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date: 25 February 2021

Zoos in Latin Americafree

  • Regina Horta DuarteRegina Horta DuarteDepartment of History, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil.


Modern zoos emerged as mass entertainment, spaces of public leisure and of culture. In the past, they served as monuments and expressions of the degree of “civilization” and progress of a city and its respective country. In Latin America, zoos date from the last quarter of the 19th century. The history of Latin American zoos is a political, cultural, and social history. The conditions of their creation and operation over the decades have conferred important specificities to these institutions. Since their inception, zoos in Latin America have reflected nationalistic aspirations, civilizational projects, and social transformation. Over the decades, the history of many zoos has blended with natural history in Latin America, as many zoo founders were important scientists. The development of new sensitivities toward animals also follows the history of zoos in Latin America from the beginning, because the first animal protection societies appeared at the same time. Today, zoos face vigorous claims from animal rights activists calling for their closure. In view of so many challenges, these institutions are reinventing themselves with an increased focus on conservation and environmental education, joining international zoological societies with high standards of quality. Among several of these societies, the Latin American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (ALPZA) stands out. Founded in 1990, ALPZA organizes, reshapes, and integrates Latin American zoos, establishing global connections. Various actors play a role in the defense and contestation of zoos, such as politicians, scientists, conservationists, animal protection societies, anti-zoo activists, visitors, administrators, officials, and, of course, thousands of wild animals from all over the world who have lived in Latin American cities for decades.

Modern Quandaries for Zoos in Latin America

Kivu and Kariba, two lion cubs, were born in the Havana Zoo, Cuba, in April 1998, arriving later that year at the Simón Bolívar National Zoo and Botanical Garden in San José, Costa Rica. After the female Kariba died of cancer in 2011, Kivu lived alone in his small cage where he eventually became the center of a fierce dispute. In 2013, Costa Rica’s Ministry of the Environment and Energy received damning reports of living conditions for animals at the zoo and ordered the end of the exhibition of large mammals in the area, demanding that they either be returned to the wild or transferred to protective sanctuaries. Groups like the Animal and Earth Resistance Front (FRAT), which called for the zoo to be closed, celebrated the decision. A tense confrontation erupted between zoo administrators, government officials, and anti-zoo movements, for which Kivu had become a symbol. Biologists and veterinarians responsible for Kivu stood by the quality of the care they provided and warned of the risks the lion would suffer elsewhere. They mobilized to keep Kivu despite a lack of funds to expand their facilities. Above all, they defended the relevance of the zoo, founded in 1916 as a place of conservation, research, and leisure. In December 2016, the government acted on its ultimatum and transferred Kivu to an animal rescue center. Despite the ample space in his environment, Kivu’s already fragile health was greatly impacted by the move. His death on February 16, 2017, sparked a national commotion and mutual accusations among the actors involved.1

Other Latin American zoos have experienced similar turbulence. The Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), an institute linked to the Ministry of the Environment, shuttered the zoo in Rio de Janeiro in January 2016 after successive fines and warnings about the precariousness of the animals’ care. The chief of the inspection found that attending the park was no longer a positive experience for visitors, nor did it promote environmental education. He ordered the zoo to comply with various requirements to ensure the welfare of the animals and the safety of zoo visitors and employees.2

In Argentina, after a long legal case, the Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights (AFADA) obtained legal recognition as a “non-human person” for Sandra, a 29-year-old orangutan, in 2015. The Argentine court recognized Sandra as a subject of law and ordered the city of Buenos Aires to offer her adequate conditions of living and well-being. The court decision criticized the zoo’s standards as being below the recommendations of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). Conditions at the zoo worsened in the following months, generating more protests. In June 2016, the mayor of Buenos Aires announced the zoo’s closure, determining that about 2,500 animals should be gradually transferred to natural reserves across Argentina. On that occasion, biologists, administrators, and environmental educators sent an open letter to the chief executive of Buenos Aires, pointing out that the deterioration of the zoo—the first in Latin America, inaugurated in 1875—demanded not that it be closed, but that it be transformed into a center of animal welfare, education, and conservation.3

In Montevideo, the movement against the Villa Dolores Zoo involving marches, performances, graffiti, posters, stickers, bulletins, and booklets, was organized primarily through social networks. The death of several animals beginning in 2012 provoked a public outcry, which led the municipal government to close the zoo in 2014 and launch a years-long project of reforms to establish international standards of quality. Opponents of the zoo, however, demanded the site be closed for good. These movements then began to build international networks of support. On July 25 and 26, 2015, diverse groups from Chile, Costa Rica, Argentina, Uruguay, and Peru coordinated protests for the first International Day for the Fight to Close All Zoos, which now takes place annually.4

Protests have mounted as anti-zoo societies proliferate across the continent. Activists reject reforms or innovations as frauds that obscure the true nature of the enslavement of animals displayed for human entertainment. Such movements illustrate the historical shift in human consideration of animals. The inclusion of non-human animals broadens traditional notions of rights.5

The specific historical contexts of Latin American countries determine the particularities of their zoos. Recurrent political and economic instability over the decades has led to inconsistent funding for city zoos and has mitigated the purchasing power of potential visitors, thus limiting the revenues collected from ticket sales. Zoos require constant investments to ensure the well-being of animals in captivity, including maintaining and improving facilities to meet specific animal welfare standards for each species; hiring specialized personnel; and providing adequate feeding and veterinary care, pest control, and stable sanitary conditions. Even if governments are predisposed to meet the needs of zoos, there remains the challenge of ensuring a high standard of quality in societies where many children and adolescents do not attend schools, do not have adequate food, live in substandard housing, have no sewage or basic care, and lead lives marked by violence and effective limitations on the full exercise of human rights. The poverty of Latin American countries alone could justify the closure of zoos. In the case of zoos with high quality standards, they can be rightly criticized as superfluous luxuries in societies beset by more urgent needs. Furthermore, zoos that subject animals to precarious and cruel conditions, whether because of a lack of funds or lax surveillance by the responsible authorities, violate basic contemporary ethical standards.

