Saturday, April 21, 2012

S.O.S for the Avenida 26 Zoo / Rebeca Monzo

S.O.S for the Avenida 26 Zoo / Rebeca Monzo
Rebeca Monzo, Translator: Unstated

Some years ago, disenchanted with the neglect of the place and the
precarious state of health of the animals, I stopped visiting this
formerly wonderful zoo. Opened in 1939 and later expanded, it ranked
among the best in Latin America in the 1950s. It provided a pleasant
source of recreation and culture for children, teenagers and adults, as
well as easy access, located, as it is, in the heart of the city.

A wonderful group of sculptures, created by the artist Rita Longa and
located at the park's entrance, proclaim a priori the beauty that awaits
visitors within. The numerous entrances(closed now for many years)from
the streets surrounding the park are shuttered by iron gates, which have
been eaten away by rust and neglect, but which are miraculously still
standing. These once made entry and exit to the site easier on days when
attendance was high, such as Saturdays and Sundays.

When speaking to its then director, my friend, more than two decades
ago, she told me how upset she was to realize that she lacked the
necessary funds or an adequate number of staff to support the animals
and maintain the facility. She observed with astonishment, unable do
anything about it, how breeding eggs would disappear daily, and how
animals would suffer an unbelievable number of accidents, requiring them
to be put down. She told me with obvious sorrow that these unfortunate
animals were mistreated by the workers themselves in the hope that, once
out of circulation, they could be relegated to the "soup kettle." After
several meetings with employees she had to therefore come to an almost
conspiratorial agreement with them. They would collect all the birds'
eggs and turn them over to her, whereupon she would decide which ones
could be used for a park worker's breakfast, and which would be set
aside for reproductive purposes. As a veterinarian she had to very
carefully evaluate the health of each "accidentally injured" specimen in
order to determine if and when there was no option other than sacrifice.
The most striking case was that of the flamingos, who frequently turned
up with broken feet.

The park, then as now, is under the inadequate supervision of Áreas
Verdes (Green Spaces), an organization that does not even have the
resources to maintain these parts of the city, much less a zoo. Today it
has become a separate entity within the National Assembly of People's
Power, which regrettably has no power, and is not as people oriented as
its name implies. Unfortunately, this organization also lacks adequate
funds for the maintenance and preservation of the facility.

While reading an article on this subject published in the international
press today explicitly criticizing the sad state in which the park finds
itself, I remembered that sad day when my friend, Maria, took her
granddaughter on a stroll through the park, and left it traumatized
after seeing baby chicks being thrown to the monkeys for food. (This was
at the time when incubated chicks were distributed through ration books.
You were supposed to raise them, fattening them up, in order to later
slaughter and eat them.) She grabbed one which had escaped the clutches
of a startled simian, and took it home where she ended up raising it as
a pet for her granddaughter. It at least had the good fortune to live to
an old age and die of natural causes.

Though I live in close proximity to the park, it has been years since I
have heard the roar of the lions in the afternoon. Nor can chipmunks be
seen roaming through the neighborhood gardens. I have a friend and
neighbor, Humberto, who adopted an emaciated and sad looking chipmunk
who appeared one day in the tree of his patio. He began feeding it,
trying little by little to gain its confidence, until it began to
approach him, motivated by a loss of fear and a need to eat. Now it is
almost always pinned to his chest, like a decoration. Together they
stroll the neighborhood to the astonishment and curiosity of all who
cross their path.

Mustering all my courage, I decided to go back to the park. The entry
fee was only one measly peso (a ridiculous situation today). The entire
main entrance, through which the public normally flows, was cordoned off
by makeshift bars. The only access was along an adjoining sidewalk.

I was shocked to see how widespread deterioration and neglect are
throughout the facility. The cages of the few remaining animals are
rusted and very deteriorated. (Quite possibly they are the same ones
from fifty years ago.) The famous island of monkeys is deserted, and the
waters surrounding it are fetid. In one cage I could see only a pair of
resting lions, indifferent to the few people trying to rouse them with
screams and gestures. It is worth noting that people visit the facility
not out of love for the animals but for the cookies, candies and sweets
sold in the cafe, and priced in the inaptly named Cuban peso.

During my tour I spoke with two young veterinarians, who provide
services on site, and they commented to me how much they suffered,
seeing the public itself mistreating the animals they come to visit.
They saw with sadness how a pelican had apparently been killed by thrown
stones. They say that this happens often under the indifferent eyes of
the adults accompanying children. Added, in response to another
question, they said that the peacocks, which used to walk around loose
among the visitors, have had to be locked up because they are stolen or

When I asked them why most of the cages didn't have signs with the names
of the animals, they told me something similar: "They tear them off and
take them or they throw them."

This is the sad situation at the Zoo in Havana. I would like this story
to serve to call the attention of both the authorities and the citizens,
to save this important recreation, educational and cultural facility,
that in earlier times filled us with pride.

The defense of the environment, of its flora and fauna, must begin at home!

April 20 2012

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