Puerto Rico lost its only elephant — and cracked open a well of emotions
MAYAGÜEZ, Puerto Rico — Mundi, the Puerto Rico zoo's prized African elephant, was scheduled to board a cargo jet to her new home at a sprawling elephant refuge in southern Georgia. But there was a problem. She was afraid to enter the massive transport crate in which she'd soon be making the trip.
The Georgia refuge's founder, Carol Buckley, had arrived on the island a week earlier to get Mundi comfortable with the cage, and at first had no trouble coaxing her in with her favorite foods. But now, two days before the May 12 flight meant to ferry her to a better life, something had made Mundi skittish. She'd enter the crate for only a minute or two before retreating back into the small fenced yard where she'd been on exhibit for 35 years.
For the team coordinating the 8,000-pound elephant's move, it was one more hurdle to overcome in a mission that had already grown so tense that armed federal agents had been brought in for Mundi's protection. She was just one of the hundreds of animals being evacuated from Puerto Rico's long-deteriorating and now-shuttered zoo. But for decades, Mundi had been its main attraction and a symbol of Puerto Rico's more prosperous past, so her impending evacuation had unleashed a torrent of emotion on the island: joy, but also sadness, anger and — among some people — fierce resistance.
Buckley, a slight 68-year-old with a calm but purposeful demeanor, was well aware of the intense feelings swirling around her arrival on the island to take Mundi away. But for now she really just needed the elephant to feel comfortable in the crate again. She sat on a chair at one end offering chunks of watermelon with an extended hand. Mundi entered to scoop a couple of bites up with her trunk, but then backed away.
"Come on, good girl," Buckley cooed. "Watermelon is her absolute favorite, and for her to walk away from it, she's never done that. But since what happened yesterday, she is now questioning everything in her environment around this crate."
The previous evening, Mundi had been eating her dinner inside the crate when something startled her from behind. She thrashed her body in a panic and used her trunk to grasp at her hind leg.
Buckley suspected that someone trying to sabotage her departure had shot her with a pellet gun from just beyond the zoo's outer fence.
In recent days tensions at the zoo had reached a fever pitch. Protesters had blocked the zoo gates to try to prevent some of its animals from being driven to the airport, and as Mundi's departure date approached, Buckley and other members of the transport team started getting online threats. On social media, people made plans to bang pots and pans outside the zoo gates so Mundi would be too spooked to enter the cage. The federal agents brought in to patrol the zoo grounds confiscated a drone they caught flying overhead.
It had all started in February, when the U.S. Justice Department ordered Puerto Rico's zoo permanently closed and set a six-month deadline for its more than 300 animals to be moved to sanctuaries across the United States. Many Puerto Ricans rejoiced, because the zoo's years-long decline had left many of its animals suffering in cramped cages, losing weight, and dying from lack of care.
But for others, Mundi's departure and the permanent closure of the zoo — once a leading attraction of Puerto Rico's picturesque western coast — felt like just one more loss in their fight to save their island's cultural treasures from the ravages of recent natural disasters and the cascading effects of the island's debilitating debt crisis.
"Mundi became the symbol of a struggle," said Raquel Quiñones, who spent years volunteering at the zoo. "Her going away is devastating for all of us. And what I feel is rage — and embarrassment — that the government of Puerto Rico allowed it to come to this."
Raquel Braña, a longtime animal rights activist in Puerto Rico, called the zoo's closure a momentous and long awaited liberation.
"This is a huge triumph for Puerto Rico and its animal rights movement," she said. "Because there were many moments when we thought achieving something like this would take a lot longer, and that many more of the zoo's animals would die before we succeeded. But we prevailed, and there's going to be more to come."
The zoo's steady decline
For more than a decade, Braña and other animal rights activists had been sounding alarms about worsening conditions at Puerto Rico's only zoo. It opened in the western city of Mayagüez in 1964 and had long been a source of pride for the city's residents. But by the mid-2000s, the U.S. territory's emerging debt crisis began to decimate the budget of every public institution on the island.
Visitors complained about dilapidated facilities at the government-run zoo, and animals that looked sick and poorly cared for. Federal inspectors documented long lists of animal welfare violations. Paying visitors plummeted, Braña said, as Puerto Rico's economic crisis drove young people and families off the island. Then in September of 2017, Hurricane Maria's 155 mph winds devastated the zoo's facilities. It lost federal permits months later, and never reopened to the public, though the animals and their caretakers remained.
"And I can tell you all the ways that they suffered," Braña said. "And the ways in which so many of them died."
Sitting at her dining room table, Braña, who runs an activist group called Puerto Rico Without A Zoo, ticked off many of the zoo's once majestic animals that had died since the zoo closed its doors. The tigers Angel and Osiris. A lion named Olosi. A zebra that succumbed to a digestive condition. And Nina, a black bear who lived her final months in a cramped cage with poor ventilation before dying of a heart attack earlier this year.