But other characteristics of Latin American countries might underscore the potential role zoos can play in providing leisure and environmental education as well as promoting the conservation of endangered species. In addition to offering patrons the chance to encounter animals that the vast majority would otherwise never see, zoos offer workshops, exhibits, and special events in which biologists and veterinarians offer explanations about the animals, their habitats, risks of extinction, and necessary steps to ensure their survival. Among so many diverse yet endangered tropical biomes, conservation programs for the native fauna are especially important. The zoo in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, has adopted conservation measures for Lear’s macaw (Anodorhynchus leari, known in Portuguese as arara-azul-de-lear), coordinated by the National Center for Research on Wild Bird Conservation in partnership with national and international institutions. This species exists only in Brazil’s arid caatinga and is almost extinct.6

The decision to shut down zoos is not an easy one. There are thousands of animals all over the continent, many of them large carnivores. Their native habitats are often threatened. Many are already old and could not adapt to wildlife, while preparing the youngest for release requires sophisticated structures and specialized personnel. Transportation can also be expensive, difficult, and life-threatening for older animals. In addition, the capacity of sanctuaries is limited compared to the number of animals that would need to be transferred.

The dilemmas and paradoxes facing zoos in Latin America are similar to those many zoos around the world are dealing with, in their varied conditions of quality and care. But their history and conditions merge with the specific contexts of the cities that harbor them. In 2017, Gustavito, a 15-year-old hippopotamus from the San Salvador zoo, was stabbed and beaten to death in his cage at night. El Salvador is experiencing an epidemic of violence and is currently one of the most dangerous countries in the world, with high murder rates. Against that backdrop, the death of Gustavito generated a widespread outpouring of anger and grief. On Twitter, the most publicized phrase in those days was “Forgive us Gustavito.” One street vendor said that the crime crossed every line because “they killed an animal that only amused us.”7

Gustavito, Kivu, Sandra, and many others provide moving narratives that link human and nonhuman animals into intricate connections between zoos, cities, and Latin American societies, in a complex expression of their paradoxes and challenges.


In 2012, the city of Montevideo launched a plan to renovate the city’s zoos, Villa Dolores and Parque Lecoqc. Along with the Dámaso Antonio Larrañaga Museum of Natural History, the zoos would compose the Departmental Zoo System, serving as dedicated conservation centers. The plan drew from “the World Zoo Conservation Strategy,” published in 1993 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). A chart representing the historical evolution of zoos argued that modern conservation centers represented a distinct break from the menageries of the past, which were collections of exotic animals intended to symbolize the power and conquest of empire. With this, the zoo sought to demonstrate the start of a new phase, laying the foundations of the zoo for the next 100 years.8

Keeping wild animals in private collections long pre-dates the modern zoo and has been a part of the history of countless societies. As expressions of the power of kings and aristocrats, they existed in Pharaonic Egypt and in China during the Zhou dynasty and the empire. There were also menageries in medieval kingdoms, in the Vatican, in Renaissance republics, and modern nations, always serving as vivid representations of the power of the sovereigns. In addition to expressing imperial power, animals fueled fantasies about the distant and exotic places from which they came, territories to conquer but also lands of mystery and “barbarian” peoples.9

Pre-Columbian America also had memorable collections of animals. When the Spaniards arrived at Tenochtitlán—modern-day Mexico City—they were received by the Aztec emperor Montezuma II, who showed them the riches of his civilization. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a conquistador who later wrote a history of the Spanish conquest, was impressed by several signs of Montezuma’s power, including a collection of colorful birds of various sizes with rich plumages and different origins gathered in a building with immaculate facilities where they received constant care and appropriate food. In another building, he saw collections of felines (which he mistakenly describes as tigers and lions), wolves, foxes, and reptiles, among others. Hernán Cortez, the leader of the expedition, also described the collection in a 1520 report to the King of Spain, emphasizing the meticulous treatment of animals, the feeding of each according to its own characteristics, and the large staff responsible for such care, including some specialized in curing diseases. Above the great tanks of salt and fresh water where the birds perched to cool off there were corridors and viewing areas “where the said Montezuma came to relax and look at the birds.” In another building, in cages of thick wood, Cortez observed different well-fed mammals and reptiles. These collections were part of Montezuma’s broader surroundings of wealth and luxury. Not by chance, they were also the target of the conquistadores’ destructive rage during the siege of Tenochtitlan.10

Other collections had less bloody fates. In 1894, the rich Uruguayan businessman D. Alejo Rossel y Rius and his wife, Dolores, transformed their ranch in Montevideo into a zoo. The 7-hectare estate received well-landscaped trees, artificial lakes, sculptures, bucolic paths, and several exotic animals. Over the years, the couple opened the site to public visitation at limited times, donating the profits to charity. A “book of gold” recorded illustrious visitors, such as Enrico Caruso, the Italian tenor, and José Batle, president of Uruguay.

In 1910, D. Alejo bought several animals from the German Carl Hagenbeck.11 Villa Dolores also had an animal cemetery, ornamented with statues and epitaphs. In 1913, a photographic guide of the zoo showed guests and caged animals, some—like a baby elephant and a chimpanzee—performing circus acts outdoors. Two polar bears appear in a cage. A pet dog strolls inadvertently along the edge of the facility. D. Alejo poses in a suit, staring at the camera. It is difficult to know who is the protagonist of the image: D. Alejo, boldly extending his hand towards the beasts to bestow them with some grains, or the bears, contained behind bars around a small moat, so eager for the contents of a tiny sachet that they do not react to the presence of the dog (Figure 1). The bars of the cage take up most of the image, and everything that would distress a modern observer seems to bother neither the photographer nor D. Alejo himself, illustrating the distance between historical sensitivities toward the captivity of animals in the past and in the present. In 1913, D. Alejo donated Villa Dolores to the municipality of Montevideo, but the transfer formally took place only after his death in 1919. Today, the zoo is hotly contested by those who call for its closure and those who advocate international standards of quality.

