Authorities on Wednesday started hauling away 177 lions, tigers, jaguars and other exotic big cats that were found at an animal rescue center in the mountains on Mexico City’s south side.
The federal Attorney General’s Office for Environmental Protection said 202 animals in all, including monkeys, dogs, donkeys and coyotes, were being taken to other locations.
Dozens of heavily armed city police raided the “Black Jaguar White Tiger” animal sanctuary Tuesday after images of rail-thin, distressed and injured lions circulated on social media.
The founder of the reserve told local media that he had rescued some of the animals and that some of them arrived in bad shape.
“It all started with a worker who had been laid off recently and he had lots of video evidence showing abused animals,” Association of Zoos President Ernesto Zazueta told Reuters. “We tried to approach (the sanctuary’s) area at the back, where you can see animals in very bad conditions – animals down to their bones, with mange, maimed, some of them had had their tails cut out, some with bugs.”
Mexico City police chief Omar Garcia Harfuch said the property had been seized “for the crime of improper use of property and mistreatment of animals.”
City police said in a statement that “according to the inspection, the property where the animals were kept is zoned for agricultural or grazing purposes, not for keeping the kind of species found.”
Under Mexican law, private individuals can register to keep exotic cats and other animals in supervised wildlife management units. The facility raided Tuesday appears to have filed such paperwork.
But the animal rights advocacy group PETA called the site a “false sanctuary,” saying it had been complaining for years that the facility was engaged in abusive practices.
PETA said the lions, tigers and jaguars were held in relatively small fenced-in pens, sometimes with more than one animal per enclosure, and also were forced to interact with humans for “selfies” or videos.
The Association of Zoos, Breeders and Aquariums of Mexico said its members would volunteer to take charge of the animals.
But Mexican drug cartel members illegally keeping big cats and the country’s 2015 ban on animal acts in circuses have both contributed to the saturation of animal shelters and rescue facilities.
“Several of our facilities are already saturated with wild animals from various rescues, ranging from circuses to hundreds of seizures of illegal trafficking” of animals, Zazueta said. “But we cannot allow these animals, many of which are endangered, to continue in these deplorable health conditions and malnourishment.”
Zazueta said some of the monkeys and three lions might be taken to Mexico City zoos as soon as Wednesday and there were plans to send 50 of the animals on Thursday to zoos west of the capital and in the northern states of Gunajuato and Sinaloa.
The animals were in “a horrible situation,” he said. “Some of their tails are missing, they had been eaten. Others lack an eye, an ear. They are very, very thin, dehydrated.”
The founder of the refuge has said that donations to the reserve had dropped during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mexican narcos have long had a fascination with exotic animals.
Last month, a spider monkey dressed up as a drug gang mascot was found shot to death after a gunbattle. Photos from the scene of a shootout in Texcaltitlan with police in which 11 drug gang members died, showed a small monkey - dressed in a tiny camouflage jacket and a tiny “bullet-proof” vest – sprawled across the body of a dead gunman who was apparently his owner.
Also in June, a 450-pound tiger wandered streets in the Pacific coast state of Nayarit, and a man died from being mauled when he tried to pet a captive tiger in a cartel-dominated area of western Michoacan state.