"A lot of people were saying, but we'll all die eventually," Braña said. "And yes, that's true. But it's the manner in which they were dying. These animals didn't die of old age. They died because they were sick and didn't get the care they needed."
At times, the zoo's veterinarians would not report to work because the government delayed in paying them. Over the years, Braña and other activists filed lawsuits to compel the government to be more transparent about the care it was providing for the zoo's less high profile animals.
"I confess," Braña said, "that in this fight, Mundi the elephant was not the most important for me. It's not that she was OK, because she wasn't. But among all the animals, she was the favorite. She wasn't going to go hungry the way other animals did. And it's those animals that didn't get the chance Mundi is now getting that I mourn for the most."
A lonely life
Now 41, Mundi arrived in Puerto Rico in 1988 as a 6-year-old calf. She had been part of a group of more than 60 baby elephants whose lives had been spared by African governments that at the time were slaughtering wild elephants to control their populations.
Mundi ended up on a private farm in Florida, blind in her right eye after an encounter with another elephant's tusk. At the same time, the zoo in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, was on the market for an elephant of its own. It acquired Mundi through a broker, and she became an instant icon — the primary attraction for the zoo's visitors at a time of prosperity in Puerto Rico's economy.
Carol Buckley said it was clear that Mundi had been loved by her zoo caretakers all these years. She ate well, was showered with affection and often got birthday parties. Even so, Buckley, an internationally recognized expert on caring for elephants in captivity, said Mundi had lived a lonely life in a tiny enclosure far too small for an animal of her size and emotional capacity.
"Elephants are incredibly mobile, and their social lives are so rich," she said. "They live in extended families their entire lives. And Mundi has lived in this small space without another elephant for 35 years. It's like a forcing a person to live alone in a closet for 35 years."
Buckley first agreed to take Mundi to her elephant sanctuary — Elephant Refuge North America — in 2017, after island officials, already struggling with the zoo's upkeep, approached her after the then-governor's wife expressed concern about Mundi's emotional health. But before Mundi could be moved off the island, the government abruptly canceled its contract with Buckley amid a political backlash.
When the possibility of taking Mundi resurfaced this year after the Justice Department ordered the zoo closed, Buckley said she hesitated, wary of wading into the politics again. "But in the end," she said, "I made my decision based on what was best for Mundi."
Buckley's refuge — in Attapulgus, Ga., just north of the Florida border — is 850 natural acres, intended to mimic an elephant's native habitat. It's home to two other elephants, but designed for up to 10.
Buckley said that along with some of the hostility she encountered when she arrived in Puerto Rico, many people on the island had thanked her.
"People have very mixed emotions about Mundi leaving, because they love her," Buckley said. "But it has been amazing the number of Puerto Ricans who have messaged me, talked to me, crying. They love Mundi so much, but they say, 'Please take her and give her a better life.' And that is the best of the human race."
She went on: "There are other people who have not quite been able to let go. But I hope that over time, after she leaves and they realize she's gone, and they see how well she's doing, that they'll begin to heal."
A failed effort to save the zoo
Lynette Matos had hoped the day of Mundi's departure would never come, and she worked hard to prevent it. It was not long after the zoo closed to the public that she realized she'd have to.
"After Hurricane Maria, there was a lot of talk about closing the zoo forever," she said. "And we thought, if we don't do something, it might never reopen, because our government was not capable of doing what needed to be done."
Matos, who runs a local radio station in Mayagüez, was a lifelong lover of the zoo and thought that with enough investment, it could once again become a great tourist draw while supporting wildlife research and conservation. So she established a foundation to help save it.
Through her grassroots "Save the Zoo Foundation," she organized volunteers and got the Puerto Rico government to allow them in to maintain the grounds. They raised money for food and medical care. And the volunteers painted murals and streamed videos from inside the zoo featuring its animal keepers and veterinarians.
"Because of the hurricane, there was a lot of federal money available to rehabilitate," Matos said, referring to the more than $6 million in disaster reconstruction funding allocated for the zoo after Maria. "And our goal as volunteers was to keep the zoo in good condition so that once that money did arrive, the USDA and the Fish and Wildlife agency would grant the federal permits for the zoo to reopen."
But Matos said she was constantly frustrated that officials seemed unmotivated to make things better. Work orders placed by zoo staff were rarely or only slowly filled, she said, and suggestions from volunteers and veterinarians were often ignored. Last year, she said, the government kicked the volunteers out.
"That led us to really question what the government's vision was for the zoo's future," she said. "Because by that time we were the only ones really doing anything for the zoo."
Matos said it was painful to watch how the disinvestment led to so much animal suffering. Her group had recently been finalizing plans for a new veterinary clinic.
