Costa Rica Closes Zoos—Where Will the Animals Go?

Influx of captive animals has wildlife-rescue centers strapped.

Two-toed sloth juveniles munch on leaves at a sanctuary in Costa Rica.

At the Monkey Park wildlife-rehab center near Tamarindo, Costa Rica, volunteers clean animal cages, wash dirty dishes, and even prepare the animals' meals.

"It's a labor of love," said Cinde Jeheber, a California native and frequent volunteer at the park. One of her duties might be cutting up fruit for the white-faced monkeys or slicing beef parts to feed to the resident ocelot.

"To be surrounded by all these amazing animals that might someday be released back into the wild—I wouldn't miss it for the world," she said. "Plus, I get to feed an ocelot!"

Yet Monkey Park and other such facilities are facing an unprecedented crunch as Costa Rica struggles with how to care for its captive wildlife, most of which will soon be without a home.

In July, the government announced controversial plans to close the country's two public zoos, citing concerns about animal captivity and welfare. More than 400 animals currently residing in the zoos will be transferred to private animal-rescue centers around the country, where those that are able will be rehabilitated and released back into the wild.

"We are getting rid of the cages and reinforcing the idea of interacting with biodiversity in botanical parks in a natural way," Environment Minister René Castro said at a press conference to announce the planned closures in July. (See pictures of seven energy-smart zoos and aquariums.)

"We don't want animals in captivity or enclosed in any way unless it is to rescue or save them."

While animal-rights groups have praised the government's decision, a new law that makes keeping wildlife as pets illegal has resulted in the inundation of many of the same animal-rescue centers that will be receiving the zoos' former residents.

Already in 2013, the rescue centers have taken in more than 2,000 new animals—that's more than they usually get in a year.

"We have received so many animals this year that we have been forced to turn away animals," said Maria Pia Martin, wildlife veterinarian at Kids Saving the Rainforest, a rescue center near Manuel Antonio National Park. (See rain forest pictures.)

"The idea of turning down an animal is quite difficult. But we need to prioritize who we can save in order to do the best for them."