In Brazil’s wildlife care centers, struggles and successes go unseen

  • Responsible for saving countless wild animals but little known to the general public, Brazil’s 62 wildlife care centers face a daily routine of problems and scarcity of resources.
  • In the country with the richest biodiversity on the planet, the system in place to care for wild animals rescued from traffickers and illegal captivity is not a priority for environmental authorities and depends on the effort and dedication of the staff involved, proponents say.
  • In São Paulo state, overwhelmed units cannot handle the 30,000 animals seized per year; in Rio de Janeiro, 600 animals died in four months for lack of caretakers; in the whole state of Amazonas, which includes one-third of the Brazilian Amazon, there is only one unit.
  • Minas Gerais is an exception: by developing partnerships between federal and state agencies and civil society, the state has been able to increase its staff and the number of volunteers to streamline its services.

On Feb. 15 this year, the day after Valentine’s, a two-toed sloth was checked into the government-run wildlife screening center in Manaus, in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, for some much-needed TLC. The sloth, which staff had named Rainha, Portuguese for “Queen,” had previously climbed up an electricity pole and been zapped and fallen, fracturing a leg and sustaining other injuries.

Rainha, a Linnaeus’s two-toed sloth (Choloepus didactylus), a species found north of the Amazon River, underwent surgery to put pins in her leg, and faced months of injections and daily cleansing of her wounds. To aid in her recovery, with the ultimate goal of returning her to the wild, staff at the screening center, known as CETAS, gave her grapes. Rainha, it turns out, loved grapes.

That TLC eventually paid off: On Aug. 7, Rainha left the CETAS, and her adopted name, and returned to being one more sloth living freely in the forest.

Hers is one of the success stories from the handful of wildlife care centers scattered across this unfathomably biodiverse country. What largely goes untold is the daily struggle by the staff just to get by and overcome countless difficulties in caring for animals that are often rescued from traffickers and illegal captivity, or, like Rainha, among the growing number swept up in the human expansion into their habitat.

Puma cub at the Center for Management and Conservation of Wild Animals (CeMaCAs) of the city of São Paulo. Image by SVMA SP.

Brazil has a network of 62 screening and rehabilitation centers that take care of non-aquatic wild animals. The CETAS units, like the one in Manaus, are for screening; CRAS units are for rehabilitation; and CETRAS units are for both screening and rehabilitation. IBAMA, the federal environmental protection agency, runs 22 units — 35% of the country’s total — spread across 18 states and the Federal District that covers the country’s capital, Brasília.

Because it has the largest number of centers, IBAMA defines the model of care. This runs the gamut from receiving animals, screening them, providing veterinary care, to rehabilitating and preparing them for release, or transfer to other rehabilitation organizations, or for life in captivity at breeding facilities or zoos.

The first wildlife care units emerged in the early 1970s under the former Brazilian Institute for Forestry Development (IBDF), the predecessor of IBAMA; the latter was established in 1989.

In 2005, when IBAMA oversaw 21 centers of its own and another 20 with partner institutions, it kicked off the CETAS-Brasil Project. It found that most animals that arrived in need of care were — and still are — victims of trafficking. It also found that seven of its units were in poor condition, with five being no more than “makeshift nurseries.” Effectively, more than half of the centers didn’t meet the needs for which they had been created.

The idea of the CETAS-Brasil Project was to have 117 centers spread out across the country, which would have three distinct levels of structure and complexity. The project was never implemented.

A maned wolf receiving care at the Nova Lima CETRAS in Minas Gerais state. Image by IEF MG.

Serving an important function

In 2011, legislation came into force, known as Complementary Law 140, that gave states the responsibility to license enterprises that work with wild animals. Until then, IBAMA had been solely in charge. Since then, the federal agency has also signed technical cooperation agreements with states and the Federal District, which have now taken over the management of wildlife in captivity. The exception was São Paulo, which had already started to take on these activities in 2008.

Having created the CETAS facilities and been responsible for captive wildlife for decades, IBAMA has an extensive and coordinated network of centers. And even 10 years after states and the Federal District started to take over management of captive wildlife, IBAMA remains solely responsible for screening centers in 12 jurisdictions. Only nine states and seven municipalities provide this service, and the northeastern and northern regions of Brazil are almost fully dependent on IBAMA’s centers

“Considering that this is a burden for state and municipal environmental agencies, they are not interested in taking over it — unlike licensing,” says veterinarian Angela Maria Branco, who conducts research on screening and rehabilitation centers and heads the Environmental Defense and Surveillance Division of São Paulo’s Municipal Department of Urban Safety. “It is up to civil society to demand that this activity be carried out with the rigor and commitment of a nation concerned with its faunal heritage.”