Figure 1. Foto de José Cubela, Villa Dolores Jardín Zoológico (Montevideo: Talleres A. Barreiro y Ramos, 1913), p. 18.

When historians present menageries as precursors of modern zoos, even if they point out the differences between the two models, they establish a kind of progressive evolutionary narrative. Contrary to this linear logic, however, collections of animals remain objects of covetousness and manifestations of individual power. Pablo Escobar, the powerful Colombian drug lord in the 1980s, built a zoo at his Hacienda Nápoles, located in Antioquia. The extravagant estate contained many exotic animals and artificial lakes over nearly 3,000 hectares. Escobar hired veterinarians and a full staff, and allowed guests to visit. Upon Escobar’s death, the zoo was abandoned; many animals died while others were stolen, donated to zoos, or simply fled.

Today, Hacienda Nápoles has become a theme park and offers, among other attractions, an “African” safari. In the novel The Sound of Things Falling, the character Antonio Yammara recalls the thrill of the teenagers who, like him, devised daring strategies to deceive their parents and visit the zoo, “a millionaire drug baron’s eccentricity, that promised visitors a spectacle that didn’t belong to these latitudes.” Escobar’s zoo was a taboo and a national legend. Years later, as an adult, Antonio is shocked to observe the property’s decay, with some animals locked in tiny cages, injured and sick. Others were simply gone: “Where were the animals we’d seen as kids?”12

Among the animals that fled the Hacienda Nápoles were some hippopotamuses. With no natural predators, they found flowing rivers and plenty of food and reproduced with great success. Controlling hippo populations is difficult and expensive, and despite some control measures—such as sedation, capture, and castration—Colombia has become a country with a growing population of wild hippos who move erratically and are leaving captivity for a new environment. They conquer the sympathy of tourists, destroy fences and plantations, enchant children, mobilize biologists and animal activists, alter the natural environment of rivers and the lives of other native animals, and inspire newspaper reports and documentaries. They demonstrate that animals are not mere passive objects of human actions. They make history with an agency that does not necessarily involve intentionality or individuality.13 Their unusual presence in Colombian forests and rivers provokes reflections on their captivity, the conditions of their escape, the consequences of their uncontrolled reproduction, their fate, and, last but not least, on the history of Colombia since the 1980s with which their lives are intertwined. These “out-of-place animals” are walking question marks that have upended ideas about the relationship between human and nonhuman animals. Pablo Escobar never dreamed of this when he decided to buy four hippos to satisfy his eccentric whim of owning a zoo.

Civilizing Zoos

The current quandaries confronting zoos involve diverse civilizational values. When zoos first appeared in Latin America in the 19th century, their founders spoke in the name of civilization, although that concept entailed something different at the time.

On November 11, 1875, thousands of Buenos Aires residents attended the opening of Parque Três de Febrero, which housed the first zoo in Latin America. The idea for the place emerged a few years earlier, during the presidency of Domingos Sarmiento (1868–1874), whose agenda for a modern and democratic nation involved building open, hygienic, and educational spaces for citizens. When his administration was over, Sarmiento presided over the commission responsible for the park, remaining an active defender of the zoo. In addition to personally donating some animals from the Argentine fauna, Sarmiento wrote to the governors of the various provinces of Argentina and diplomatic representatives from other countries requesting animals for the zoo. The author of Facundo, a seminal study of the Argentine nation, defended education and the cultivation of democratic values of freedom and rights in the name of civilization and as a bulwark against barbarism. He defended the construction of the zoo as a place for healthy entertainment, cultural training, and the cultivation of cosmopolitan values. In subsequent years, the Buenos Aires zoo grew in terms of staff, animals, and visitors alike. Naturalist Clemente Onelli, director of the zoo from 1904 to 1924, emphasized its wooded paths, statues, fountains, sophisticated architecture, children’s entertainment areas, and animals, features that made up the true realization of what Sarmiento had dreamed of when he first proposed building the zoo. In 1911, the zoo had received about 1,500,000 visitors, more than the zoos of New York and London. Furthermore, according to Onelli, the Buenos Aires zoo led the world in number of mammals (927) and birds (3,068). Schools in various provinces adopted the zoo guide, distributed free of charge, as a children’s reading book. For the director, the zoo met “the primordial aim of its existence and was agreeably and practically consistent with national laws governing public education.”14

Zoos were also centers for the production of scientific knowledge in Latin America. In Chile, ornithologist Carlos Reed led a campaign for the creation of a zoo until President Arturo Alessandri allocated a 4.8-hectare plot of land for the institution at San Cristóbal Hill in Santiago. The zoo opened its doors in 1925 with Reed as its first director.15 In Paraguay, the German naturalist Karl Fiebrig, a professor at the National University of Asunción, led the creation of the Asunción Botanical Garden and Zoo in 1914.16 In Brazil, ornithologist Emilio Goeldi, director of the Museu Paraense in the city of Belém, founded a zoo in the Amazon in 1895, attracting European zoologists like Hermann Meerwarth and Gottfried Hagmann to his team. At a moment of great prosperity for the Brazilian Amazon region, due to a boom in rubber production, the zoo became wildly popular, attracting thousands of visitors per year. But the zoo was, above all, a fruitful base for scientific research on Amazonian fauna.17 The zoologist and director of the Museum of Natural History of Uruguay, Carlos Alberto de la Llosa, was also director of the Municipal Zoo of Montevidéo between 1920 and 1934, where he founded the Magazine of the Municipal Zoological Garden of Montevideo, which carried scientific articles. In Mexico, Alfonso L. Herrera, an evolutionary biologist and leading name in Mexican natural history, established the Chapultepec Zoo in 1924, serving as its first director. The Buenos Aires zoo also had great naturalists as directors, such as Eduardo Holmberg and Clemente Onelli. Both edited a journal that merged data on the zoo, essays for a wide audience, and some specialized articles. Holmberg also created a library in the administration building with about 12,000 volumes, used by scientists Juan Ambrosetti, Enrique Arribalzaga, Carlos Spegazzzin, Guillermo Bondenbender, Florentino Ameghino, and others.18

