July 19, 2024

Costa Rica announced last week that it would close its two remaining state zoos, more than a decade after it passed a law to ban keeping wild animals in government-sponsored captivity but was met with legal blowback.

Costa Rica’s Ministry of Environment and Energy said in a statement on Saturday that it would not renew its contract with Fundazoo, a foundation that had run the zoos. The move will close the country’s last two state zoos: the Simón Bolívar Zoo and the Santa Ana Conservation Center.

State officials last week began transferring 287 animals from the two facilities to a rehabilitation center, where the health of the animals will be evaluated to determine what environment will best suit them. Some of the animals have been in captivity for more than 30 years, the ministry said.

Franz Tattenbach, the minister of environment and energy, said on Saturday that Costa Rica would move toward running sanctuaries for animals that cannot return to to the wild.

“Captivity is only justified when animals cannot return to the forest for either physical or behavioral problems that prevent them from living in freedom,” Mr. Tattenbach said in Spanish in a video on Facebook. “This closure consolidates Costa Rica’s vision of wildlife protection.”

The move not to renew Costa Rica’s contract with Fundazoo, closing the country’s public zoos, came more than a decade after Costa Rica passed a wildlife protection law in 2013 that banned keeping wildlife in captivity. Costa Rica’s state run zoos were supposed to close in 2014, but the law was met with legal appeals by Fundazoo, which delayed closing the public zoos, according to the FAADA Foundation, an wildlife nonprofit.

“The closure of the state zoos is a very important step forward,” FAADA said in a statement. “We join in the celebration of this historic achievement.”

The law does not apply to 18 private zoos in Costa Rica, according to FAADA.

Fundazoo did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

José Pablo Vásquez, a biologist with a government group that oversees conservation efforts, said in a statement on Saturday that an inventory had been taken of the animals removed from the two zoos and they were being evaluated by teams of biologists and veterinarians.

Mr. Tattenbach said that animals would be placed in a quarantine before teams determined whether they could be reintroduced to the wild or if they would be best taken care of at a sanctuary. Some animals had yet to be transferred out of the zoos as of Tuesday, including an alligator and some turtles, the ministry said.

Dr. Darryl Heard, an associate professor of zoological medicine at the University of Florida, said that in some instances, it could take years before animals were ready for the wild, and that some animals might not be able to return to the wild at all.

“If they’ve been away from the wild or if they were captive-born, then they’ve not been able to develop necessarily the skills to feed themselves, protect themselves from predators and so forth,” Dr. Heard said.

Dr. Alonso Aguirre, dean of the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University, said that some animals can struggle returning to the wild, noting how Keiko, the whale featured in the movie “Free Willy,” had died after being released.

“So many of these animals, the only thing they know is captivity,” Dr. Aguirre said.

Costa Rica could set an example for other countries on how to move away from zoos, while keeping some species safe, he said.

“We have to get away from captivity,” Dr. Aguirre said. “I think that’s a huge lesson for the world. If Costa Rica can do it, everybody else can.”

While some wildlife advocates in North America have called for closing zoos, Dr. Heard said that it was a “very complex issue” that should focus on animal conservation.

“I know that there are things that still need improvement,” Dr. Heard said of zoos. “But there’s generally been a positive trend in remediating those issues.”

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