What Brazil’s View on Captive Animals Means for Elephants and Sanctuary

Free Zé Colmeia! (“Free Yogi Bear”)

Allegations of poor facilities in Rio Zoo (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) rekindle the old debate about whether to expose animals to the public or keep them isolated in sanctuaries.

Zé takes three steps back and three forwards. Rubs his head in the door of the cage, and repeats the movement. The Brown bear was an attraction in the circus until 5 years ago. He stopped performing the day she attacked her trainer. Sentenced to a 2 meter square transport cage, she lived there for five years, fed dog food, until being rescued. She was malnourished, and grew much less than expected for her species-Zé reaches 1.8 m, when she should reach 3.

Since 2007, Zé has been one of 2400 animals at the Rio Zoo. Treated with medication to decrease anxiety, she gets frozen watermelons in summer and packages as gifts at Christmas. They keep her distracted and busy by spreading food around her enclosure that she then has to find. All of this is done to avoid her stereotypic repetitive movements. But Zé Colmeia resumes the behavior when stressed, especially when surrounded by noisy people who completely ignore the posted warnings that she is being treated medically, and try instead to get her attention.

Despite the tireless work of handlers and veterinarians, as in the case of Zé Colmeia , the Rio Zoo is in the spotlight as it turns 70. An IBAMA (Brazilian equivalent of the USDA) report points out a number of irregularities, such as ill-conditioned waste, closed nurseries with rusty grates and risk of leaks in the ‘extra sector’, which is partially restricted. In this area are animals in ‘adaptation’ or considered aggressive with fellow cage mates. Based on the report, the Federal Public Minister recommended the adoption of a series of improvements, under threat of banning the site.

‘The zoo has a social function. Where would an animal like that bear suffering from depression go? The zoo needs reform because as it is today, it does not meet the minimum requirements demanded by IBAMA. They lack money. The last renovation was done in 1993, “says the prosecutor Sergio Suiama. The city has until the end of the month to meet the requirements of the MPF.

The crisis is not only one of the Rio Zoo, and it reopens the discussion about caring for captive animals. ‘I do not share the idea that we have to have expose animals to satisfy human curiosity, “says the professor of wildlife medicine at the Universidade Federal Fluminense, Savio Friere Bruno. “The zoo seeks to justify its existence by the preservation of genetic diversity through the actions of conservation and environmental education. But they don’t educate properly because they highlight the anthropocentric perspective: the fact that we have the right to imprison the animal to satisfy our curiosity. The model is bankrupt and zoos should seek a new identity.”

Bruno reminds us that the concept of zoos emerged in the Renaissance. It was a sign of status of monarchs and conquest of the New World to display exotic animals. The animals were in circular enclosures, so they could be seen from all angles. ‘Some zoos still maintain this system, when the ideally the animals need somewhere to get out of public view when they are stressed. But then there is the paradox: a person paid to see the animal, which is hidden because it needs to protect itself.

For Peter Ynetian, president of the project GAP Brazil, for the protection of the great apes, zoos are outdated structures. ‘The ideal would be to convert these sites into rescue centers. IBAMA has nowhere to put the animals that are victims of maltreatment or were targeted by traffickers”.

Ynetian maintains a sanctuary for primates in Sorocaba. The animals are in enclosures of up to 4000 meters square. Those who have more difficulty in adaptation are those that come from zoos due to a grueling routine of being exposed eight hours a day and then confined when the zoo is closed.

The president of Zoos and Aquarium Society of Brazil, Yara Barros, refutes the criticism. She states that zoos in Brazil receive 20 million visitors a year. There is no classroom that compares to how well the zoo spreads environmental awareness, she said. And cites academic research occurring in zoos and reproduction programs of already extinct species, such as Alagoas Curassows. Three zoos are trying to breed the bird in captivity to reintroduce into the wild.

For Barros, the polarized debate between zoos and sanctuaries takes the focus from the main issue: funding to keep the animals in good condition. ‘No point in closing the zoo to visitation, transform it into sanctuary, if the cages are minimal, inadequate enclosures. But it seems that people do not bother the animals are hardly care if they are not being economically exploited ‘

According to Barros, 56% of 106 Brazilian zoos are municipal and 40% of them don’t charge to visit. “Investments depend entirely on the good will of the mayor. This lack of autonomy leads to things falling apart. And the case of Rio”

The city reports that they have begun to get prices for the work of renovations of the Rio Zoo. The renovations include cages, administrative sectors and lake restoration designed by Burle Marx. The aviary screen that encloses the birds will have the height increased so that the birds have more space to fly.

Oblivious to controversy and promises of reform, Zé Colmeia follows those coming and going. It was the biologist Anderson Mendes, of the Rio Zoo, who deciphered the origins of the Brown bear’s neurotic behavior: for five years, all the walking she did was restricted to three steps forward and three back, the size of the cell in which she was confined. ‘She will be a psychiatric patient for life. ”

Original article in Portuguese

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