Naturalists directly involved with zoos also played a distinctive role in demanding the conservation of certain species and the preservation of their habitats. Emilio Goeldi unsuccessfully made numerous efforts to control the hunting of herons and guarás in the Amazon. In Mexico, Alfonso Herrera pressed for a ban on hunting mountain sheep (Ovis canadensis mexicana) and pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), whose populations had been steadily declining. By decree of October 1, 1922, President Obregón prohibited the hunting of these animals for a period of ten years. Obregón and Herrera were awarded the Permanent Wildlife Protection Fund gold medal in 1923 for their contribution to wildlife conservation.19

When Herrera and various authorities attended the ceremony to place the founding stone of the Chapultepec zoo, and later for its inauguration in October 1924, the climate was one of rebuilding. After many years of bloody conflicts, political turmoil, and economic setbacks, the government of Álvaro Obregón (1920–1924) ushered in a time of relative peace, stability, and achievements for the Mexican nation. Agrarian reform and labor laws moved forward. Minister of Education José Vasconcelos carried out important actions, like opening about 1,000 rural schools and 2,000 libraries and encouraging the mural movement, which allowed an influential artistic and cultural experience to flourish. Shortly before the end of Obregón’s administration, Herrera wrote the president a letter expressing gratitude for his support of the zoo and for the scientific activities of the Directorate of Biological Studies. Herrera promised to defend the institution at all costs against any opposing intrigues and ambitions. He mentioned the reputation the zoo had garnered in Mexico and abroad, praising the “patriotic management of the current government.”20 With his letter, Herrera characterized the zoo as an achievement of the Mexican revolution.

The Havana zoo is also linked to its own national revolution. The zoo was initially designed in 1937 by Abelardo Moreno, Nicolás Puente, Carlos Aguayo, and Carlos de la Torre, scientists at the University of Havana. It opened to the public in 1943, but visitation was soon interrupted by the category 4 Cuba–Florida hurricane the following year that destroyed the facilities and killed several of the animals. The zoo functioned precariously in subsequent years before the revolutionary government resumed its activities in April 1959. Abelardo Moreno took over the board, and founded the journal Zoologico in 1965. The zoo exchanged animals with Berlin, Leipzig, Prague, Moscow, Bucharest, England, Canada, and Holland, among other countries. The board organized civic parties on special days, and volunteer brigades aided the work of administrators. The board told guests that the zoo belonged to the people and urged everyone to adopt appropriate behaviors for the safety and conservation of the animals. Statements to workers stimulated cooperation, pointing to the zoo as a site where one could serve the Revolution. When Hurricane Alma (category 3) hit Havana on July 8, 1966, the newsletter proudly announced the success of measures taken to protect the animals. Trees and gardens were seriously damaged but no animal was injured or died as a result of the storm. The Havana zoo reemerged as a symbol of the renewal of revolutionary values and effort.21

Parque de las Leyendas, founded in Lima in 1964, is a pioneering example of how zoos can interact with conservation efforts and the environmental movement in Latin America. Felipe Benavides, a prominent Peruvian environmentalist, helped design, organize, and inaugurate the zoo and to establish conservation areas such as the Pampa Galeras National Reserve, the Manú National Park, and the Paracas National Reserve (created, respectively, in 1967, 1973, and 1975). Benavides, recognized and awarded internationally, fought against the illegal trafficking of animals while promoting policies for the protection of endangered species, especially the vicuña (Vicugna vicugna). In his view, zoos were strategic sites that could instill new attitudes toward nature in their visitors. He believed they should go far beyond entertainment and the exhibition of animals, taking on social, cultural, scientific, and educational functions: “a beautiful botanical zoo is the hallmark of a nation endowed with wonderful fauna and flora.”22

Zoos served as sites for civilization, scientific production, revolutionary action, and conservation drives. But even from their earliest days they have been the target of sometimes well-founded accusations of cruelty. Animal protection societies emerged in many countries even before the founding of the first zoos, such as Cuba (Cuban Society for the Protection of Animals and Plants, 1882), Brazil (International Union for the Protection of Animals, 1884), Uruguay (Saint Francisco de Assis Protective Animal and Plant Society, 1888), Argentina (Sarmiento Protective Society, 1902), and Chile (Benjamin Vicuña Mackenna Protective Animal Society, 1915).23 These institutions organized themselves with regulations and rules for joining, placing pressure on authorities and disseminating their positions through printed material. The booklet Moral Lessons for Childhood, published in Brazil, noted how the pleasures of a visit to the zoo were made possible by the imprisonment of the animals, removed from the jungle and condemned to immobility in narrow cages. There they languished, sad and paralyzed by the lack of exercise and mistreatment. The booklet’s cover showed two elephants, mother and cub, the female brutally chained. The caption stated that, after falling into a trap, the two innocents would meet “a life sentence” at the zoo (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Eugênio George, “Lições morais à infância” (Rio de Janeiro: Sociedade Brasileira Protectora dos Animaes, 1911), book’s cover.

