MAYAGÜEZ, PUERTO RICO — In the early evening of May 11, a small crowd gathered in front of the Zoológico Dr. Juan A. Rivero, hoping for one last peek of Mundi, the elephant symbol of the zoo shut down for animal abuse in March. All they could see, however, was the big metal box where she was transported to a sanctuary in the state of Georgia, where she’ll live the remainder of her days.
The departure of Mundi, who was born in 1982 and spent the last 35 years at the Zoológico Dr. Juan A. Rivero, marked the bittersweet ending of the legal battle over Puerto Rico’s oldest zoo, which gripped the nation over the past five years – even prompting a Senate bill last year that, if approved, will ban the exhibition of animals in any park under Puerto Rico government ownership.
Founded in 1954, the zoo has been closed off to the public since hurricane Maria damaged its facilities in 2017. It only officially shut down this year after an investigation by the United States Department of Justice for the District of Puerto Rico found evidence of negligence and cruelty to the animals.
Federal authorities also gave a maximum of six months for the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, which managed the zoo since 2018, to find suitable homes for the animals in the United States. The cost will come out of the 5.6 million United States dollars provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair the zoo following hurricane Maria.
While many Puerto Ricans initially supported the repair and reopening of the Mayagüez zoo, public opinion shifted in favor of shutting it down permanently after a series of news reports revealed zoo management’s ongoing negligence.
Coraly Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico
Vínculo Animal PR, a nongovernmental organization, also helped bring to light reports from the United States Department of Agriculture dating back to 2007, alleging serious problems with food handling, expired medication, inefficient management of rodent fumigation and damaged fences at the zoo, including fallen trees sitting on top of the fence which could serve as a bridge for animals to leave the zoo – or feral animals to enter.
In February, during a public hearing about the zoo organized by the Senate of Puerto Rico, Angelina Morales Pérez, an official from the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, admitted that the discrepancy between the number of animals in 2017 and 2023 was because many of the animals have died.
There were 300 animals under the auspices of the zoo in February, when the last inventory was carried out — less than 50% of what a Global Press Journal article reported in 2020.
Besides Mundi, approximately 23 kinds of animals have been removed so far, including eagles, owls, snakes, hippopotamuses and one rhino, says Joel Seijo, press representative for the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources. A sanctuary in the state of Colorado has launched a crowdfunding campaign to support the accommodation of some of the animals, while reports of the transfer of a chimpanzee to a zoo rather than a sanctuary provoked objection from Vínculo Animal PR.
The 86-acre farmland belonging to the Mayagüez campus of the University of Puerto Rico where the zoo is located will be converted into an ecological park, with its construction due to begin as soon as the last animal leaves the zoo, says Seijo. “In the meantime, we’re refining the last details of the new concept.”
Coraly Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico
One point of the agreement didn’t sit well with some animal-rights activists: In exchange for shutting down the zoo, the Justice Department agreed not to prosecute the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources or its employees and contractors.
For Sahir Pujols Vázquez, spokesperson for Vínculo Animal, this “creates a precedent” for future cases of animal abuse. “It implies a weakness of all the legislation protecting animals in Puerto Rico,” she says, adding that those responsible for the mistreatment should face harsher consequences.
Nydia Capó, a Puerto Rican woman, says she was grief-stricken when she saw the state of the animals. “They pushed me to come out against something that is extremely unjust,” she says. “I feel very sorry for them because they can’t complain. All they’re doing is holding them there.”
Nélida González, a retired journalist, has witnessed the zoo’s growth over more than 30 years. She remembers the narrow sidewalks she walked along in 1984 to document the birth of Magnum the chimpanzee and the spacious building that was converted into an entertaining arthropod house.
The announcement that Magnum — whom she had held in her arms — died at a facility that faces serious allegations of mistreatment sparked González’s indignation and fueled the growing demand for the government to take action.
“It is unnecessary to hold them in captivity in order to understand them, let alone under the conditions of that zoo,” González said at a protest to demand the zoo’s closure — days before authorities made the decision that made it happen.