Through cage bars, an exotic peek into drug wars

CALI, Colombia — Of all the animals that come to die under Ana Julia Torres’ saman trees, the ocelots are among the most numerous. There are eight of them here, seized from the estate of a murdered cocaine trafficker, who apparently collected them in the belief that any self-respecting drug lord should always have eight ocelots in his dominion.

Torres’ sanctuary houses hundreds of animals rescued largely from drug traffickers and paramilitary warlords, as well as from circuses and animal-smuggling rings, offering a strange window into the excesses and brutalities carried out in this country’s endless drug wars.

Torres looks after Dany, a Bengal tiger whose caretakers, employed by a paramilitary commander, said that he used to eat the flesh of death-squad victims; a lethargic African lion that had been fed a steady diet of illicit narcotics by its owner; and the ocelots that belonged to a drug lord with the nom-de-guerre Jabon, or Soap.

“Some of the cruelties I’ve seen make me ashamed to be a human being,” said Torres, 50, a school principal and animal-rights advocate who initially opened the sanctuary 16 years ago for animals, including a now-deceased elephant, that had been discarded by travelling circuses around Colombia.

The creatures here — some 800 in all — range from the tiny kinkajou, a nocturnal mammal similar to a ferret found in Colombia’s rain forests, to baboons born across the Atlantic in Africa. Many of the former circus animals, including an old chimpanzee named Yoko, still find repose at Villa Lorena, as Torres’ sanctuary is called. Other animals, like a king vulture and a pygmy marmoset, one of the world’s smallest monkeys, were rescued in raids on wildlife smugglers who seek to profit from Colombia’s biodiversity.

But some of the most striking animals at Villa Lorena, located up a dirt road in the slum of Floralia, are the great cats that once resided in the private zoos of drug traffickers, who still seem to find inspiration in the example of the dead cocaine baron Pablo Escobar.

Indeed, descendants of the hippos once owned by Escobar still roam the grounds of Hacienda Napoles, his once luxurious retreat, where he amassed a private collection of exotic species, including rhinoceroses and kangaroos.

Torres’ sanctuary surpasses Escobar’s menagerie in its diversity. About 500 iguanas roam its trees and pathways near corrals for peccaries, flamingos, mountain goats and peacocks. Cages house toucans and spider monkeys. Torres closes the sanctuary to all but a handful of visitors.

“The animals here are not meant to be exhibited,” she said before leaning through cage bars to embrace and kiss on the lips a roaring lion named Jupiter, who was recovered from a circus where he had suffered from malnutrition. “They need to be protected, and have a right to live in peace.”

Some of the animals under her care found anything but peace before arriving at Villa Lorena. Several years ago, she nursed back to health a spider monkey called Yeyo, found by the police in a puddle of his own blood after being beaten by its owner. While Yeyo lost an eye from the abuse, he lived quietly at Villa Lorena until his death, she said.

Then there is the lion named Rumbero, rescued from a drug trafficker near the city of Manizales. Rumbero’s eyes have an empty, glazed look. Torres said he was forced to consume marijuana, ecstasy and other substances at bacchanals in Colombia’s backlands.

At almost every turn at Villa Lorena, animals display indignities suffered at the hands of man. A caiman with a severed limb stretches under the tropical sun. A macaw with a sawed-off beak flutters in its cage. Luis, a cougar who once belonged to a drug trafficker, limps around his cage, the result of having a front leg cut off.

Torres speaks of each case with passion, somewhere between outrage and desperation, bringing to mind the episode in Nietzsche’s life when he broke into tears and threw his arms around a horse on the streets of Turin while attempting to save it from a coachman’s whipping.

“We’ve received horses here, too, including one that a man in Cali tried to burn alive after dousing it with gasoline,” she said, motioning to Villa Lorena’s burial ground near the chimpanzee’s cage, where workmen bury all the animals that die at the sanctuary. “It didn’t make it.”

For others in animal-rights circles here, Torres’ sanctuary raises issues that are both philosophical and practical. “Animals are not like human beings, who can adjust to being in a wheelchair,” said Jorge Gardeazabal, a veterinary surgeon at Cali’s zoo.

Gardeazabal, citing the example of an ocelot with a severed leg, said that he preferred euthanasia in such cases, since the ocelot would be unable to carry out its genetic instinct to flee with quickness when it sensed fear. Still, he said he supported Torres’ sanctuary. “But it’s an activity that should be regulated by the authorities,” he said, to ensure the well-being of the animals and those who work with them.

While Torres receives help from Cali’s environmental police, who deliver rescued animals to her doorstep, she shuns government financing and other involvement with the authorities. She relies, instead, on private donations and food given to the sanctuary by grocery stores.

Eliecer Zorrilla, an official with Cali’s environmental police, said the hands of law enforcement were largely tied when it came to limiting the traffic in exotic animals, even those that were abused and ended up at Villa Lorena. Colombian law does not include prison terms for people found mistreating animals or owning a rare species, he said.

Zorrilla added that his officers could seize wild animals from their owners only when they were in the process of being transported or traded. “We have no idea how many other wild animals, from this continent or others, are being mistreated in captivity,” he said.

In an ironic twist, man’s clash with nature is also what sustains the animals in Villa Lorena. Roadkill, largely in the form of horses hit by cars, provides much of the meat for Torres’ carnivores. Workmen butcher the donated horse meat and toss it into cages, where it is quickly consumed.

Torres said that it took time for Dany, the man-eating Bengal tiger, to get used to his new diet. He roared with startling vigour one recent afternoon when it came time to eat; steel bars separated him from the labourer throwing him raw flesh. “Dany’s one of the few animals here that I cannot embrace,” said Torres. “At least not yet.”