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Costa Rica to close zoos, release some animals

By Rafael Romo and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
August 8, 2013 -- Updated 2119 GMT (0519 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Costa Rica plans to close two public zoos next year
  • The new policy is "no cages," the country's environment minister says
  • Zoo officials say they help animals and are challenging the move in court
  • Environmentalists have said the zoos are unsanitary and harmful to animals

(CNN) -- Costa Rican officials plan to close the country's public zoos and open the cages where animals have been kept.

Environment Minister Rene Castro says the country, long known for its biodiversity, is going in a new direction to protect wildlife: "No cages."

Explaining the plan to close two public zoos next year, Castro described a memory from his childhood.

When he was growing up, his grandmother had a pet parrot, Castro told Costa Rica's La Nacion newspaper last week.

"One day, we took the parrot out to the patio, and a flock of wild parrots passed, and the parrot went with them," he told La Nacion. "It made a big impression on me because I thought that we were taking good care of her. We fed her with food and affection. ... all these things that we as humans thought she liked. And when she had the chance, she left."

As part of the government's plan, the Simon Bolivar Zoo in the capital of San Jose -- which currently houses hundreds of animals -- will be transformed into a botanical garden. And the Santa Ana Conservation Center west of the city will be turned into a park. The animals housed in the facilities will either be released into the wild or sent to animal sanctuaries, CNN affiliate Teletica reported.

Environmentalists have criticized the country's zoos, arguing that cramped cages and unsanitary conditions are bad for animals there -- claims that zoo officials have denied.

A veterinarian at the Bolivar zoo said environmentalists and the government don't know what they're talking about.

In his view, animals shouldn't be released back into the wild or sent to a rescue center.

"If they close it down, none of the animals here could be released. Most have permanent injuries. Even though they have been treated, these injuries prevent them from flying or seeing well," veterinarian Randall Arguedas told Teletica. "Some have simply lost their natural instincts. In other words, they will always have to live in captivity."

For the Bolivar zoo, there are also legal issues to consider. The facility was franchised to a foundation called Fundazoo 20 years ago. Fundazoo officials argue that they can run the zoo until 2024 because the government missed a deadline to cancel the franchise.

"The contract's clause that speaks about the renewal says that it renews automatically if neither party indicates that it doesn't want to extend it within the first quarter of the contract year," Fundazoo Director Yolanda Matamoros told Teletica. "Their deadline expired on August 10 of last year."

The move to shutter zoos and ban cages is the latest step by Costa Rican officials who say they're aiming to protect animals.

The Central American country banned circuses with animal acts more than a decade ago.

Sport hunting is also banned.

The most recent dispute over zoo animals has already made its way to the courts, and much like the animals at its center, it's already getting wild.

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