Was it zoo’s neg­li­gence or some­thing ne­far­i­ous that killed Gus­tavito?

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - LET­TER FROM SAN SAL­VADOR BY JOSHUA PARTLOW joshua.partlow@wash­post.com

san sal­vador — Late one Sun­day night in Fe­bru­ary, El Sal­vador’s sec­re­tary of cul­ture alerted the world to a “cow­ardly and in­hu­mane at­tack.” The per­pe­tra­tors had used “se­vere and over­whelm­ing blows.” A beloved na­tional fig­ure was gone.

Gus­tavito, the lone hip­popota­mus at the Na­tional Zoo of El Sal­vador, had been killed.

It takes a lot to shock El Sal­vador, one of the world’s most vi­o­lent coun­tries, but Gus­tavito’s death had done it. Tens of thou­sands of mourn­ers streamed into the zoo, a leafy en­clave in south­ern San Sal­vador, to pay their re­spects. The be­reaved held can­dlelit vig­ils. When the en­vi­ron­ment sec­re­tary ad­dressed re­porters, she was in tears.

Had gang vi­o­lence got­ten this out of con­trol?

“For­give us, Gus­tavito,” one res­i­dent tweeted, re­flect­ing the na­tional shame.

Within a cou­ple of days, how­ever, the first cracks ap­peared in the of­fi­cial story. Had Gus­tavito ac­tu­ally been stabbed in the snout by vi­cious as­sailants us­ing an ice-pick-like weapon, as zoo di­rec­tor Vladlen Hen­riquez al­leged? Or did the hippo get sick sev­eral days be­fore, as anony­mous zoo work­ers leaked to the lo­cal me­dia, then lose the abil­ity to eat and, with poor med­i­cal care, fall onto some sharp parts of his en­clo­sure?

Ri­cardo Amaya, the union boss for the zoo work­ers, could smell one thing.

“There is neg­li­gence here by the zoo di­rec­tor and the vet­eri­nar­i­ans,” he told re­porters.

These ini­tial sus­pi­cions soon twisted into more elab­o­rate ones. Was Gus­tavito’s death part of a con­spir­acy to shut­ter the zoo, pushed by shad­owy busi­ness in­ter­ests who want to build some mega-project on the prop­erty? The El Sal­vador at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice was called in to in­ves­ti­gate.

Be­fore the in­ves­ti­ga­tors could fin­ish their work, how­ever, news of more bizarre oc­cur­rences trick­led out of the zoo. On April 23, five scar­let ma­caw par­rots were stolen. Four days later, an 8-year-old puma, Sober­ana, died of in­testi­nal trou­ble, the same day that a spi­der mon­key drowned in a pond.

Per­haps the strangest in­ci­dent took place April 10, when the ze­bra died. Zoo au­thor­i­ties ex­plained that an earth­quake struck in the mid­dle of a heavy rain, pre­sum­ably spook­ing the ze­bra so much that it ran head­first into the fence of its pen.

“It seems that some­thing weird and ab­nor­mal is hap­pen­ing at the zoo, but no­body, ab­so­lutely no­body, does any­thing about it,” Ri­cardo Chacón, ed­i­tor in chief of El Diario de Hoy, wrote in an April 29 ed­i­to­rial. “This is al­most a syn­drome.”

The at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice seemed to dis­count the Gus­tavito mur­der the­ory, an­nounc­ing that the an­i­mal died of a pul­monary hem­or­rhage. “You don’t see icepick pen­e­tra­tion, as was said ini­tially,” one of the pros­e­cu­tors said, adding that the wounds in Gus­tavito’s mouth could have come from his own tusks.

San Sal­vador Mayor Nayib Bukele finds the zoo’s ex­pla­na­tions of its mys­te­ri­ous deaths even less cred­i­ble. Af­ter Gus­tavito died, Bukele pro­posed clos­ing the zoo and re­lo­cat­ing all 600 of the an­i­mals to a wildlife sanc­tu­ary in Mex­ico.

“The zoo here . . . it’s de­press­ing,” Bukele said in an in­ter­view. “We have a lion that has eaten his own tail. I’m not jok­ing. Lit­er­ally, he ate his tail.” He also cited a photo on so­cial me­dia that he said showed four mon­keys with about 100 rats eat­ing their food.

‘Fa­mous like Madonna’

The zoo is large and jungly, with a big la­goon where the spi­der mon­keys romp in the trees, and rocky out­crop­pings for the tigers and lions. On a re­cent Satur­day morn­ing, there were few vis­i­tors; since Gus­tavito’s death, vis­its have dropped by half.

