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BARCELONA, Spain – Animal rights activists in Barcelona are celebrating a victory after the Spanish city ordered its municipal zoo to restrict the reproduction of captive animals unless their young are destined to be reintroduced into the wild.
Barcelona's town council voted on May 3 to modify the zoo's bylaws to include a rule by which any of its breeding programs will be stopped unless there is a plan to eventually release the offspring into nature.
"We want zoos to stop breeding animals that do not respond to an environmental strategy, breeding them just so they can be in front or inside a cage," said activist Leonardo Anselmi, who coordinates ZOO XXI, the animal rights group that successfully pushed for the new mandate.
The mandate was passed along with a new strategic plan for the zoo crafted by its staff that will task a committee of scientists and ethical experts with one year to determine a conservation plan for each of the 300 different species housed at the zoo. Those resulting plans will have to be implemented within three years. Any animals the committee thinks should leave the zoo will, in theory, be reintroduced into the wild or relocated at other zoos or sanctuaries.
The bylaw says it is adopting a stance of "compassionate conservation" that sees "animals are beings deserving our respect."
The goal is to convert the zoo, which was built inside a park in the city center in 1892, into a center focused on education and research, and a refuge for animals that can no longer survive in liberty. Currently the zoo hosts several animals in this condition, including elephants, tortoises and Pedro, a 45-year-old rhinoceros who eats baguettes for breakfast.
But some zookeepers are worried that reproduction restrictions could do more harm than good and held a strike early this month to voice their concern.
These zookeepers argue that responsibly reproducing animals in captivity is key to maintaining a healthy genetic pool of several species that are endangered. They point to a recent United Nations report that found that over one million species face extinction.
"The problem is not the philosophy of deeper and more sincere (understanding of) animal welfare, which we all agree on, but rather how to apply it," said Damia Gibernet, the head of the local zookeeper's union who led the strike.
Gibernet said the zoo had already stopped the breeding of certain animals such as elephants and rhinoceroses. Other species such as lions, giraffes, and great apes were being bred in captivity up until now. But fewer than a dozen animals are part of conservation programs that eventually lead to repopulation in the wild, which zookeepers say is not as simple as it sounds. For example, the six hand-picked Saharan Dorcas gazelles born in the zoo must first go through an adaption period before they can be released in the Ferlo Nord Wildlife Reserve in Senegal. Such programs take enormous amounts of time, research, money and secured habitats to create programs that safely release animals bred in captivity back into nature, they say.
The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums says that more than 85% of the species housed at Barcelona Zoo are included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and over the last few years, nearly 30% of the animals born in the zoo were released into wild habitats.
"The reproduction limitation in some cases for us is very serious because it prevents the reproduction of species that are in a great risk of extinction and we cannot allow them to disappear," said Gibernet.
Both sides of the debate recognize it will take years, even decades, to see visible change, while admitting this may be the last generation of lions, giraffes and many other species at the Barcelona zoo.
Zoo director Antoni Alarcon said the new plan includes 65 million euros of investment, half of which will go to better enclosures.
"Good zoos are not about keeping animals in captivity for spectacles or other objectives that are not related to conservation projects or research and education," Alarcon said.
According to the new plan, the zoo will prioritize the Mediterranean and nearby North African fauna over large exotic mammals from other continents. The new centerpiece animals include Dorcas Gazelles, birds and amphibians. They will continue breeding certain critically endangered species such as the Bornean orangutans, which is part of the European Endangered Species Program.
But the zookeeper caring for the tiny endangered Montseny newt admits visitors don't spend more than a few seconds at its exhibit; they come here to see the large or dangerous animals.
"Nowadays people must understand that the role an insect plays, or in our case that the Montseny newt, probably the most threatened amphibian in all of Europe, is as important and the gorilla's or orangutan's," Alarcon said. "All animals play their specific role in the ecosystem."
AP writer Joseph Wilson contributed.