Photo via SinZoo.

It’s unusual for the Buenos Aires Zoo to close its doors to visitors on a Friday. But on September 4, it did just that.

The main entrance was covered with banners displaying messages such as, “Strike due to company non-compliance” and “We love our jobs, that’s why we fight.”

Along with the usual demands for better salaries and raises, however, a few more discreet signs could be seen, requesting “better conditions for the animals.”

The strike only lasted 24 hours, after which employees returned to their regular routine, but the interruption brought to light a few often overlooked issues: unfair working conditions, low wages, practically nonexistent job security and, chiefly, the establishment’s dismal treatment of animals.

Contested Management

For over two decades, the management of the zoo has been highly criticized by activists, politicians and scientists alike.

“The administration of a public zoo by a private enterprise has proven to be a remarkable failure,”

former zoo director Claudio Bertonatti told The Bubble.

The Buenos Aires Zoo was long managed by the State until its controversial privatization in the early 1990s. The first private concession was granted to a company named “Zoo-Botanico 2000 SA,” predecessor of the current “Jardin Zoologico de Buenos Aires SA,” property of the Mexican group CIE. The company’s major shareholder is no other than the second richest man on Earth: Mr. Carlos Slim. In 2012, when the concession was about to expire, Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri’s government put it up for public auction. The highest bidder ended up being CIE. Their contract was then renewed for five more years.

The zoo soon found itself under the spotlight and Bertonatti suddenly quit.

“Toward the end of last year I began to feel surrounded by ‘negative forces,’ both within the company and externally,” he expressed to his colleagues in an email before announcing his departure.

Photo via SinZoo.
Photo via SinZoo.

Bertonatti had been persuaded to take the job back in 2012 under the promise of having the post renewed. He was then tasked with creating a five-year plan to transform the park into a conservation center.

“A Zoo Without Bars to Educate People Through Animals and Conservation” was the title of the 700-page proposal that sought to transform the zoo into a center for environmental education and wildlife rescue. About a year and a half later, Bertonatti realized his plan would never see the light of day.

“I quit because the rules of the game have been changed. I’ve been informed of the investment’s stagnation on aspects that I consider vital for the zoo’s plan,” he explained in the email.

The September strike, almost two years after Bertonatti left his post, returns the spotlight to the zoo’s failure. Authentic Socialist Party (PSA) legislator Adrian Camps voiced his support of the park’s employees and pointed out the administration’s failure in a press release: “Mauricio Macri’s government will have to admit that auctioning the concession back in 2012 was a huge mistake, and that it’s no longer possible to maintain it until 2017 under the current circumstances.”

Terrible Living Conditions

Administrative turmoil has always followed controversies surrounding the animals. This latest one, for instance, follows the deaths of two sea lions within three days of each other a few weeks ago.

The reasons for their deaths are still officially unclear, but animal rights activist Gisele Ortiz had a version to share with The Bubble.

“On Sunday August 26, the sea lions were forced to perform in 15 shows in a row. Usually, there are only three shows per day. The first died after being overworked and the second from being overfed, because the zoo sells bad quality food to visitors so that they may feed the animals.”

SinZoo, the organization Ortiz leads, has presented several legal complaints against the zoo for hosting what

Photo via SinZoo.
Photo via SinZoo.

they consider a “circus,” which is specifically forbidden by the Law 14346, established in 1954.  

The sea lions are only the most recent casualties. Back in December 2012, Winner, the zoo’s last polar bear, died. The zoo attributed his death to a “nervous temperament, mixed with unusual peaks of temperature, added to the stress provoked by Christmas fireworks.”

Ortiz explained that most veterinarians would call “nervous temperament” by a more scientific term — “Zoocosis” — which she defined as a mental condition produced by the stress of confinement.

The animals rip their fur, vomit, then eat the vomit and so on. These behaviors are the result of the being locked in,” she continued.

In 2009, a report published by the Buenos Aires General Audit (AGCBA) accused the zoo of causing the “disappearance of species” in addition to providing “bad living conditions for the animals.” According to the report, between the year 1990 — when the concession was first granted to Jardin Zoo de BA SA — and 2007, 103 species disappeared from the zoo. In other words, every specimen out of those 103 species died under the care of the company.  

Some Alternatives

It is now clear that the city’s zoo does not comply with the international standards a zoo should follow. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) defined those standards in 2005 in a document titled “Building a Future for Wildlife.”

Earlier this year, a group of deputies led by Adrian Camps (PSA) presented a bill to the City’s legislature that would seek to transform the zoo into an ecological garden.

The Buenos Aires Zoo would close gradually in order to give more peace and quiet to the animals. It would be transformed into a rehabilitation center for animals. The animals that are currently kept in the park would be reinserted into nature,”

Ortiz explained.

SinZoo has been a strong proponent of the bill and has even started a online petition hoping to push Macri’s government to shut down the zoo.

Just a few days after the bill was introduced, Macri’s chief of staff published an open letter on Facebook promising “a new era for the Buenos Aires Zoo” and saying he would “transform that unique space into an ecological center devoted to preserve, research and promote the care of nature and life.” A smart campaign move, perhaps?

Photo via SinZoo.
Photo via SinZoo.

Tuesday morning, Juan Carlos Villalonga, president of the City’s Environmental Protection Agency (APRA) declared in an interview with Delta FM radio that “the zoo is going through a transformation process.” He also expressed the difficulties of pursuing the project considering that transferring all the animals is a delicate matter.” Villalonga’s announcements coincided with the legislature opening the zoo’s file, almost four months after its introduction in April.

Some remain skeptical of the bill and the City Government’s will to carry it out. Bertonatti supports the educational and preservation components of the bill but disagrees with the stipulation that under no circumstances shall the animals lodging in the Ecological Garden be used for exhibition.” 

It’s important to exhibit (while always respecting and assuring the welfare of the animals) a disabled animal who is unable to go back to nature in order to educate people. This would not only justify its captivity, but would also allow the visitor to get to know its story and understand why he’s been rescued,” Bertonatti said.

The City Government has yet to speak up on the matter. “We haven’t heard about the bill since it was presented,” Ortiz disclosed. “It’s an elections year anyway.”

The animals may just have to wait until politicians on either side of la grieta put their squabbles aside… which could be a while.