From their earliest days, Latin American zoos have been sites of conflicting agendas and civilizational ideals. In the 21st century, as the preservation of habitats and the recovery of endangered species is linked to the fate of human life itself, the stakes of the challenges confronting zoos have only escalated. They face at once the most forceful critiques and the most vigorous defenses.

Zoo Networks

In the second half of the 20th century, new zoos emerged as part of the exponential growth of Latin American cities. Zoos appeared in Venezuela (El Pinar, Caracas, 1945), Colombia (Santa Fé de Medellin, 1953, and Zoológico Matecaña in Pereira, 1959), Brazil (São Paulo Zoo, 1958, and Belo Horizonte Zoo, 1959). Some institutions emphasized the exhibition of autochthonous fauna, such as the Rescate Animal Zoo Ave, which opened in Costa Rica in 1973, dedicated to Central American birds, and the Noel Kempff Mercado Municipal Zoo, founded in Santa Cruz de la Sierra in 1979. This focus on native species by some zoos is an indicator of the advancement of conservation movements in Latin America and the integration of zoos into broader environmental protection efforts.

In July 1975, the government of the Dominican Republic founded the National Zoological Park (ZooDom), administered by the Pedro Henriquez Ureña National University (UNPHU), in Santo Domingo. The following year, the zoo’s administrators founded the magazine ZooDom, which featured news about wildlife conservation and environmental education promoted by the institution. Since its inception, the zoo has maintained conservation programs, including the recovery plan of Cyclura ricordii, an endemic iguana from the Dominican Republic, considered critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, and whose existence is closely linked to habitat conservation initiatives. In 2002, ZooDom hosted researchers from various conservation institutions and representatives of zoos from San Diego and Indianapolis, among others, to organize coordinated actions on behalf of Ricord’s iguana. ZooDom called for breeding in captivity, pressuring the country’s authorities, promoting environmental education, and coordinating actions with other zoos and conservation areas. Alfonso Ferreira of the UNPHU and then-director of the zoo was one of the Dominican researchers involved.24

ZooDom also had a leading role in the founding of the Latin American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (ALPZA) in 1990 in Santo Domingo, with the initial adherence of zoos from Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, and Cuba (as well as the Dominican Republic). The association emerged with the aim of transforming Latin American zoos, pushing them to adopt international standards of quality for zoos. Its first president was Alfonso Ferreira, director of ZooDom. ALPZA has now united 43 Latin American zoos, as well as nine zoos from other countries as associate members. It includes seven societies: the Colombian Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (ACOPAZOA, founded in 1978), the Zoological and Aquarium Society of Brazil (SZB, 1977), the Venezuelan Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AVZA), the Zoological and Aquarium Association of Mexico (ALCA, 1988), the Paulista Zoological Society (SPZ, Brazil, 1991), and EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, 2006). Each of these societies, in turn, has its affiliates, which share ethical rules, animal welfare standards, accreditation conditions, experiences, covenants, and joint programs for the conservation of endangered species. In 2017, the XXIV Congress, in the city of Havana, has the National Zoo of Cuba as its host.25

Nine zoos from Brazil, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia are members of World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), known for its rigorous membership requirements. ACOPAZOA, ALPZA, SBZ, AZCARM, and the Mesoamerican and Caribbean Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AMACZOOA, Costa Rica) are associate members. For WAZA, founded in 1935, in Basel, Switzerland, zoos and aquariums must legitimately implement positive changes for animals, their species, their habitats, and sustainability efforts. Some of the international conferences were held in Latin America: Caracas (1976), São Paulo (1994), San José (2003), and Puebla (2016). Buenos Aires will host the 74st Conference in 2019.

Such relationships demonstrate that Latin American zoos and their staff do not act impetuously or in isolation, despite all the difficulties and turbulence that many of them face. A significant number of these institutions are part of a strong international network involving thousands of human and nonhuman animals, undertaking hundreds of conservation programs and receiving millions of visitors each year.26


The study of Latin American zoos demonstrates the particularities of their historical relations within diverse societies and amid different cultural, scientific, political, and environmental processes. Although the zoos of the so-called First World have been a reference for the planners and administrators of Latin American zoos, they must be analyzed within the framework of the historical conditions of their creating and transformation over the decades. At the same time, Latin American zoos relate to global historical processes. In their early days, they integrated global animal trade networks.27 Today, they take part in global initiatives for the reproduction and conservation of species and respond to radical criticisms from anti-zoo animal rights activists while building a new ethos of animal welfare and wildlife management.

Between the expansion of anti-zoo movements and the challenges of environmental conservation, there is a contested terrain involving diverse actors. Latin American zoos face overwhelming and often pertinent criticism, while at the same time undertaking legitimately fruitful actions in terms of environmental conservation. Above all, zoos are still alive and attractive to the inhabitants of Latin American cities, a fact easily gleaned by anyone who stops on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning at the entrance of the Chapultepec Zoo or Parque de las Leyendas (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. A busy day in Parque de las Leyendas; visitors watch a Panthera onca May 1, 2017.

Photo by Regina Horta Duarte.

