SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Animal rights activists demanded Friday that Puerto Rico permanently close its only zoo and relocate all animals to sanctuaries following reports of deaths and improper care.
The California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund and local organizations accused the U.S. territory's government of violating the Animal Welfare Act and the Endangered Species Act at a zoo that held more than 300 species last year.
"These animals are just languishing there without any veterinary care or safe and wholesome food and proper shelter," said Cristina Stella, the fund's attorney, in a phone interview.
The 45-acre Dr. Juan A. Rivero zoo has remained closed to the public since Hurricane Irma brushed past Puerto Rico in early September 2017 as a Category 5 storm, followed by a direct hit from Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm. Activists and some government officials raised concerns about the animals' health prior to the storms given the zoo's financial constraints amid a 12-year recession, but some worry the situation has worsened.
In early October, Puerto Rico's Department of Natural Resources ordered an investigation into the deaths of animals that occurred after the storms and questioned whether the zoo followed proper procedure to dispose of their corpses.
A recent letter from a government-appointed committee looking into problems at the zoo located in the western coastal city of Mayaguez highlighted multiple issues. It noted that several animals including two pumas have died, that others including a rhinoceros named Felipe were limping, and that 127 mammals needed physical tests or vaccines, 30 of them urgently.
The letter also said that a chimpanzee was underweight and that animals including a kangaroo and a porcupine didn't have shelter.
Aniel Bigio, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, said officials would not issue further comment until the investigation is complete and the zoo comes under their direction. It is currently transitioning over from the Department of Recreation and Sports.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has cited dozens of violations at the zoo in recent years. In 2017, it noted that a tiger that has since been euthanized was thin and had not been evaluated since 2015. It also noted that a cougar was in distress and living in a "minimal amount of space."
In early February, the USDA cancelled the zoo's exhibitor's license, a move that Stella, the Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney, called unusual.
The zoo is currently closed to the public and it is unclear when or if it will reopen.
Sahir Pujols, with the local welfare group Free Animals Puerto Rico, said plans to send the zoo's only elephant, Mundi, to a sanctuary in the U.S. mainland have been put on hold until the hurricane season ends on Nov. 30.
The government has not approved any additional plans to move other animals to sanctuaries.