For 35 long years, in the western side of Puerto Rico, Mundi endured the burden of captivity within the confines of the Mayaguez Zoo. The story of the 41-year-old female elephant is one that resonates with the broader issues faced by captive animals and the challenges surrounding the Mayaguez Zoo.
Mundi’s journey began in 1984 when she was captured during a mass culling by the government of Zimbabwe and brought to the island of Puerto Rico. This abrupt disruption to her life took a toll on her physical and emotional well-being, as she was kept on display in isolation at the zoo for nearly 35 years. Although Mundi remained one of the institution’s main attractions, she was just one of the hundreds of animals being evacuated from Puerto Rico’s zoo.
Animal rights activists and concerned citizens argued that keeping the creature in captivity for entertainment purposes was cruel and inhumane. The zoo faced financial challenges when several of the species on display died, and Mundi’s presence no longer served as a major attraction. Violations at the zoo spanned for several years, with little to no luck from different administrations not being able to guarantee the wellbeing of animals. This predicament laid bare the conflicting interests between the welfare of animals and the economic viability of the zoo.
As the years passed, the conditions at the Mayaguez Zoo worsened, including substandard care and living conditions of its animals. Reports of inadequate enclosures, limited veterinary care, and even malnourishment raised concerns. The zoo’s inability to provide a proper and safe environment for Mundi and other captive animals—and the fact that after Hurricane Maria, it was forced to close down in 2017—meant the institution never really recovered. In February 2018, the US Department of Agriculture canceled the zoo’s exhibitor’s license after citing dozens of violations in previous years.
The decision also raised new challenges, including the relocation of these animals. Her long captivity had left her physically weak, requiring specialized care and a proper rehabilitation process to ensure her successful transition to a more natural environment. Animal welfare organizations, along with veterinarians and experts in elephant behavior, collaborated to develop a comprehensive plan for Mundi’s rescue and rehabilitation.
On May 5, Mundi was transported to the Elephant Refuge North America Sanctuary (ERNA) in Attapulgus, Georgia. The rescue and relocation were planned and carried out by non-profit organizations Wild Animal Sanctuary and Elephant Aid International (EAI), with assistance and funding provided by World Animal Protection (WAP).
The closure of the Mayaguez Zoo sparked broader discussions about the future of zoos in Puerto Rico and the role of zoos in conservation efforts, education, and animal welfare. Mundi’s journey from the wild to captivity and eventually to a sanctuary reflects the challenges faced by captive animals and the ongoing advocacy to provide them with a more compassionate and ethical approach.