Discussion of the Literature

The history of zoos in Latin America is yet to be constructed. To begin this promising task, the researcher relies on one-off studies produced in various countries. There are some works published by the zoos themselves, which are not academic in character or reflective of a properly historical approach but which present a chronology of institutions and sometimes important data and clues for further research.28

Among academic works, Diego Del Pino develops an approach that links the zoo to the history of Buenos Aires. Nelson Sanjad explores the relationships between the zoo in Belém do Pará and the paths of natural history in Brazil. Kathleen Babb Stanley looks at the conservationist role of zoos in Mexico throughout the 20th century.29 The theme of the zoo is sometimes treated tangentially, as authors who study the participation of Latin American countries in the great universal exhibitions, in which the exhibition of animals—and even of peoples considered “exotic”—emerged as a new category of mass culture.30

Latin American zoos emerged as part of a broader process that saw the formation of modern zoos. The international bibliography is essential for reflecting on the specificities of the Latin American institutions but also for finding similarities and relations with other zoos. The book New Worlds, New Animals presents an evolutionary perspective on the history of zoos from antiquity to the 20th century, identifying three distinct phases marked by fundamental transformations: menageries, public zoos, and current zoological centers focused on conservationism.31 Savages and Beasts, by Nigel Rothfels, also distinguishes between zoos throughout history while at the same time arguing for continuities. Rothfels also identifies the exercise of power present in the exhibition of animals and the dominant anthropocentrism in human narratives of captive animals. The author argues that menageries, mass public entertainment zoos, and conservation-driven zoos—despite some important differences—are similarly organized in service of human fantasies and desires.32 With a more anthropological approach, Bob Mullan and Garry Marvin reflect on “watching people watch animals,” stating that the exhibition of captive animals reveals much more about the human societies that built zoos than about animals confined there. For the authors, zoos are institutions of power and function for human benefit.33 Harriet Ritvo discusses the cultural aspects of exhibiting animals in zoos as a symbol of the human domain, but also as a fixture of the British imperial enterprise.34

On the ethical issues involved in the debate over zoos, Stephen Bostock’s book analyzes concepts of ethology, wild animal definitions, and animal welfare standards. For the author, anthropocentrism has several faces, and is also present in several of the criticisms of zoos, which purportedly seek to project aspects of the human condition onto the animals that live there. The history of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) provides an important point of view on the history of the zoological movement in the 20th century and the transformation of its aims and practices. In Zoos and Animal Rights, Roderick Nash traces the theme of animals in the work of thinkers and activists, demonstrating how the concept of rights has expanded to include animals.35

The flourishing history of animals deserves the full attention of zoo scholars. The turn of the millennium brought a legitimate “animal turn,” “centering animals” in historical approaches.36 An increasing number of publications have presented theoretical and methodological challenges. Historians have analyzed animals not only as passive recipients of human action but as actors, showing that history is also made by animals, and that they play a key role in historical processes. According to David Shaw, animal history does not seek to be anthropomorphic, imbuing animals with human traits. Rather, it wants to locate their agency in the effects of very specific actions, devoid of intentionality, individuality, or identity (self).37 Questioning the separation between nonhuman and human animals replaces biological, ethical, and philosophical aspects of the human condition. As Brett Walker shows, coexistence with animals has so often been on the basis of violence, but also through alliance.38 In the case of zoos, the central point of the debate between their advocates and critics lies precisely in this question: would the zoo be a place of violence alone, or would it also be a site of strategic alliance?

Primary Sources

Sources about zoos in Latin America are varied and dispersed. Zoological guides were common in the first half of the 20th century, providing information such as opening hours, prices, architectural details, maps and indications of the location of animals, lists of animals on display, number of visitors, as well as the existence of restaurants or cafes, musical presentations, etc. Also in the first half of the 20th century, postcards of Latin American capitals favored scenes from their zoos, which made up part of the scenario of urban transformations, such as the cities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Some zoos relied on the work of specialized photographers, such as Jésus Ubela at the Vila Dolores zoo (photos are from the early 20th century, some of which are available at the Montevidéo Photography Center, and the Casasola brothers at the Chapultepec zoo (photos taken between the 1920s and 1970s, accessible in the Photo Library of INAH, Mexico). Some zoos published magazines, often for a limited period of time, such as the zoo in Havana (Zoologico), the San Domingo zoo (ZooDom), and the zoo in Buenos Aires (Revista del Jardin Zoológico de Buenos Aires). These journals provide details on the activities of the staff, exchanges between zoos, daily work, and number of visitors. Newspapers are another relevant source, even if the research can be delayed when they are not digitized, because they bring news about the foundation and celebrations of zoos, the arrival or death of animals, and accidents. Also important are the decrees and laws governing the creation of zoos and inauguration speeches, in addition to the correspondence between authorities involved, such as presidents. Several zoos have counted on the active participation of Latin American scientists, and the research on them can bring out important elements: Alfonso Herrera in Mexico, Eduardo Holmberg and Clemente Onelli in Buenos Aires, Carlos Reed in Chile, Abelardo Moreno in Cuba, Emilio Goeldi in Brazil, Carlos de la Torre in Uruguay, Felipe Benavides in Peru.

Between the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, magazines, statutes, and annual reports of animal welfare societies presented their critiques, documented struggles for regulatory laws and pressure for changes in facilities, and provided a history of animal rights and awareness. Current movements against zoos have websites and are active on Facebook. Uruguay’s El zoo Cierra o Cierra provides bulletins, booklets, posters, photos, and news.

The websites for Latin American animal protection societies provide information about their foundation, history, members, statutes, ethical codes, criteria for accreditation of zoos, news, photos, and annals of past meetings as well as a schedule of upcoming events.

Guides, newspapers, postcards, journals of the zoos, and documents produced by animal protection societies can be found at libraries and various archives:

The Archive General de la Nación in Mexico has documents on the foundation of the zoo, correspondence between President Obregón and Alfonso Herrera, and photos of the Chapultepec zoo.

There are always surprises for the historian: the Dewey Crerar Collection of the University of Chicago Library has in its collection the magazine El Zoofilo Venezolano, an organ of the Society for the Protection of Animals of Caracas, between 1896 and 1900. The library of the Zoological Society of London has copies of Zoologico, a magazine of the Havana zoo, published in the 1960s. The Library of the Iberoamerican Institute (IAI) in Berlin has the first ZooDom issues from the Dominican Republic in the 1970s.

