A Push for Animal Protections in This City Leaves Critics Raging

PHOTO: A veterinary student receives a horse which used to be used in a drawn-cart on February 26, 2013, in Bogota, Colombia.

Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images

One downcast night in northern Bogotá, Colombia, Mercedes Ruiz, a short 58-year-old woman with terse brown skin and graying dark hair, rummaged through stacks of trash bags.

Ruiz has worked as a binner for nearly 42 years. Every day, alongside two young nephews, she scours the private dumpsters of a rich neighborhood called Usaquén in search of recyclable materials that she can later sell at specialized centers. And from 2 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. she transports her goods in a "zorra," a wooden dilapidated vehicle hauled by a horse.

"He is 5-years-old, he is called Caravalí," Ruiz said of her horse as one of her nephews gathered some grass for it. "I check his horse shoes before I leave home and after lunch. [I also] carry some nails and extra horse shoes in case they fall on the way."

For nearly a century, horse-drawn carts and carriages have been the norm in Bogotá, breaking the fleeting silence of the night with a clacking noise that is familiar to most of the city's inhabitants. Today, animal-drawn vehicles are in the process of disappearing. The government has restricted their use, and now nearly 3,000 horse cart owners like Ruiz are supposed to turn in their animals in exchange for cars as part of a controversial animal rights bill which could radically transform the city's culture.

Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla leader who is now the mayor of Bogotá, is pushing a series of reforms designed to protect domestic and exotic animals in the city, honoring campaign compromises made to animal rights groups in 2011. Through a program called "Bogotá humana con la fauna" (Bogotá humane towards fauna), Petro has banned bull fighting, angering well-to-do Bogotanos who have attended the fiesta brava in the city for almost 82 years. The mayor also plans to fund a center to treat abused domestic pets and often speaks out against animal circuses and cock fighting, and has ordered the substitution of animal-drawn vehicles.

"It's an important form of political thought, a progressive and green approach towards policy," Andrea Padilla, a spokesperson in Colombia for Anima Naturalis, a Latin American animal rights group, told ABC-Univision. "People all around the continent are watching what is taking place in the city -- the animal protection reforms -- they are waiting to see what will happen in Bogotá."

For the past year, Petro been promoting changes that fight what he has called a "culture of death." With the aid of Roberto Sáenz, a city council member who leads the so-called "animal rights caucus," Petro has tried to raise awareness about the perilous conditions in which animals are sold in public marketplaces, and the thousands of abandoned cats and dogs in the city that are ultimately killed in pounds.

As part of the media campaign, Petro even adopted a rescued mixed breed named Bacatá – after Bogotá's indigenous name – that was scheduled to be put down. "Bacatá is going to stay in town hall," Petro said during the event in which he presented the stray dog to the media. "That is the commitment that we had during the campaign, and now that it has come true, she will be a symbol of the type of policy that the government will apply towards the protection of animals."

Opponents of the mayor however, say that while Petro has made a big deal out of his animal rights program, he has failed to tackle problems that affect Bogotá's human population.

"I'm in favor of animals, but I'm in favor of all animals," Miguel Gómez, a national congressman representing Bogotá, told ABC-Univision. "I think the mayor is focusing on a comfortable policy that refuses to take on any political risks."

Petro's term thus far has been plagued by criticism from the left and the right, and his approval ratings a few weeks ago was below 40 percent. The city's rankling mobility problems have not diminished since he took office, and the residents of the city generally feel more vulnerable to crime now than they did during previous administrations. Because of this, Petro's opponents have accused him of using the animal rights program as an easy way of scoring political points.

For Gómez, who is currently leading a campaign to revoke Petro's election, the mayor's office is only trying to tackle populist reforms. In some cases he thinks they don't even solve the problems they're claiming to be concerned about.

"In total, 36 bulls were killed each year during the bull fighting season in Bogotá," Gómez said. "Meanwhile, 1,000 cows are killed each day in the city. What did the [animal rights laws] solve, then?"

"Petro does the things that can be easily done and the things that don't entail a political risk, but he refuses to try to resolve the issues that are hard and that could cause him political problems," Gómez added, citing Petro's failure to regulate cock fighting, a popular haven of "illegal gambling and alcohol consumption."

But animal rights activists counter that Petro has brought forth to the public arena a debate that was previously dismissed as superficial or useless.

"Opponents are always going to say anything in order to demean what is being done," Andrea Padilla said. "Contrary to what detractors might think, the animal rights issues are in fact the kinds of subjects that public opinion favors."

Many of the citizens directly impacted by the reforms, however, don't share the same view. For Mercedes Ruiz and her family, for instance, the transition from an animal-drawn vehicle to a working car includes several insurmountable problems.

"I don't know how to drive," Ruiz said, "Even if I learned we wouldn't be able to park anywhere as we do with the horse. Then we'd have to buy the gas and pay the car's taxes and I don't know if I'll be able to afford that."

She has owned five horses throughout her life, and she says all of them have been stolen. A horse can pull about 800 kilograms worth of recyclable goods, she says. Ruiz also gets different rates for each sort of item. She gets paid about 22 cents on the dollar for each kilogram of white paper, 6 cents for the same weight of cardboard, and 3 cents for glass and newspapers. She houses Caravalí in a small room for which she pays $11 each night, and she feeds him grass and the occasional carrots.

She says the city will give her a new car that is worth nearly $12,000, but she is afraid that they will give her a Chinese-built car that won't last a year before it breaks down.

"I'm sad," Ruiz said. "The good thing is that the horse will finally get to rest. But I'm going to miss him because with him I could pay my rent and my food. With the car, I'm going to have to work to pay for the gas."

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