So she was shocked when, in late February, the federal U.S. attorney for Puerto Rico, Stephen Muldrow, announced that his office had struck a deal with the Puerto Rican government to permanently close the zoo and move all of its animals to U.S. sanctuaries within six months. Federal prosecutors said that as part of the deal, they would not pursue investigations against island officials for the many animal welfare violations inspectors had documented at the zoo for more than a decade.
"It was an institutional problem," Muldrow said when announcing the agreement. It was not intentional malice, he said, but "a lack of resources and training that resulted in the government's inability to guarantee the well-being of these animals."
Anaís Rodriguez Vega, the island's natural resources secretary, said she was grateful that her agency's deal with prosecutors would mean a quick and efficient departure for the zoo's hundreds of animals, because "we all want the same thing: the well-being of all of these species."
Matos and her volunteers, though, were devastated. "We really had been hoping for a different outcome," she said, her voice quivering. "We always described the zoo as the jewel in Puerto Rico's crown, but it was a diamond that our government failed to polish."
Raquel Braña, the animal rights activist, said she was equally shocked, but instead elated, by the government's announcement. "It's shame that in Puerto Rico we would let animals live in desolation just because the zoo represented a jewel or a status symbol," she said. "Animals are worth much more than that."
A massive operation
Mundi the elephant would not be traveling alone. Joining her on the chartered 747 cargo flight on May 12 would be two somewhat stubborn hippopotamuses named Cindy and Pipo, a rhinoceros named Felipe who liked to be pet by humans, a tranquil donkey named Chevy, and an impala.
The job of finding new homes for all of the zoo's animals fell to Pat and Monica Craig, who run the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado and have coordinated large animal rescues in many parts of the world, including lions they recently evacuated from zoos in war-torn Ukraine.
After issuing its closure order in February, the U.S. Attorney's Office asked the Craigs to take charge of the transfer of the more than 300 animals at the zoo, plus roughly 300 more living in a government detention center for confiscated exotic animals — snakes, monkeys, hedgehogs, eels, a lungfish.
"We've handled large numbers of animals before," Pat Craig said. "But this is by far the largest we've ever done."
By the time the last animal has been flown off of Puerto Rico in late June, it will have cost upwards of $2 million, Craig said, funded entirely by his nonprofit's private donors.
"When you're saving animals from an island, there's no cheap way to do it," he said. "They have to fly just like people do."
The chartered 747 carrying Mundi and the other animals cost more than $500,000 alone.
Island officials and the U.S. Attorney said they planned to ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency to use the hurricane disaster recovery funds that weren't spent on the zoo's reconstruction to reimburse the Craigs' nonprofit. But they said there's no guarantee FEMA will approve that request.
A flying elephant
On the day she was scheduled to be driven to the airport, Mundi was still hesitant to enter her crate. As evening fell, the transport crew had to gently force her in by fastening a rope around one of her front feet.
Once she was secured inside, a crane loaded the crate onto the back of a flatbed truck. The crates containing the hippos, the rhinoceros, the donkey and the impala were loaded onto their own trucks, and shortly before midnight, the caravan of wild animals, accompanied by dozens of police officers, began the 23-mile drive to the main airport serving Puerto Rico's west coast. People lined the route to wave goodbye.
The cargo jet landed just before 2:30 a.m. on May 12, but it would be hours before Mundi would be onboard. As she waited on the airport tarmac, she began to grow restless, swaying back and forth inside her cage, lightly rocking the truck bed. Carol Buckley climbed up to reassure Mundi through the bars.
"She's getting a little impatient," Buckley said. "All the other animals are on the plane, and it's her turn now."
Mundi's turn finally came shortly after sunrise. A crane hauled her crate up to the platform protruding from the massive open door on the side of the jet, and Mundi disappeared inside. Buckley stood back with tears in her eyes.
"I really am so grateful to the people of Puerto Rico for making this sacrifice to let Mundi go," she said, before boarding the plane herself. "This is an amazing gift that they've given her."
At 41, Mundi could still live another 20 to 30 years at Buckley's refuge.
For many Puerto Ricans, that knowledge has helped soothe the pangs of guilt over a lifetime she spent, alone, in her small enclosure. And it's provided a measure of comfort to the sting of losing her.
At the airport, a small crowd of well-wishers congregated just beyond the runway's fence to watch Mundi's plane take off.
Miriam Nuñez was there, overcome, she said, by that bittersweet emotion familiar to every Puerto Rican who's said goodbye when someone they love has been forced to seek a better life off the island.
"I visited Mundi at the zoo many times," Nuñez said, tears streaming down her face after Mundi's plane had disappeared over the horizon. "And I felt I had to be here. I'm happy today because I know she is going to be better off. Yet I'm also sad — because she left. But I know, in God's name, that she's going to be OK."
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