Mexico Agrees to Build Big Cat Sanctuary
April 21, 2015 Mexico City, Mexico: Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue, Antonio Franyuti, Founder of Animal Heroes, and Lourdes Lopes, Federal Deputy for the Green Party PVEM, entered into a Declaration that we would work together find and build sanctuaries to care for the big cats who have been banned from being used in public exhibition. The contract was signed following a two hour presentation to the media and members of Mexico’s congress.
While it may have been our signatures on the formal decree, I knew it was the beautiful woman on my right, Vanessa Fernandez Thomas and her adoring husband, Omar Gallegos, who sat in crowd before us, who had been instrumental in bringing this day to fruition. After spending many months petitioning Congress, and creating and posting more than 200 enormous billboards across the country, that exposed the cruelty inherent in making wild animals perform, Vanessa had held Jeff Kremer and I spell bound during the tense moments of voting in 2014 that resulted in the passage of one of Mexico’s most forward thinking laws to protect wild animals. The new law made it illegal to use wild animals in circus acts or in any kind of performance. The law was set to become enforceable in July 2015.
Those who have made money from abusing lions and tigers did everything they could to prevent this day. More than five hundred angry circus carnies had actually surrounded the building of Congress to try and prevent Mexico’s Congress from being able to go inside to vote for the bill. At the conference today, I learned from grassroots leader, Antonio Franyuti, that 80% of the citizens polled were in favor of the law, but the circus would use any means at their disposal to keep using animals for their own gain.
Video of the Presentation to the Press and Members of Congress
Sitting on the panel, before 6 television cameras and approximately 30 interested parties and reporters, I was introduced by Jesus Sesma Suarez, the Deputy of the Green Party in DF. I would learn later that he had been a voice for the animals from several years ago when he tried, unsuccessfully to outlaw bull fighting and then when he had succeeded in passing the first Mexican law to prohibit cruelty to domestic animals. When he presented the idea to Congress that using wild animals in circus and performing acts was being outlawed around the world and carried the voice of the masses to end it in Mexico, he was attacked by the circus owners.
He and his family had been threatened with death and had been exposed to circus owners hurling dead rats into his walled home. For the safety of his family, he moved them out of town, but he stood firm in his commitment to the animals and braved the abuse bestowed on him. After the bill became law, he and the Green Party, who had championed this bill through Congress had been the target of false reporting by the media, mostly from the U.K., who had seized upon the controversy, without giving any thought to the real plight of the animals.
What played out in the press were the circus owners both claiming how much they loved these animals and that they would kill the animals if they couldn’t profit from them. The news really showed the vile circus owners for the animal abusers they are, but the press continued to try and point the blame at the Mexican government for ending the abusive animal performances. The purpose of today’s press conference was to show that the public supports the law, the international community is prepared to help with the placement of the wild animals and the Green Party announced their commitment to build sanctuaries for the animals and to amend the law to prohibit the owners from killing their animals just to spite the authorities.
Also on the panel today was Carlos Puentes who is a Federal Senator of the Republic of Mexico and thought to be a favorite for the position of Governor in the next elections. Omar Gallegos and his wife Vanessa Fernandez Thomas own CPM Publicidad which is a printing company that creates thousands of billboards and bus wraps through Mexico for vendors as well known as Coke and for political candidates. Being so close to so many politicians, Omar revealed to me during one of our drives across town, in their armored car, that all he has to do is tell them to talk to his wife and she will persuade them to save the big cats.
Vanessa is no fan of politics, but she knows that this is the only way to stop the suffering of lions and tigers who have been whipped, chained and kept in tiny travel wagons for most of their lives. She is hoping that the new law will also extend to lion and tiger cubs who are forced to perform for tourists in the port areas of Mexico. Just like in the U.S. these cubs are snatched from their mothers when they are first born and then passed around for photo ops until they die from exhaustion. Surely the new law will see that they too are being forced to perform for their owners.
Antonio Franyuti is another one who really doesn’t like to deal with the political side of animal welfare, but he was the vegan leader of Animal Naturalis, he realized that his small band of 34 animal advocates could have a huge impact on thousands of wild animals when they employed the power of their social influence. In a calculated and well thought out strategy, they contacted celebrities who had mentioned animals on their social sites and asked them to personally call members of Congress to ask for their support of what is commonly referred to as the Circus Ban, even though it extends far past just circus abuse. Some members of Animal Naturalis, including Aldo Munoz, did not want to be involved in politics, so Antonio decided to split off and create Animal Heroes. When he did, 30 of his 34 of his colleagues came with him.
I had dinner with Omar, Vanessa and Antonio the night before the conference and Antonio said he had been working with Pat Craig of Wild Animal Sanctuary to move 47 lions and tigers from a Mexican circus who was willing to give up their cats. (The current law cannot confiscate the animals just for being possessed by the circus; it just outlaws using them in performances.) Pat had hosted the SEMARNAT Director, who would be the equivalent of the Director of Wildlife in Mexico just last week, but the Director did not know about the circus’ pledge to Antonio that they would allow their animals to be rescued. This highlighted the lack of information being shared between the Mexican government, the circus owners (who are refusing to give an accurate accounting of their wild animals census) and those in the rescue community who are willing to help.
Part of today’s agreement included promises by the Mexican authorities to share information with the global rescue community in order to make the transition from lives of deprivation and abuse to sanctuaries as smooth as possible.
