It was Ms Nadia Ragnauth in a letter to this newspaper published on February 14, who reminded everybody that the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) was reported to be funding the importation of an elephant. This bizarre news must have caused many readers to ask themselves, just who in their right senses would consign a hapless pachyderm to the misery which passes for a zoo in this country? Have they all gone bananas? And then there is the GGMC. It is responsible for the mining industry, not for zoological parks, so who was it exactly who fell victim to such a fit of absent-mindedness that he (or they) forgot what the functions of the commission really were? How on earth could the accounting authorities in the GGMC justify the purchase of an elephant of all things to the Auditor General?
But above all else there is the state of the zoo itself. Ms Ragnauth’s letter was the last in a long line of complaints from the public about the zoo and the conditions the animals are kept in. “The otter swims alone in stink water,” she wrote, and the stork too is alone. “Nothing has really changed at the zoo in the decades I have been visiting it,” she said, but then she added, “Well that’s not exactly true, there are far fewer animals and the conditions and upkeep of the facility keep getting worse.” What an advertisement for the tourism industry and for our custodianship of our own as well as imported fauna. The poor lioness in her small cage, it might be mentioned, died at the end of last year, and in an unrelated occurrence at the beginning of this year, five deer were found dead. The cause of their deaths has still not been determined. And now, it seems, some insensitive official wants to bring a lone elephant to suffer here along with the few animals, birds and fish which are left.
When we spoke to former senior staff in 2010 about the zoo, we were told that it was underfunded and mismanaged. The then Chairman of the National Parks Commission, conceded the part about the funding – although obviously not the mismanagement; the zoo needs more funds and less bad press, he was reported to have said in response. The bad press comes about simply because the public visits the zoo and on occasion writes letters detailing their concerns to the newspapers. Dr Cheddi ‘Joey’ Jagan did so last year, for example. Whenever we have followed up these letters, we have confirmed the veracity of their assertions. What the authorities need to grasp is that the zoo gets a bad press because the zoo is in a bad way.
Leaving aside the conditions for the moment, the current concept of the Zoologocal Park is completely outdated. In a country which is not short of land space, if we have to have a zoo at all, why can’t it be in more of a park setting, which would allow the animals some freedom, and visitors could see them in something more approaching their natural habitat. Of course, setting that up and maintaining it would be an expensive undertaking, and if the powers-that-be refuse to expend money on the squalid area which houses the animals at present, they are hardly going to entertain something more ambitious.
The bottom line is we should not be holding animals in captivity that we cannot afford to maintain, and we should not be keeping larger animals like lions and other big cats in the space we have available in the Botanical Gardens at all. Ideally, the zoo should be closed down altogether, although the animals which are there now probably could not be released into the wild because they would not survive. However, as they die, they should not be replaced, and in the meantime, the government should be prepared to expend the kind of funding which would improve their conditions so the zoo would be a somewhat less depressing place than it is at the moment. In other words, it should be allowed over time to die off, so to speak.
Of course, the administration despite its lack of interest in the condition of the animals, will simply not want to close the zoological park down; that would be an admission of failure at some level. If, however, it is going to insist that it is kept in its current location, then it needs to do a major rethink. It needs to reconceptualise the whole place, adapting it for animals which reasonably can be housed in the space available. Most of all, it needs to be prepared to pour funding into it to make the animals comfortable in the first instance, and turn it into an attractive site for visitors in the second. If it doesn’t know what to do, it can learn from Trinidad, whose example Ms Ragnauth cited.
As the zoo stands at present it is a total turn-off, and will scare away the tourists. In addition, this country will acquire a reputation for poor treatment of its wildlife – and this when the government is forever patting itself on the back about its environmental credentials. One presumes that all those who lavished such praise on the previous government because of its commitment to the environment never actually made a visit to our zoo. And as for the elephant, let us hope that good sense prevails and that it never has to endure incarceration here.