Zoo needs more funds, less bad press

-Parks Commission Chairman

Although the National Parks Commission (NPC) has been receiving increased funding, Board Chairman John Caesar yesterday said that the Georgetown zoo requires a lot more for its development.

Chairman of the National Parks Commission John Caesar and General Manager Yolanda Vasconcellos as they spoke with the media yesterday.

Breaking a month of silence on the condition of the city zoo, Caesar told a news conference that the NPC was concerned about the negative publicity the Georgetown zoo has received recently and stressed that the facility is a “critical treasure” that requires more funds to meet its developmental needs.

Funding, according to Caesar, has increased significantly over the years. In fact, government subventions increased by 27% from 2003 to 2006. Last year, it received $110.2M. It must be remembered, Caesar urged, that this amount is used to support the National Park in Georgetown, the Kaieteur Park, the zoo and several other locations for which NPC is also responsible. Last year, $28.5M of the total sum given to the commission was allocated to the zoo. Despite this, Caesar said, the zoo still needs $75M to $80M to get other works done.

Although he added that the NPC is not adverse to criticism, he explained that the Board decided to hold the press briefing in order to deal with recent negative publicity, in wake of reports by Stabroek News.

The lack of space, poor housing facilities and poor health and safety practices as it related to the animals at the zoo were highlighted in recent reports. The poor working conditions and lack of safety gear for zookeepers were also pointed out and later a former senior manager came forward and blamed the situation on a combination of poor decisions by NPC and inadequate funding. Stabroek News had also viewed a decade old management report that provided evidence of some of the same issues needing to be addressed but no action was taken. “We have concerns,” the NPC Chairman said, “when documents we consider internal find their way out to journalist and when things are not put in context.”

Cabinet Secretary Dr. Roger Luncheon reported that the NPC was solely responsible for policy-making at the zoo. Caesar yesterday stated that there as no need to question Luncheon about these issues. These questions, he said, should have been put to the NPC.

Caesar further said that the NPC is concerned about the comments bloggers made after the articles were published online. These comments, according to him, insinuate various things “outside the context of the NPC.”

Stabroek News had repeatedly sought comment from the NPC prior to publication of the reports.

The news conference was also attended by NPC General Manager Yolanda Vasconcellos, NPC Deputy General Manager Clement Trotz and Secretary Basdeo Dalleu.
Success stories
Vasconcellos, speaking for the first time about the matter, also pointed out that the press briefing was held specifically to address the recent media coverage. The zoo, Vasconcellos told reporters, has its share of challenges but there are also success stories.

The Harpy Eagles, the General Manager explained, are the reason for the zoo’s existence. Over the years the birds have attracted thousands of visitors. “They have been able to hunt, mate and have awed the citizens for years,” Vasconcellos said. She reported that one of the eagles currently at the zoo has one wing missing. This particular eagle, she recalled, was found some years ago along the Linden/Soesdyke Highway with a gunshot wound to one of its wings. The zoo’s veterinarians tried for a very long time with the bird, Vasconcellos said, and now years later, it is still on display at the facility. “There have been a lot of articles about the deplorable state of the zoo,” she said, identifying reports about the lioness in her den and the state of the aquarium as portraying the zoo in a bad way.

Currently, Vasconcellos said the zoo has a staff of 35, including a full-time animal health supervisor and an experienced wildlife veterinarian. Medical attention is immediately given to any animal that may be showing signs of abnormality, she said. More than $120,000 is spent on preventative medicine for the animals annually and this is because it is subsidised by other organisations. However, this figure does not include veterinary costs.

Last year, Vasconcellos further reported, a programme to rehabilitate the cages was started and this is being done in stages. This, she said, is going to take some time given the old design of the existing cages. The older cages, according to her, would have been built many years ago and consideration would have been given to combating the drastic change in weather. These cages also catered for the nocturnal collection of animals, which are protected from heat and sunlight. Reptile cages are designed for ventilation. Several corporate entities, Vasconcellos added, are supporting the initiative.

Addressing the issue of space for the lioness, whose native habitat is the African grasslands, she said that the animal is a product of the Captive Breeding Programme. “The experts have advised that the current enclosure is adequate,” Vasconcellos reported, since the lioness was born with a defect in the hip bone.

Further, the bare bones often seen in the feline’s cages help to clean the animals’ teeth and strengthen their jaw as well as provide them with entertainment. “This is what they do when they’re out in the wild,” Vasconcellos said and added that the media should educate the public.

As she continued to address other issues raised in the Stabroek News articles, Vasconcellos insisted that all the tanks in the aquarium contain life. However, when this newspaper visited the location several times, at least two tanks were completely empty. “Every tank in the aquarium does have an exhibit,” she insisted yesterday, “It may not necessarily always want to be seen but if you look carefully you will see it.”

Visitors, she continued, have ignored the rules of the zoo and insist on interacting with the animals. When the monkeys stretch their hands out, Vasconcellos explained, it is not because they are hungry. They do it because it is a natural habit. One visitor had placed a cigarette in the outstretched hand of a monkey once.

Whenever zoo employees admonish these wayward visitors, they often become victims of verbal abuse. Despite these difficulties, Vasconcellos believes that the zoo does not need someone to watch the wayward people but rather they should be more humane.

After the 2005 flooding, which greatly affected the zoo’s immediate developmental plans, the NPC had spoken with the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission about seeking lands elsewhere for an expanded park. This was discussed during a visit to the zoo by President Bharrat Jagdeo, Vasconcellos added.

She also noted that the Georgetown zoo is one of the cheapest in the world to enter and entrance fees have not been increased since 2002. They fees have remained at $200 for adults and $100 for children, while maintenance costs are still increasing with time.

Occupational health and safety issues, security and additional animal housing matters were also discussed at the press conference.

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