Uruguay’s Montevideo Zoo giving away its big cats

By Leonardo Haberkorn, AP

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay–“Hatch,” a 10-year-old male Bengal tiger, has lived in a 20-by-16-foot (6-by-5-meter) cage with cement walls and nothing green in sight since he was traded to the Villa Dolores Zoo after spending his first three years in a circus. A similarly dismal cage next door is home to an unnamed female tiger. A poster says tigers “love water” and “bathe on hot days, swimming across rivers and lakes.”

But these cats don’t even have a paddling pool.

Now, Montevideo’s municipal zoo is giving up its two tigers, bending to pressure from animal rights protesters and a lack of funds to create a healthier environment for them. They will be sent to a sanctuary in the United States.

Many municipal zoos have tried to transform themselves into animal conservation societies, replacing cramped iron cages with more natural animal pens and fostering habitat preservation to support the remaining animals in the wild. In keeping with a global conservation strategy first drafted in 1993 by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the London Zoo this year renovated its tiger habitat — an area about one third of the entire Montevideo zoo, at a cost of about US$4.8 million.

“That is impossible for us,” said zoo director Eduardo Tabares.

The compact urban zoo has no room to grow, and a plan Tabares drafted to create a more-welcoming tiger habitat added up to US$600,000, too high for the city to support.

The city spends about US$1,000 per month just to feed the tigers, but the social pressure was a more important factor than the money, authorities said.

Recently, someone freed a toucan from its cage, Tabares said, and nobody wanted a repeat of what happened at the zoo in Atlantida, a seaside resort in the municipality of Canelones. On July 27, a group calling itself “Direct Action” opened 16 cages there, and declared on Facebook that “we will not stop until all the cages are empty.”

Within hours, a capybara, a llama, a black-headed parrot, a red parrot, a rabbit, three guinea pigs and a Patagonian hare were dead. Some apparently were struck by cars; others drowned in ponds or died of stress. Ten others disappeared, said Juan Carbajal, who oversees that municipality’s two zoos.

“There are people who have very good intentions of respect for the animals, but there are others doing things which serve no purpose,” Tabares said.

According to the World Wildlife Foundation, the wild tiger population has plunged by more than 95 percent since 1900, from as many as 100,000 to as few as 3,200. And yet, there’s a surplus of big cats in captivity. They’re no longer wanted by zoos and circuses, but can’t be given away by reputable institutions to people who don’t have adequate environments to house them.

Tabares said he tried to find an Argentine zoo willing to take the tigers, and Carbajal said no one he contacted would take his town’s pair of 16-year-old jaguars.