andy freire
Andy Freire

On June 23rd, the Buenos Aires City Government made a historic announcement: the Buenos Aires Zoo, an institution that had been operating for over 140 years, would be transformed into an ecological park, and it would be the Ministry of Modernization, Innovation and Technology the one in charge of the tremendous challenge to make a vision come true.

It has been one month since that historic day, and we have since been working with on developing two essential convictions: First, that our most urgent priority is the well-being of the 1,500 animals that, until June 23rd, had been living in captivity in very poor conditions. This means that, whenever possible, we will rehabilitate and accompany them into their path to freedom. Other animals will be transferred to natural reserves or sanctuaries. Some, though, due to their critical health conditions, will have to remain at the Ecoparque, where we will guarantee them proper attention and provide them with the best quality of life in such context.

Our second conviction involves people. The conditions of the Buenos Aires Zoo were a delicate issue for a long time. This very same publication published an article in September 2015 questioning if our once beloved zoo had become an “animal graveyard.” There is no question that mankind’s understanding of animals has been shifting positively and profoundly, but it was just over 50 years ago that the scientific community started talking about the animals’ capability of feeling emotions, thinking and establishing relationships within their communities. And yet there is still so much to be done when it comes to redefining our own relationship with them.

And so comes the biggest challenge of them all, one that I dare say could become a case study for the international community. In the last decade, many zoos around the world have shut down after being defeated and strongly criticized. However, how many of those can we say that have decided to embrace change, begin a profound transformation and, most importantly, engage their communities?

On July 16th, we lived another historic day in Buenos Aires. The Ecoparque opened its doors, still a project in development, to let people (and specially children) see, listen and feel the first steps of this transformation. Open Wednesdays to Sundays only (the ex zoo used to be open every day of the week), we have established a initial quota of 2,000 visitors a day and we have been inviting people to make what we call a “conscious visit.”

A conscious visitor is one that respects animals at every moment and in every aspect. Conscious visitors should come to the Ecoparque not because they want to see animals in captivity, but because they want to be a part of a unique process that is taking place right now.

Conscious visitors do not feed the animals, not only because it is now prohibited, but mostly because they should understand that not only should animals follow a specific, healthy diet, but also that this feeding dynamic, originally put there for there mere entertainment of visitors, puts animals in an inferior, domesticated position.

The current tour adds to the idea of a conscious visit by offering new activities such as: the Sustainable Entrepreneurs Walk (with includes stops at stations such as the Sabe la Tierra [“Taste the Earth”] organic fair, 3D printer inventor Gino Tubaro, the Red de Compostaje [“Compost Network”] and many more); the Arts Walk (to marvel at the more than 20 buildings, monuments and sculptures that are part of the Ecoparque’s historical and architectural heritage); a Virtual Reality experience that takes participants to the heart of the jungle; handcrafts and recycling workshops; artistic interventions and performances and special talks on environmental conservatism and sustainability among others.

But the one “attraction” that I dare say the conscious visitor will enjoy the most is the one that will be missing in the Ecoparque: the four magnificent lechuzones orejudos (such is the name in South America for long-eared owls) that are already being trained at the Ecological Reserve of Buenos Aires in order to teach them how to behave in the wild, since they were born in captivity and never developed their ability to fly long distances nor catch their own food.

These four specimens are part of a bigger group, composed of 46 birds of prey, that were identified by a thorough census as the first group of animals in a condition to leave the park. Another eleven lechuzones orejudos, five lechucitas vizcacheras, eleven black-headed jotes and 15 chimangos will soon follow the same path to freedom.

Just like the Ecoparque, they will soon all start – step by step – their new, better life.