UCTP Present during the Protest at the Puerto Rico Zoo in Mayagüez

By Tai Pelli

From left: Sonia "Nube" Vigo, Ángeles Cima de Villa, Joanna "Aya" Avilés, Tai "AnaYuísa" Pelli

Mayagüez, Boriken/Puerto Rico (UCTP Taino News) - On August 16, 2013, “Fanáticos de Animales” (a FB page for animal lovers with over 8,000 followers), concerned citizens and members of the United Confederation of Taíno People (UCTP) and Taíno representative of the Caribbean Amerindian Development Organization (CADO), joined in a protest in front of the Puerto Rico Zoo in Mayagüez.

Several weeks earlier the TV show “Dando Candela” and its journalist, Ojeda, presented a report where several animals seemed extremely underweight and these images caused an outrage in the community. As more images and anecdotes of recent visits to the zoo rose, “Fanáticos de Animales’” administrator, Mr. Felixis Falcón, decided to organize a protest to become the voice of those who cannot speak for themselves. 

 From an indigenous perspective, the respect and protection of all living things is one of the utmost responsibilities of a native person, hence, UCTP members, Joanna “Aya” Soto-Avilés, Sonia “Nube” Vigo, her son Guaily and myself, Tai Pelli as UCTP Officer and Taíno Representative for the Caribbean Amerindian Development Organization (CADO), set to become participants in the protest.

Upon arrival, we noticed a heavy police presence in and outside zoo grounds. 

Mr. Felixis Falcón and myself were granted the opportunity to meet up with zoo officials and were the only ones allowed on the premises. Dr. Luis Figueroa, Curator and Veterinarian of the zoo, and Biologist Mr. Oscar Vázquez, led the visit. We expressed our concerns and those of the demonstrators that were not allowed in. Dr. Figueroa stated that he was glad to see that people cared for the zoo, for it shows him that the zoo is important to them. He wanted to reassure us that everything was fine with the animals and that there were no problems at the zoo. 

We were taken to the Emú area. Emphasizing it was an Emú and not an ostrich, as was expressed through the media. (An Emú looks like an ostrich). We did not step out of the golf-cart. It was a quick stop. (Hmm! I had to wait to return home and verify the image I had seen of the Emú. I did, and the plumage is very different from the one I saw. I later wanted to get Felixis opinion, and he too, agrees that the Emú from the picture does not look like the one we were shown.) 

We proceeded to the area where they store and prepare the food. The place was ARMY-clean. Although the food had been prepared, I did not see a tiny particle of a leaf, nor anything on the floor. Counters were clean. 

As Felixis and I followed Dr. Figueroa into the walk-in freezer, I saw a room filled with boxes of food, stacked in perfect order. One box opened, which contained Nebraska Feline Diet. We were shown packages of hospital-quality meat (low-fat) from an additional freezer and bags of frozen rats. Understanding the place had just been stocked-up, I asked specifically about food shipments. Dr. Figueroa stated they get their food supply on Tuesdays and Fridays, with the exception of supplements, which they order on an “as needed” basis. He stated that because they knew we would be there Friday the 16th, they asked to get the shipment the day before. 

As we went from point “A” to point “B”, there would be a number of zoo personnel awaiting us. 

Time to see the lion! We encountered the most zoo personnel at this location, yet the ones who primarily spoke were Dr. Figueroa and Biologist Oscar Vázquez. We came to realize Tsavo was in the same room as us, when Dr. Figueroa called his name and he lazily roared. (It sounded more like a yawn!) Tsavo was lying down leaning against a wall, in what seemed like a narrow hallway that connected to other areas. He swatted his tail a couple of times. Dr. Figueroa let him lick his hand and was inviting us to get closer. We both maintained a safe distance. Tsavo was uninterested and could care less about our presence (he pretty much looked away from us most of the time unless the Dr. tried to get his attention). His mane, did not look as mangled as we had seen in the many pictures taken by an array of sources. We could not compare the body to the images because of the position he was in. Although the ventilation system they use to fan away the smell was off, the area looked very clean and one could not smell the animal nor any traces of urine in the area. The pills he was taking were conveniently placed on a sill and were shown to us. 

Dr. Figueroa asked if we were satisfied and immediately Mr. Vázquez interjected and said we now had to write an apology! He still wanted to place the blame on us for what Ojeda had purportedly said about Dr. Ribero during the report in “Dando Candela”, which of course, had nothing to do with us and was not our responsibility. Mr. Vázquez’ main issue was the fact he felt that Dr. Ribero had been disrespected and in his view was not deserving of the alleged comments on the show. He spoke very highly of Dr. Ribero as a person and as a professional. 

Mr. Falcón expressed that it was clear they had plenty of time to prepare for this visit and that he still had not received an explanation for the photos. He showed Dr. Figueroa pictures stored in his phone, one after another, to no avail. We received many excuses: there was a lioness that was in heat and male lions don’t pay much attention to nourishment during this time, Tsavo is old, Tsavo is old and gets sick just like people age and get sick, the photographer maliciously waited for the lion to be at a bad angle to snap the shot, nowadays anyone can do anything to pictures (inferring “Photoshop”), there was a change in government administration 7 months ago and people do things like this.

I asked about the other lion and although the immediate response was: “Do you want to see it?” and I replied affirmatively, we were never taken to see him.

As we were walking out, they showed us the new aquarium exhibit. We thanked them for their disposition in granting us the interview. We were then escorted out of the premises.

A huge sign had been posted by the entrance, according to some, on August 8th, announcing a Remodeling Project for the Lion and Aviary exhibits. The grass had been recently cut, and had not been raked.

WORA TV and WOLE TV interviewed Felixis and I. WORA TV showed a small clip of our protest on Friday’s Evening News and an edited version of our interviews and that of Dr. Figueroa on Monday August 19th, 2013. WOLE TV posted a YouTube Video with Felixis Falcón’s interview, the Zoo Administrator and Dr. Figueroa. 

The Zoo Administrator and Dr. Figueroa seem to have different information with regards to the food supply shipments. Dr. Figueroa told me weekly, on Tuesdays and Fridays with the exception of the supplements for variety. The Administrator told WOLE TV they get weekly shipments of Fruits and Vegetables on Mondays and Fridays and a once a month shipment of meat! You be the judge! 

Dr. Figueroa admitted on one of the interviews that Tsavo had indeed lost approximately 20 pounds, yet the Administrator inferred that the claims (that the animals were underweight) were uninformed. Dr. Figueroa stated they will now implement a weekly weigh-in for the lions to keep tabs on any weight changes. 

The zoo has been known to have an array of challenges throughout the decades. Things get bad, animals escape, animals look underweight, things get better for a while and something else happens. What it needs is consistency in maintaining a high level of quality. 

We must keep an eye on the conditions of the only zoo in the island of Borikén. It is up to us to be vigilant and voice our concerns on behalf of those who cannot do it for themselves.

UCTPTN 08.26.2013

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