Over the course of the last few months, controversy has been erupting in UPRM’s mother city: the Mayagüez Zoo is not the haven it claims to be. Pictures of sickly lions are shared around social media, stories of the unkept animal facilities are told, testimonies are publicized of the zoo having barely any employees, let alone enough veterinarians to properly look after the exotic animals. And perhaps its most known controversy: Mundi, the elephant who has become the face of the pro-zoo movements and is at the center of the debate over whether the José A. Rivero Zoo should remain open or not.
Mundi the elephant in her enclosure.
For Wilson J. Ronda Dominguez, a fourth-year Animal Sciences major at UPRM, the zoo has the potential to provide an opportunity for students to get involve and improve its conditions, while also gaining the necessary experience to compliment their chosen major. “What inspired me to start this project was the lack of opportunities students had to fulfill the experience required for veterinary school,” Ronda explained.
The project is titled Protección y Rehabilitación Animal de Cotorras, Elefantes, Tortugas y Otros, or PRACETO. With it, Ronda seeks to build a network of opportunities for students and citizens alike to get involved in the conservation of animals, starting with work in the José A. Rivero Zoo. “During my first year, I took a biology course with Prof. Carlos Santos, and he helped me get interested in working with the Mayagüez zoo.”
The organization’s logo
Ronda further details that he began researching the zoo and found that there was an already existing volunteer program, but it received barely any promotion. He proceeded to meet with Prof. Santos to discuss different ideas he had to improve the volunteer program, while also improving the zoo. After receiving good feedback from the professor and meeting with different veterinarians and lawyers, Ronda went to speak to the zoo’s administration with hopes of gaining support there as well.
However, he was met with discouragement. “The secretary laughed in my face and told me that there was no need for changes in the volunteer program, and that I had to act fast if I wanted to sign up for it since there were limited spaces.”
Ronda felt angry as he exited the office and decided to take a walk around the zoo. He observed the dire conditions of the animal exhibitions—and how they were for merely that purpose, to exhibit the animals. “The animals were there only to be exhibitions for the public, the zoo made no attempt at creating proper environments for them.”
The turtle enclosure with the camel enclosure in the back.
After everything, Ronda explains that he gave up. “I told myself that they weren’t going to listen to me and that there weren’t any opportunities for me to implement the change I wanted to see.” It wasn’t until a few years later, when the Mundi debate fired up, that he found a new interest in pursuing the project.
“I had a different motivation this time,” he says. “I want the administration. I want to create opportunities for students. I want to improve the quality of life for the animals at the zoo, improve the exhibits by making them more alike their natural habitat. I want to be able to help the animals, the students, and Puerto Rico.”
After Ronda found this new motivation, he met with UPRM’s ex-rector John Fernández Van Cleve. “He was very excited when I presented the project to him,” Ronda states. “He told me that I had his full support, and to this day he continues to motivate me to continue working on this proposal.”
Ronda was motivated to start the project once again because of his passion for animals and his interest in helping people reach their goals, and that is the final goal of PRACETO: to help animals, both of least concern and in-danger, help students, and finally, help Puerto Rico.
“Right now, I’m in the most critical stage of the project,” he explains. “I’m in that stage where it’s time to come forward and make my ideas known.” He further adds that there is currently a lot of competition surrounding the Mayaguez Zoo, both for the closing and the reopening of the facility. “I want to get my ideas out there, get them to the ears of all Puerto Rico, because I need all the help I can get in order to fulfill what has become my dream.”
The project is possible, he acknowledges, but the reality is that the government nor the university has enough money to contribute to it. “Besides, Puerto Rico’s government doesn’t want to hand the zoo to other agencies,” Ronda adds. “And here we all know that things managed by governmental entities never reach their full potential.”
The tiger exhibition, with visible limited space.
Ronda goes to state that no one is going to want to donate money to any project related to the zoo given its infamy, less if they don’t even know about the situation. “It’s time to educate, to focus on improving to have a better tomorrow.” He later adds that he has met with the current interim UPRM rector Wilma Santiago, different department heads, professors, students, lawyers, and veterinarians—and they have all voiced their support. “They have all said that they’re willing to participate in any way they can.”
Ronda wants to use the project to promote research opportunities, small projects, and education workshops to help students, focusing on the fields of engineering, biology, agriculture, and pre-veterinary. “This can be done through projects such as renewable energy, which would lower the cost of energy. Projects in agriculture like small orchards, so students can gain experience in growing food that could sustain them, plus give them business opportunities with small business owners. And, conservation projects for careys and tinglares, to name a few.”
Additionally, Ronda believes that the project could open the window for other universities, from Puerto Rico and abroad, to get involved with the project. “This would bring in more funds to us, which would benefit the projects being worked on.”
Wilson Ronda (pictured above)
When asked about what animals would serve as focus for the conservation efforts, he responds that the project would focus on caring for the animals currently at the zoo, later including conservation projects for sea turtles and the Puerto Rican parrot. “I’m not currently interested in bringing new animals to the zoo,” he adds. “My goal is not the exhibition, rather it’s educating and the conservation of species.”
Ronda thinks that people are too focused on the now in regards to the controversy surrounding the Mayagüez Zoo. “People aren’t thinking of the long run,” he says. “Right now, we can’t get much done. The zoo [administration] is not taking the proper measures to make good use of the attention it’s getting.” He believes that there is potential for the zoo to become a sanctuary that is representative for the university and Puerto Rico as a whole. But, it needs your help.
“If you’re interested in helping the project, spread the word,” he says. “By spreading the word, we achieve getting the project to people that could potentially be interested in helping and contributing to its success.” He hopes that people will come forward to be volunteers for the project, while also obtaining sponsors and donations.
Ronda ends by saying that he doesn’t want to be a boss, he wants to be a leader. “I want to be able to build a team to work alongside me to help give footing to the project. For this, I’m going to garner people’s attention, the project needs the attention it deserves in order to fulfill its potential.”