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A lion yawns at a zoo in Zacango, Mexico, that houses animals seized from drug traffickers. Arnulfo Franco / AP Photo
A lion yawns at a zoo in Zacango, Mexico, that houses animals seized from drug traffickers. Arnulfo Franco / AP Photo

Drug lords' pets including panthers and lions strain Mexico's zoos

State takes care of animals including squirrel monkeys and tigers after owners are put behind bars.

TOLUCA, Mexico // For years, three tiny squirrel monkeys led a life of luxury on a 16-acre ranch surrounded by extravagant gardens and barns built for purebred horses.

More than 200 animals, ranging from mules to peacocks and ostriches lived on the ranch in central Mexico and hundreds more stayed on two related properties, many in opulent enclosures. Also kept on the grounds were less furry fare: AK-47 assault rifles, Berettas, hundreds of other weapons, and cocaine.

The ranch's owner was Jesus "The King" Zambada, a leader of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel. He had developed a love for exotic species shared with other kingpins. Just two days before Zambada's arrest, police confiscated two tigers and two lions from a drug gang hideout on the forested outskirts of Mexico City.

As federal authorities capture a growing number of gang leaders, many of their pets are being driven from their gilded cages into more modest housing in the country's zoos.

That has proved overwhelming for some institutions, which are struggling to cope with the influx. But it is also giving Mexican animal lovers a bounty of new creatures to admire.

Like Zambada, who was apprehended in October 2008, the squirrel monkeys sit in state custody, chirping away at gawking children at the Zacango Zoo, about an hour outside Mexico City.

Their previous home "was a very big enclosure made of good quality material", said Manlio Nucamendi, the zoo's coordinator. "But they didn't have the right diet and medical attention."

Mexican forces have discovered drug cartel private zoos that housed tigers, panthers and lions among other exotic breeds of animal, though the federal Attorney General's Office, which supervises all seizures from drug gangs, could not provide an exact count of the number of animals seized.

Whatever the number, officials have been challenged to house the armies of confiscated animals.

"Within the limited resources of the Mexican government, there are a lot of efforts to ensure the welfare of these animals," said Adrian Reuter Cortes of the conservation group World Wildlife Fund in Mexico. "But even the zoos have limits, and can't welcome all the animals."

The government usually calls zoos for help because they have the expertise, equipment and vehicles to transport large animals, said Frank Carlos Camacho, the executive director of the Africam Safari wild animal park in the central Mexico city of Puebla and president of the national association of zoos.

"There's some risk involved in handling animals like big cats, bears and large herbivores," Mr Camacho said.

He said he had heard of drug cartel zoos that included giraffes, buffalos and camels.

As the 1983 gangster film Scarface portrayed, private zoos have long been considered status symbols for drug kingpins eager to show off their wealth. Descendants of the Colombian drug boss Pablo Escobar's hippopotamuses still roam his private zoo in Colombia, which became state property after his death and is now a tourist attraction.

Some kingpins also use the animals for more nefarious purposes.

Leaders of the Mexican Zetas cartel have been rumoured to feed victims to lions and tigers kept in their properties, local media have reported.

Animals are also used in the drug trade as smugglers. Over the past couple of years, traffickers have tried to ship drugs inside frozen, cocaine-stuffed sharks, snakes fed with bags of cocaine and bags filled with transparent liquid cocaine inside containers shipping tropical fish, Reuter Cortes said.

Not all exotic animals, however, are as lucky as Zambada's monkeys. Many animals found in drug cartel captivity or in private homes suffer from malnutrition or have been declawed or defanged, said Mr Nucamendi.

"It's a symbol of status and power," he said. "It's a bizarre psychology for the people that keep these animals."

As he showed off the zoo's grounds on a recent afternoon, Mr Nucamendi jumped over a barrier to greet Diego, a 2-year-old jaguar, whose former owners in Tijuana used to charge for pictures with him.

As for the squirrel monkeys, they will be moved to a bigger exhibit being planned in a remodelling of the zoo.

Although some of the confiscated animals had finer housing before, their new homes offer genuine care from the people watching them.

"It's more important for us to guarantee the welfare of these animals than the criminal investigations," Mr Nucamendi said. "That's our duty."

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