Broken promises of Buenos Aires Zoo after mysterious deaths of animals

After it was announced in 2016 the zoo would become an ecopark, 119 animals have died, leaving activists to feel little has changed

When the mayor of Buenos Aires announced in 2016 that the Argentinian capital’s 140-year-old zoo was to be shut down and redeveloped as an ecopark, animal welfare campaigners heaved a collective sigh of relief.

But after a string of animal fatalities at the former zoo, there is growing consternation among members of the public and activists that nothing has changed.

In the space of a few days, an 18-year-old giraffe called Jackie and a rare white rhinoceros called Ruth have died this month; activists – and the zoo’s former director Claudio Bertonatti – believe both fatalities were caused by staff negligence.

Once one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, the zoo faced public scrutiny in its later years on account of its small, antiquated enclosures, its proximity to a noisy, congested road and well-documented fatalities – including that of Winner the polar bear.

At the time of its closure, Buenos Aires mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta acknowledged that the situation in the zoo was “degrading for the animals”. He announced that the site would gradually be transformed into an ecopark, with a focus on education and conservation, and that the majority of the animals would be transferred to nature reserves. City officials said the ecopark would also provide refuge to animals rescued from illegal trafficking.

But according to Bertonatti, the ecopark is falling short on these promises “One hundred and nineteen animals have died between 23 June 2016, when the Buenos Aires government took over the management of the former zoo, and 23 June 2018. A further 12 escaped, 15 were freed and 241 were transferred during this period,” he said.

Elephants Pupi and Kuki in their enclosure at the zoo on 24 November 2016.
Elephants Pupi and Kuki in their enclosure at the zoo on 24 November 2016. Photograph: Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images

The ecopark is currently closed for renovations until further notice, and did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bertonatti filed a formal statement calling for authorities to determine the cause of the fatalities. An autopsy confirmed that Jackie had colic and a perforated ulcer at the time of death, while Ruth suffered from several infections.

“These conditions were likely the result of poor management and stress induced by the ongoing renovation works in enclosures,” says Bertonatti.

In the statement, Bertonatti also drew attention to videos taken by anonymous informants that showed rats and cockroaches in the enclosures.

The former zoo director hopes that his statement will encourage Rodriguez Larreta to ensure the zoo conforms to the international welfare standards described by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), as was envisioned in the ecopark’s original reform strategy.

A SinZoo activist denounces the recent deaths of Ruth and Jackie at the ecopark.
A SinZoo activist denounces the recent deaths of Ruth and Jackie at the ecopark. Photograph: Michael Vince KIm

“In my opinion, the infections that ultimately caused Ruth’s death were prompted by the rats and the unsanitary conditions inside the enclosures,” said Malala Fontan, a local animal rights activist and coordinator of SinZoo, an activist group that campaigns for the abolition of zoos in Argentina. “These animals have also been put under a lot of stress due to the ongoing renovations and recent layoffs of their usual caretakers,” she adds.

Over the rainy weekend, campaigners from SinZoo gathered outside the ecopark in two protests calling for “no more deaths nor relocations [of animals] to other zoos”.

“The Buenos Aires Zoo has closed, but the animals still remain behind bars,” said Fontan. “Nothing has changed there, except the name.”


Elizabeth Sulis Kim in Buenos Aires

The GuardianTramp

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