A zoo employee hospitalized for more than a month with leptospirosis has sparked increased scrutiny of the conditions at Simón Bolívar National Zoo in downtown San José and reminded the Environment Ministry (MINAE) why it wants the zoo’s administrator kicked out.
Environment Minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguez said he is “very worried” about the case of leptospirosis – a bacterial disease that affects animals and humans and, in rare cases, can cause death.
“It’s one more demonstration of the problems that the zoo has,” Rodríguez said. “It’s a product of the bad management.”
Since last year MINAE has been demanding that Simón Bolívar’s administrator – the nonprofit Foundation for Zoos (FUNDAZOO) – hand over control of the zoo because of what Rodríguez described as poor conditions for the animals. However, the issue has been caught up in a mess of court cases and appeals.
FUNDAZOO representatives deny any negligence on their part and have repeatedly said zoo conditions are up to standard.
While expressing sorrow for the worker’s condition, the organization issued a statement last week saying no evidence exists that Luis Villalobos, who is in charge of cleaning the zoo’s animal enclosures, contracted leptospirosis while working there. Villalobos, 34, was contaminated with the disease a month ago and continued this week in “stable condition” at San Juan de Dios Hospital in San José.
Following Villalobos’s contraction of the disease, the Ministry of Public Health visited the zoo and found what Dr. Guillermo Flores, director of the Ministry of Health’s Central-South Region, called “inadequate sanitary conditions.”
“We found filth, including in the cages,” he said. “The cleanliness was not the best.”
Ministry officials also found that zoo personnel who clean the cages were not outfitted with protective equipment, including boots, gloves and facemasks.
Simón Bolívar also lacked a necessary health permit, Flores said.
The Ministry, therefore, emitted an order requiring the zoo to clean up its act, and cages, and request a health permit or face closure.
Health Ministry officials later returnedto the zoo and found much improved conditions. Employees were using the proper protection and zoo officials were in the process of requesting a health permit, Flores said.
The threat of closure was therefore revoked, Flores said.However, the zoo is now subject to regular visits by Health Ministry officials.
Furthermore, zoo veterinarians must present reports upon request demonstrating that the zoo’s animals are in good health and free of illness and are examined regularly, including lab tests, Flores said.
“They must show that the animals are not a source of human contamination,” he said.
Beyond zoo employees, Health Ministry officials were concerned about the health of the general public. Zoo visitors were “definitely” at risk, Flores said. However, that risk has been minimized or eliminated.
FUNDAZOO points out that no other employees have contracted the disease.
Foundation president Yolanda Matamoros said employees have for the past 15 years used gloves and boots. A Tico Times visit this week found them to be wearing these, but not facemasks. Furthermore, FUNDAZOO points out that, while leptospirosis – which can also cause kidney damage, meningitis and liver failure – can be contracted from rats, no rats have been found at Simón Bolívar. The disease can also be contracted from other animals.
Cases in Costa Rica aren’t particularly rare, however, they usually are diagnosed in people from the countryside who work with farm animals, Flores said.
In 2003, the Environment Ministry decided not to renew FUNDAZOO’s 10-year contract to manage the national zoo and started making plans to seek a new administrator.
However, debate erupted between the two parties over whether MINAE gave proper notice before the contract was automatically renewed.
Early last year an arbitration court ruled in favor of MINAE and ordered FUNDAZOO to hand over the zoo within nine months (TT, Jan. 28, Feb. 4, 2005). Fourteen months later, nothing has happened.
FUNDAZOO has filed an appeal to nullify the arbitration court’s decision claiming that MINAE’s representative during arbitration didn’t comply with the legal requirements.
However, Rodríguez said FUNDAZOO is “violating its commitment” by making this appeal and not accepting the arbitration court’s decision.
“When you go to arbitration you agree to abide by its decision,” he said. “This shows their irresponsibility.”
Furthermore, the minister said he is “extremely frustrated” with the pace of the case, which has moved along at a snail’s pace.
Because of the “bad state of the animals and lack of investment made in the zoo” Rodríguez said MINAE asked the judge in the case if MINAE could remove all of the animals and relocate them to better facilities.
The judge denied this request. Rodríguez said the Environment Ministry hasn’t observed any improvements to the zoo over the past year and that conditions “continue bad.”
Animal-protection organizations have said small, bare cages with nowhere to hide or play, lack of stimulating toys, dirty enclosures, and feeding times that do not correspond with natural behavior have made the zoos’more than 500 animals from 97 species psychologically distraught and unhealthy.
A scathing report written by a MINAE commission in 2004 agreed with many of these accusations and the caged lions, who pace in circles, seem to provide further evidence.
Matamoros claims they have made improvements in the past year, although in a faxed response to written questions, she did not specify what and said they “weren’t as many as we wanted” considering their limited financial resources.
FUNDAZOO says it is owed at least ¢322 million ($640,000) from MINAE because the government agency hasn’t paid its share of employees’ salaries as the management contract stipulates. The foundation has filed a claim in an administrative court.
MINAE had hoped to start accepting bids last year for a new zoo operator.
However, this process has been halted by the court cases, although they have been receiving informal offers since 2002, Rodríguez told The Tico Times.