Today’s outcome was far better than I could have expected because I came into the conference not knowing exactly what they wanted. All I knew was they wanted to hear how Big Cat Rescue does what it does and to keep it to about 20 minutes. Through photos and videos I gave the best advice I could about how Mexico could build its own sanctuary in such a way that the lives would be humane for the lions and tigers AND could be run on local and international volunteer help AND be self sustaining financially, if done right. Transparency and putting the needs of the animals first were the most critical aspects and not concepts that are usually considered synonymous with politicians.
A great honor was bestowed upon Omar today when Jesus and Carlos asked that he oversee the building of a new big cat sanctuary in Chiapas, Mexico. They know that he and Vanessa will see to it the funds are used to build large enclosures of 1500 square feet per cat, with a 2.5 acre vacation area to be shared with 20 cats who will be rotated through individually or in family groups. There are two other sites under consideration for the project, but Chiapas make the most sense, based on Panthera’s Jaguar project in the region and the potential for international visitors and volunteers who wish to experience the wild jungles of Mexico’s vast array of eco systems. Omar feels certain that after watching Jamie Veronica’s extensive video about how to build such enclosures and getting his hands on some of the materials and tools we use (that made it through customs) that he could build the first phase of such a facility in less than 3 months and that’s all the time we need.
The Congress decided today to extend the time for enforcing the ban until October, so that the sanctuary can be started and arrangements can be made in the global rescue community for placement of as many big cats as the circus owners are willing to hand over.
Maybe the guardian angel for all of these abused wild animals was BuBu the white tiger. Two years ago, before Vanessa and Omar knew anything about white tigers, or owning wild animals as pets, Omar presented Vanessa with the gift of a white tiger cub. The blue eyed darling was named BuBu and became the great love of Vanessa's life, but it wasn't long before they figured out that having a tiger in the house is no fun for the cat or the people.
Vanessa searched everywhere for a suitable home for BuBu and finally found a place to board her where she would have plenty of room to run and where Vanessa and her family could continue to visit BuBu every day. One very sad day, when BuBu was 7 months old, she was mauled by a jaguar in a cage sharing the wall where she was being held, and had to be euthanized. Vanessa then began her great quest to end the private possession and abuse of these magnificent wild animals. BuBu's grave is in the garden of their home in Santa Fe and is a daily reminder that we have much work to do to end the abuse.
What is next for the Sanctuary in Mexico?
During my week in Mexico I had many discussions with Vanessa and Omar about the details of building a facility in phases. Omar vigorously translated my feet and dollars into meters and pesos to calculate the cost of the first phase. Vanessa wants the cats to have as much space as possible because she has seen the difference it makes in the cats’ happiness. The Green Party has continued the discussions with Omar and Vanessa about the initial funding. I don’t speak Spanish, so I don’t know how that part is going to work, but Omar assures me that funding will come and that this sanctuary will be built.
Big Cat Rescue has pledged to assist with the designing and engineering aspects to ensure the safety of the facility for the cats, the keepers, the visitors and the surrounding area. I hope to make a trip to Chiapas soon to look at the land, which is an abandoned airport, and work with Omar and Vanessa on the layout of caging, support buildings, intern housing, etc. I’d love to see the airport put back into operation for the limited purpose of the sanctuary, as the nearest airport is about 45 minutes away. This might help encourage both visitors and interns, if the puddle jumper flight were cheap enough.
Big Cat Rescue will also help with the training of keepers and will promote the sanctuary to our volunteers and interns to help keep it staffed. I am sure our vets will want to help with the injured lions and tigers who are rescued and in spaying and neutering to ensure that these are the last of their line to be born in cages. Hopefully we can get a lot of frequent flier miles donated to cover the cost of assisting in country as well as what we can do from afar. I’m told that Chiapas is the most beautiful and natural area in Mexico. I know Jamie and Dr. Justin will want to also get involved with Panthera there in any way they can assist wild jaguars.
Antonio Franyuti and Adriana Buenrostro have been working against amazing odds to further laws that protect animals. I was so impressed with what they have done so far, that I told them I would like to support their work. They have promised to keep us updated. They said their part of the campaign to end the use of wild animals in performances only cost them $3,000 because they rely heavily on friends to house and feed them as they travel Mexico and their work has been done mostly in the cloud on social sites. Both have given up house and family to be Animal Heroes.
Antonio relayed that he had to hide his family, after circus owners threatened him and said he should leave them alone if he cared about his 3 year old son’s safety. Adriana studied political science, but cannot earn money from her degree because she is too busy trying to build coalitions and change public opinion and policy. They said they often have to decide which meal they will try to eat in a day, because there are very few opportunities to do so more than once. Despite these difficulties, they both say they are happy because they know they are making a difference.
Antonio has been in contact with Kelly Donithan at IFAW and Pat Craig at Wild Animal Sanctuary. He is reaching out to the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries to see if there is capacity for housing big cats if there are more than can be placed in the new sanctuary, or some who are ready to go before the sanctuary is built. I know that Pat Craig has offered to take a large number of lions and tigers but has been frustrated by the government’s lack of inertia. Hopefully that will change now.
People ask if Big Cat Rescue will take cats from Mexico and we have some space, but I believe it will be much more cost effective to keep them in Chiapas. Time will tell.
This video was recorded by Vanessa's son, Javier Fernandez, and is in Spanish, except for the end where we were all discussing the great media coverage.