Further Reading

  • Bostock, Stephen St. C. Zoos and Animal Rights: The Ethics of Keeping Animals. New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • Few, Martha, and Zeb Tortorici, eds. Centering Animals in Latin American History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.
  • Fudge, Erika. Animal. London: Reaktion Books, 2002.
  • Hanson, Elizabeth. Animal Attractions: Nature of Display in American Zoos. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.
  • Mullan, Bob, and Garry Marvin. Zoo Culture: The Book about Watching People Watch Animals. London: George Weindenfeld & Nicolson, 1987.
  • Nance, Susan, ed. The Historical Animal. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015.
  • Penn, Laura, Markus Gusset, and Gerald Dick. 77 Years: The History and Evolution of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums 1935–2012. Gland, Switzerland: WAZA, 2012.
  • Ritvo, Harriet. Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras: Essays on Animals and History. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010.
  • Rothfels, Nigel, ed. Representing Animals. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012.
  • Vandersommers, Daniel. “Animal Activism and the Zoo-Networked Nation.” Humanimalia—a Journal of Human/Animal Interface Studies 6:2 (2015).
  • Walker, Brett T. “Animals and the Intimacy of History.” In The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History. Edited by Andrew C. Isenberg, 52–75. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.


  • 1. Rafael Romo, “Costa Rica Plans to Close all Zoos,” CNN, August 8, 2013,; Eduardo Bolãnos, “FundaZoo advirtió que trasladar a Kivú sería riesgoso,” FundaZoo Informa,; and Lei n. 37747-MINAE, Gaceta (San José), 147 (August 1, 2013): 3–5.

  • 2. See Ibama, “Ibama suspende visitação ao Zoologico do Rio,” Ibama, January 14, 2016.

  • 3. “Read the judge's decision that the orangutan Sandra is a “non-human person,” The Intimate Ape (October 25, 2015), On WAZA see Laura Penn, Markus Gusset, and Gerald Dick, 77 Years: The History and Evolution of the WAZA, 1935–2012 (Switzerland: WAZA, 2012). “Carta abierta al Senõr Jefe de Gobierno de la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, sobre la situación del Zoológico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires” (July 13, 2016),

  • 4. To access PDFs of the movement’s pamphlets, flyers, videos, and photographs see El zoo Cierra o Cierra, For more on the project to reform the zoo see Bienvenidos al Zoo de los Próximos 100 Años (Montevidéo: Intendéncia de Montevidéo, 2013), 41–94.

  • 5. On the expanding concept of rights, see Roderick F. Nash. The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).

  • 6. Camila Lugarin, et al., Plano de ação nacional para a conservação da arara-azul-de-lear (Brasília: Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade, 2012), 46–47.

  • 7. “Hippo at Salvador’s National Zoo Dies after Beating,” New York Times, February 27, 2017.

  • 8. Bienvenidos ao zoo, 5–26.

  • 9. R. J. Hoage, et al., “Menageries and Zoos to 1900,” in New Words, New Animals; From Menagerie to Zoological Park in the Nineteenth Century, ed. R. J. Hoage and Willliam Deiss (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 8–18; Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, Zoo—A History of Zoological Gardens in the West (London: Reaktion Books, 2002), 15–55.

  • 10. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España, t. II (Paris: Libreria de Rosa, 1837), 96–99; Hernan Cortéz, Segunda Carta de Relacion a Carlos I, Rei de Espanha, 30 Octobre 1520, See Roberto Moreno de los Arcos, “El Zoológico de Moctezuma,” in El Zológico de Chapultepec, 75 años de Historia, ed. Juan García (Ciudad de Mexico: Unidad de Zoológicos, 1998), 27–36.

  • 11. Guía del Jardin Zoológico Municipal (Montevidéo: Consejo de Administración Departamental, 1927), 3–6. On Carl Hagenbeck, animal seller, see Nigel Rothfels, Savages and Beasts, the Birth of the Modern Zoos (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

  • 12. Juan Gabriel Vasquez, The Sound of Things Falling (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012), 11, 269. See also Brian C. Howard, “Pablo Escobar's Escaped Hippos Are Thriving in Colombia,” National Geographic (May 10, 2016),

  • 13. On animal agency, see David Gary Shaw, “The Torturer’s Horse: Agency and Animals in History,” History and Theory 52.4 (2013): 146–167; Susan Nance, “Introduction,” in The Historical Animal, ed. Susan Nance (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015), 1–18.

  • 14. Clemente Onelli, “El Jardín Zoológico Municipal,” in Censo General de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires: Compañia Sud-Americana de Billetes de Banco, 1910), 385–391; and Onelli, “Variantes sobre nuestro Jardín Zoológico,” Revista do Jardín Zoológico de Buenos Aires, Época II 8.30 (1912): 173–177. See also Diego del Pino, Historia del Jardín Zoológico Municipal (Buenos Aires: Cadernos de Buenos Aires, 1979), 21–29.

  • 15. Carlos Reed, Antecedentes para la Historia del Jardín Zoológico Nacional de Chile: Discurso pronunciado al asumir la Presidencia de la Sociedad Científica de Chile, en la sesión General celebrada el 7 de abril de 1925 (Santiago de Chile: Ministerio de Fomento, Jardín Zoológico Nacional, 1929).

  • 16. Leticia Fernandez Beraud, Historia y Fragmentaciones del Jardín Botánico y Zoológico de Asunción (Asunción: Centro de Tecnología Apropiada Universidad Católica, 1995), 34–48.

  • 17. Nelson Sanjad, et al., “Documentos para a história do mais antigo jardim zoológico do Brasil: O Parque Zoobotânico do Museu Goeldi,” Boletim do Museu Paraense. Emilio Goeldi: Ciências Humanas 7.1 (2012): 197–258.