Born in cap­tiv­ity in 2002 at a zoo in Gu­atemala, the hippo was pur­chased for $5,000 by the El Sal­vador zoo two years later. When the zoo’s ele­phant died in 2010, Gus­tavito was the main re­main­ing at­trac­tion.

“He was fa­mous,” one zoo cus­to­dian told me. “Fa­mous like Madonna.”

Gus­tavito lived in the her­bi­vore sec­tion at the back of the zoo, in a grassy pen with sev­eral trees and a con­crete bathing pool. He ate huge quan­ti­ties of ba­nanas, cel­ery, spinach, wa­ter­melon and cu­cum­ber and spent a lot of time sub­merged. A two-story school and sev­eral houses bor­der his pen, so if some­one wanted to break into the zoo, this would be a good place to try.

Hen­riquez, the zoo di­rec­tor, stands by his mur­der the­ory and de­nies any wrong­do­ing.

In re­cent years, Gus­tavito, who weighed more than 3,000 pounds, had mi­nor ail­ments and in­juries, but he fin­ished 2016 “ap­par­ently in good health,” ac­cord­ing to a 23-page re­port pre­pared by the zoo.

In early Fe­bru­ary, zoo staff no­ticed that Gus­tavito looked “pale” and “ashen,” the re­port said. He was not eat­ing well and was con­sti­pated. A team of vet­eri­nar­i­ans gave him medicine. His “rosy color­ing” re­turned, the re­port said.

Then, on Feb. 23, a zookeeper alerted su­pe­ri­ors that Gus­tavito had not eaten his prior day’s food. He would not leave the wa­ter. Staff saw bruises on his eye­brows and jaw. When they coaxed him out, they no­ticed cuts and punc­ture-type wounds on his sides, limbs and in­side his mouth. The stress had ap­par­ently dis­rupted his di­ges­tive sys­tem. His stom­ach was dis­tended. He was un­able to defe­cate, and he seemed in pain.

In­side his pen, zoo staff found a three-inch piece of cor­ru­gated iron rod and sev­eral small stones, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. Hen­riquez said they also found a hole in the wire fenc­ing, sug­gest­ing that one or more peo­ple could have en­tered.

“He had cuts on all sides, which in­di­cates that it was not a fall,” Hen­riquez said in an in­ter­view. “If he had fallen, he would have had wounds on one side.

“The an­i­mal had been at­tacked,” he added.

Over the next few days, de­spite treatment and med­i­ca­tion, Gus­tavito re­fused to eat. On Feb. 25, zoo staff no­ticed that he ex­pelled fe­ces from his nose, a sign he was se­verely ob­structed, ac­cord­ing to the zoo re­port. He was given a nasal catheter. He later lost co­or­di­na­tion and fell off the lip of the pool. His breath­ing be­came la­bored.

The next day, Gus­tavito’s con­di­tion wors­ened, and he died that night. The cause, ac­cord­ing to head vet­eri­nar­ian Virna Or­tiz, was car­diores­pi­ra­tory fail­ure and paral­y­sis of the di­ges­tive sys­tem due to “stress, the prod­uct of an ag­gres­sion suf­fered by the an­i­mal.”

A Brazil­ian vet­eri­nar­ian, Ro­drigo Teix­eira, who hap­pened to be in El Sal­vador when Gus­tavito got sick, de­fended the zoo staff.

“I saw a team of pro­fes­sion­als very in­volved in the case and very wor­ried about the sit­u­a­tion,” said Teix­eira, who hosts a re­al­ity show on An­i­mal Planet in Brazil. “They have and pro­vide good food and medicine for the an­i­mals. Dur­ing my stay, I did not feel or see a lack of re­sources in the zoo.”

That is small com­fort to the zoo’s reg­u­lar vis­i­tors.

“It’s a shame,” said Rox­ana Romero, 20, as she sat on a bench in front of Gus­tavito’s empty pen. “On the week­ends, this place used to be full. Now that the hip­popota­mus isn’t here, there aren’t big-name an­i­mals any­more.”

Her sis­ter, Veron­ica, agreed that Gus­tavito left a gi­ant hole.

“He was my fa­vorite,” she said.


El Sal­vador Na­tional Zoo per­son­nel at­tend to Gus­tavito, an ail­ing hip­popota­mus, on Feb. 25 in San Sal­vador. The an­i­mal would later die un­der mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances. Zoo of­fi­cials say the pop­u­lar hippo was stabbed in the snout by as­sailants us­ing an ice-pick-like weapon.

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