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Puerto Rico Zoo Rescue

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Updated 6/25/2023

Please help us complete this incredible rescue!

The Challenge... 

With more than four decades of hands-on experience working tirelessly within the trenches of the Captive Wildlife Crisis, our Sanctuary is definitely the leading large carnivore and wild animal rescue entity within the United States - and as best we can tell - quite possibly the largest in the world.  As such, we have become extremely well known amongst law enforcement agencies as the go-to organization whenever there is a significant number of Lions, Tigers and other animals that need to be confiscated as part of a criminal case - or due to civil proceedings that have been brought forth by animal welfare agencies. 

As many people may remember, it wasn’t long ago when we were called upon to be the lead organization working on the numerous “Tiger King” raids that were carried out when both the United States Department Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) sought to end the terrible trade involving Tiger Cubs and many other species of big cats.  There were a number of unsavory characters running questionable operations in different states across the U.S., and we were challenged with managing the removal of the animals found at each facility.  

Each raid was a success and ended up freeing the animals from their reproductive confines, as well as getting them to various accredited sanctuaries where they would no longer be exploited.  The majority came to our two facilities within Colorado, while the remaining animals went to a half-dozen facilities in other states. 

Even though there were hundreds of animals involved with the Tiger King rescues, the removal and transportation efforts were spread out over a two-year period and were based within the continental United States.  However, this rescue in Puerto Rico would involve over 700 animals that would need to be relocated within a three-month period and also require the vast majority of them to leave the island! 

The first phase of this operation involved us sending a team of Veterinarians, other medical staff, and our operations and logistical personnel to go to Puerto Rico for a visual assessment of the situation.  We needed to see the facilities in question, as well as assess the animals located within to see if they were healthy enough to be relocated. 

Once we could establish whether the animals could make the trip, we needed to spend the next few weeks seeking placement for each species involved.  This was a major challenge, as some of the species were the type that are extremely hard to find homes for. 

For example, many monkeys would need to go to species-specific sanctuaries, but nearly every facility we contacted was full and had no room for additional rescues.  Others dealt with incredibly unique animals such as Rhinos, Hippos and Elephants, so finding the right facility that also had space would be nearly impossible. 

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Adding to the challenge, most of the facilities who agreed to accept animals had restrictions pertaining to medical testing for certain diseases and other stringent requirements.  This meant we would have to send a team of doctors to Puerto Rico for an extended period of time in order to carry out all of the testing and associated procedures.

Needless to say, this rescue was going to represent a massive logistical challenge, as well as require highly coordinated shifts of manpower to come and go from the island in a manner that would prevent individuals or groups from becoming over worked or completely burnt out.  Yet, we knew with the help of numerous entities and both government and private industry partners that we could successfully carry out the mission.

The Zoo...

Like most anyone familiar with zoos might imagine, at one point the Juan A. Rivero Zoo had an extensive collection of animals.  Yet, starting as far back as 2012, the zoo had experienced financial challenges.

As funding for the zoo declined, so too did the quality of animal care.  Less money meant less paid employees... as well as less pay for the employees that were already working there.  Additionally, accusations of corruption and the misappropriation of funds were a constant topic among those who monitored the zoo’s situation.

Year after year USDA inspectors would charge the zoo for serious failures in animal care procedures and facility operations.  However, the problems only worsened as time went by... and the future of the zoo looked bleak.  Fate stepped in and halted the zoo’s ability to improve when in September 2017 Puerto Rico was hit by two hurricanes within a 9-day period.

Like the rest of the island, the zoo was heavily damaged by fierce winds and heavy rain.  The island’s power grid was destroyed, leaving most animals and people without power for more than 11 months.  Some, like the zoo, were never reconnected to the restored system due to the prohibitive cost of running new lines to remote areas. 

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So, in February of 2018, the USDA and Zoo Officials came to an agreement which involved the surrender (cancelation) of the zoo’s exhibition license.  This meant the zoo would no longer be able to host guests or visitors to the facility, which meant the zoo would be losing additional income.

The Puerto Rican Government had actually decided to begin closing the zoo prior to the hurricanes, but that gesture never had a chance to come to fruition when the entire island suddenly found itself suffering from the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria.  One would think the government would try to complete that thought once things began to return to normal, yet they did not.

In the months and years that followed hurricane Maria, there was a promise of FEMA money to not only help with the island’s overall repairs, but also for the zoo itself.  6.2-million Dollars was pledged by FEMA to go towards revitalizing the zoo, but the funding was never really employed for that purpose.

As had happened so many times before, government officials and other parties with a stake in the zoo began to disagree over where and how the money would be spent.  They initially spent $700,000+ dollars to hire an architectural firm to reimagine the zoo so it could transform into something more modern and akin to current-day zoos... but after the plans were unveiled, nothing ever happened to make it a reality.

Of course, the zoo was in bad shape due to the hurricanes, but it also continued to decline year after year since there were no visitors – which would normally spur ground maintenance and the overall upkeep of the facility.  By the time we went to see the facility for the first time earlier this year, it looked eerily similar to scenes from the movie Jurassic Park.

The overgrowth of plants, as well as the deterioration of man-made buildings and basic infrastructure, dominated the landscape, and there were numerous issues related to the daily operation of the facility.   With no grid-supplied power, the zoo had tried to survive by operating numerous generators that had been requisitioned years earlier as everyone on the island tried to get by after the hurricanes knocked out the main power supply.

Yet, one by one the generators began to fail and eventually be abandoned.  There were a few key units the zoo tried desperately to keep operating, such as the one running the commissary where all the animals’ food was stored.  Another happened to be the largest generator on the property, which supplied the office and guard shack with power for a few hours per day.

However, most buildings and key areas remained without power, which of course left many animals having to pay a heavy price.  The African Lions were a good example, since their indoor housing was more or less a concrete sweat box where the lack of power meant the numerous fans which had been installed years earlier to help circulate the oppressively hot, humid and stale air sat rusted and idle.

The most obvious issue revolved around an established protocol where only one set of keys was available for the caretakers to use.  Not only was there only one set for more than a dozen people to share... but in addition, only one caretaker at a time could take the set and go about doing their work.

This evolved into one caretaker using them for an hour or so, then being forced to hand them over to the next person in line.  As such, very little was done for each set of animals since each keeper had to get in and out of their assigned area very quickly.

We were told by the Zoo’s management this practice was put in place because the keepers could not be trusted to have their own set of keys.  This seemed odd at first, but the longer we were there, the more obvious the reasoning became.