Uruguay's Montevideo Zoo giving away its big cats

1 / 4
In this Aug. 24, 2013 photo, an unnamed female tiger looks out from her cage at the city zoo in Montevideo, Uruguay. Montevideo’s municipal zoo is giving up its two tigers, which will be sent to a sanctuary in the United States. With their departure, the little Montevideo zoo will focus on smaller South American creatures that are easier to maintain. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — "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 $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 $600,000, too high for the city to support.

The city spends about $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.

Meanwhile, thousands of people still want pet tigers, especially in the United States, and are willing to pay prices ranging from $1,500 for more common Bengal tigers to $7,000 each for white tigers, said Juan Villalba Macias, the former South America director of Traffic, a global network combating the illegal wildlife trade.

"There are between 10,000 and 15,000 big cats in private hands, in places as diverse as basements, backyards and traveling exhibitions. In Texas there are more pet tigers than the entire population of wild tigers surviving in Asia," said Villalba, who now runs a private wildlife reserve in rural Uruguay.

Carlos Martinez laments that he wasn't offered these cats. He runs the zoo in Salto, a city in Uruguay's far northern corner, which has four tigers, and room for more. But city officials in Montevideo said they're convinced that the protesters would only head north, and Martinez conceded that was likely. "They're not bringing them here because of recent pressure by animal rights groups," he said.

Montevideo finally found a solution when it met with Animals Without Homes, an Uruguayan organization that works with zoos and circuses to move unwanted animals into better environments. The organization is currently in talks with the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Texas and the National Tiger Sanctuary in Missouri. The plan is to transfer the animals without compensation or cost to the city, said the organization's spokesman, Eduardo Etcheverry.

"I would like it if zoos did not exist, but they exist and have many animals that cannot be introduced back into nature. We try to help these animals have the best quality of life," said Etcheverry. "The administration of Montevideo has recognized, and we thank them for it, that they do not possess the means to have the tigers in their charge."

Eduardo Rabellino, Montevideo's acting director of arts and sciences, said the tigers are just waiting for their traveling papers now. "The idea is to make the transfer this year," he said.

With their departure, the little Montevideo zoo will focus on smaller South American creatures that are easier to maintain, Tabares said. The zoo's last elephant died last year of arthrosis, a bone disease common to captive animals. Zookeepers also hope to find new homes for a giraffe and a hippopotamus.

Carbajal said he too is in talks with animal rights groups, and that "we agree to move toward closing traditional zoos."

A tiger in captivity can live up to 25 years. Those working on Hatch's transfer hope he'll be able to spend the second half of his life walking through grass, and perhaps even taking a dip in a pond.