  • 18. Only 190 volumes remain from the original collection. Since the 1980s, extremely rare and valuable works disappeared without explanation. Finally, the archive ceased to be maintained when it was privatized in 1991. Fabíola Czubaj, “Desaparecierón 12.000 libros del Zoológico,” La Nación, February 6, 2003. On natural history in Latin America, see Regina Horta Duarte, “Between the National and the Universal, Natural History Networks in Latin America in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” ISIS 104 (2013): 777–787.

  • 19. Emilio Goeldi, “Destruição das garças e guarás,” Boletim do Museu Paraense, II (1898): 27–42; Goeldi, “Destruição das garças e guarás, Boletim do Museu Paraense, II (1898)”; Consuelo Cuevas Cardona and Ismael Ledesma Mateos, “Alfonso L. Herrera: Controvérsia y debates durante el início de la biologia en México,” Historia Mexicana 55.3 (2006): 973–1013 (see especially pp. 995–998); and Ben Tinker, Mexican Wilderness and Wildlife (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978), 6.

  • 20. Alfonso Herrera to Álvaro Obregón, México, October 28, 1924, Archive AGN, Mexico, Fondo Obregón. See also Juan Garza Ramos, El zoologico de Chapultepec, 75 años de historia (Ciudad de Mexico: Gobierno del Distrito Federal, 1998); Kathleen A. Babb Stanley, “Los zoológicos en México,” in Relaciones hombre fauna: una zona interdisciplinaria de studio, ed. Eduardo Corona and Joaquin Arroyo-Cabrales (Ciudad de México: INAH, 2002), 51–62.

  • 21. “El ciclón y el zoologico,” Zoologico 1.7–8 (1966): 1–2, 14; and “Decalogo para los trabajadores del Jardin Zoológico de Habana y Decálogo para el pueblo que visita,” Zoologico 1.3 (1966): 9.

  • 22. Felipe Benavides, “Función social de los zoológicos,” El Comércio (Lima), October 27, 1971. See also: Wilfredo Pérez Ruiz, “Felipe Benavides,”; Gerald A. Lieberman and Byron Swift, The Environment Movement in Peru (Washington, DC: International Institute for Environment and Development, 1984),

  • 23. There are still relatively few studies on these organizations. See the pioneering text by Reinaldo Funes, “Animal Labor and Protection in Cuba: Changes in Relationships with Animals in the 19th Century,” in Centering Animals in Latin American History, ed. Martha Few and Zeb Tortorici (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 209–242.

  • 24. Species Recovery Plan 2002–2007 for Ricord’s Iguana, Cyclura ricordii, IUCN, ZooDom has acted on behalf of iguana conservation since its earliest days. Sanlley Castro y J. Duval, “Reproducción en cautividad de iguanas del género Cyclura,” ZooDom 3.2 (1979): 12.

  • 25. The 43 zoos are located in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, and Venezuela. For statutes, codes of ethics, and APLZA committees see

  • 26. Penn, Gusset, and Dick, 77 Years, 179. See also In 2010, ALPZA estimated that the associated zoos had received more than 17 million visitors by year. See ALPZA 20 años, la historia de un sueño latino-americano (Cali: ALPZA, 2010), 30.

  • 27. On the challenge of a history of Latin America that situates the continent in global history, see Jeremy Adelman, “Latin American and World Histories: Old and New Approaches to the pluribus and the unum,” Hispanic American Historical Review (HAHR) 84.3 (2004): 399–409; Erick Langer, “Placing Latin American in World History,” HAHR 84.3 (2004): 393–398; and Lauren Benton, “No Longer Odd Region Out: Repositioning Latin American in World History,” HAHR 84.3 (2004): 423–430.

  • 28. See Jardín Zoológico de Córdova 70 anos 1915–1985 (Buenos Aires: s.e., 1985), Juan Manuel Lechuga, ed., Los zoológicos de la Ciudad de Mexico (Ciudad de Mexico: Secretaria de Medio Ambiente, 2012), Bienvenidos al Zoo de los próximos 100 años; and Garcia, ed., El Zoológico de Chapultepec, 75 años de historia.

  • 29. Del Pino, História del Jardín Zoológico Municipal; Sanjad, et al., Documentos para a historia do mais antigo jardim zoológico; Babb Stanley, Los zoológicos en México.

  • 30. Francisco Foot Hardman, Trem Fantasma (São Paulo: Companhia das Letars, 1988), 49 HAHR 66; Jens Andermann and Beatriz Gonzáles, Galerías del progreso: Museus, exposiciones y cultura visual en América Latina (Rosário, Argentina: Beatriz Viterbo Editora, 2006).

  • 31. Hoage and Deiss, eds., New Worlds, New Animals.

  • 32. Rothfels, Savages and Beasts.

  • 33. Bob Mullan and Garry Marvin, Zoo Culture: The Book about Watching People Watch Animals (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987).

  • 34. Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).

  • 35. Stephen Bostock, Zoos and Animal Rights: The Ethics of Keeping Animals (New York: Routledge, 1993); Penn, Gusset, and Dick, 77 Years; and Nash, The Rights of Nature.

  • 36. Dan Vandersommens, “The ‘Animal Turn’ in History,” AHA Today, a Blog of the American Historical Association, November 3, 2016,; and Few and Tortorici, eds., Centering Animals.

  • 37. David G. Shaw, “A Way with Animals: Preparing History for Animals,” History and Theory, Theme Issue 52 (2013): 1–12. See also Erica Fudge, Animal (London: Reaktion Books, 2002); Nigel Rothfels, Representing Animals (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002); and Susan Nance, ed., The Historical Animal (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015).

  • 38. Brett T. Walker, “Animals and the Intimacy of History,” in The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History, ed. Andrew C. Isenberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 52–75.