. Some have simply lost their natural instincts. In other words, they will always have to live in captivity.”

The Costa Rican government says it will deal with this concern by “contacting and inspecting private refuges to ensure they meet the technical criteria to care for these animals.” It denies that budget considerations are the real reason behind the decision to close the government-funded zoos, as some critics allege.

Ultimately, it’s not clear how many animals will really go free and how many will simply move somewhere else.

Too Many Animals, Not Enough Rescue Centers

While all this is going on, animal rescue centers in Costa Rica are already bursting at the seams with wild animals needing care. Why? In response to that new law making it illegal to keep wildlife as pets, many citizens are turning in their illicit creatures. Unfortunately, there’s just no place to house them all.

“We have received so many animals this year that we have been forced to turn away animals,” Maria Pia Martin, a wildlife veterinarian at a Costa Rican rescue center, told National Geographic. “The idea of turning down an animal is quite difficult. But we need to prioritize who we can save in order to do the best for them.”

The influx of wild animals needing rescue placement has become such a problem that the government had to amend its “no wild pets” law to allow current owners of wildlife to keep them until additional rescue centers are built.

Adding another 300 or so animals from the two public zoos into the mix may push these underfunded centers to their breaking point. In 2013 they have already taken in 2,000 needy animals, more than they took in for all of 2012.

For the animals that can survive in the wild, this is indeed a good news story. They will soon roam free as nature intended. The fate and well-being of the majority of the animals that cannot be freed, however, remains to be seen.

Related Stories:

Good News! Costa Ricans Rally to Pass a Law Banning Hunting

Success! Costa Rica Bans Shark Finning

Activist Murdered for Protrecting Sea Turtles

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim V2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing

KS Goh
KS Goh4 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra4 years ago

Thank you Susan, for Sharing this!

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se4 years ago


Kathie S.
Kathleen S4 years ago

After watching the video I feel that if the animals cannot be set free into the wild or no better housing can be found, they should be put out of their misery. It is evident they are going crazy where they are now. CLOSE THE ZOOS NOW!!!!!!

Kathy K.
Kathy K4 years ago

Good grief! The idea that these poor animals would be turned out to fend for themselves if ludicrous. Whatever you think of zoos, condemning these animals to death in the wild isn't the answer.

Mike Wilkinson
Mike Wilkinson4 years ago

turn all of central America into an animal refuge.......glad I don't travel........humans are over breeding the planet and causing all this misery........we are turning the garden of eden into a prison sewer!

Bryna Pizzo
Bryna Pizzo4 years ago

I pray they will rehabilitate the animals, so they will be able to survive. In fact, they have to do so.

Susan B.
Susan B4 years ago

My heart is with these animals that they can live and be taken care of. They deserve their lives as we deserve ours. We are not good people when it comes to animals.