For biologist Yuri Marinho Valença, who has worked in screening and rehabilitation centers for 14 years and now heads the Tangará CETAS, under the Pernambuco State Environmental Agency (CPRH) in the city of Recife, “the vast majority of authorities and society in general don’t even know about these centers and can’t even imagine their needs, the benefits they provide, and their importance for the planet’s health.”

Valença says all municipalities should have a wildlife care unit, as animals in need of care are victims of urbanization and human occupation processes.

Seized animals arrive at the CETAS in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais state. Image by Waita.

Eight of the nine northeastern states have IBAMA screening centers: Bahia, Sergipe, Alagoas, Paraíba, Rio Grande do Norte, Ceará, Piauí and Maranhão. Bahia and Pernambuco are the only ones that share that responsibility with the federal agency.

In Brazil’s northern region, the states of Amapá, Roraima, Amazonas and Acre have one CETAS each, all managed by IBAMA. Tocantins has one center, under the state government. Pará has six, four of them operated by mining companies and which don’t take in animals seized or rescued by government agencies. The others, one in the municipality of Santarém and another that opened in early 2021 in Belém, the state capital, have low capacity. When animals need specialized care, they are referred to partner institutions. This was the case with many of the 1,717 animals seized by the Pará State Police in 2020.

The situation in Pará, one of Brazil’s nine Amazonian states, doesn’t reflect the urgent need for these centers. In Benevides, a municipality adjacent to Belém, a relatively new center built by IBAMA is closed. It has vehicles and funding (1.5 million reais, or $269,000, between 2018 and 2021). An internal audit conducted by IBAMA is trying to identify the reasons that led the agency’s state superintendent to keep it closed in recent years. IBAMA told Mongabay that this CETAS “is under internal assessment so that procedures for its reopening can be resumed.”

It’s a similar case in Rondônia, another Amazonian state. A center established in Porto Velho, the capital, in 2009 by Santo Antônio Energia as a requirement for the environmental licensing of the company’s hydroelectric plant was closed after years of operation. The company ended its activities, and the facility was never fully transferred to IBAMA. Since then, Rondônia has not had a center to receive wildlife. IBAMA told Mongabay that the agency is “in final negotiations to reopen it.”

According to the National Association of Environmental Specialist Public Servants (Ascema), the states, chiefly responsible for wildlife inspections, should be ready to care for seized and rescued animals rather than depending on IBAMA as they do now. This discussion led the federal agency, in the recently issued Normative Instruction 5 of 2021, to determine that animals seized by states, the Federal District and municipalities should only go to centers that are jointly funded by state governments.

Caretakers working with a python at the CETAS in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais state. Image by Waita.

Problems in Ceará

When there are operational problems in states that only have IBAMA-run CETAS centers, animal care borders on chaos. That’s the case in Ceará.

The CETAS in Fortaleza, the state capital, virtually stopped receiving animals in 2019 for lack of operating capacity. IBAMA told Mongabay that the unit only handles cases of animals that are voluntarily turned in and is assessing the center for renovation.

The lack of a well-functioning center has consequences for combating wildlife crimes. In 2018, the Environmental Unit of the Ceará State Police seized 9,977 animals from illegal possession. With the Fortaleza CETAS facing lack of resources the following year, that number dropped to 5,118, and fell further in 2020 — to 3,009 — because of the pandemic. Both the police and the State Department for the Environment (Semace) said they’re sending animals to institutions that can provide care, and sometimes even leaving them with offenders, who become their temporary guardians.

This problem led state prosecutor Any Celly Sampaio to file a public civil action against Semace and the city of Fortaleza in November 2020, demanding that they set up their own wildlife care centers.

“They are not doing their job in caring for wild animals. My work has no federal jurisdiction, and I’m restricted to the state and municipal spheres,” she said. Asked about the matter, the Fortaleza government did not comment. The state environmental agency said it will present its arguments at a conciliation hearing.

Semace said it has plans to manage two centers, including IBAMA’s. A technical cooperation agreement between the agencies would be almost finished. The other center, to be built in the Cariri area, doesn’t have an opening date scheduled yet.

Capuchin monkeys in enclosures at the IBAMA-run CETAS in Fortaleza, Ceará state. Image by the Ceará Prosecution Service.

Deaths investigated in Rio de Janeiro

In Seropédica, in Rio de Janeiro state, more than 600 animals died in four months at the IBAMA-run CETAS because of a lack of caretakers. The story made national headlines in February and is being investigated by Federal Police, federal prosecutors, and IBAMA itself.

The Seropédica CETAS is the only one in Rio de Janeiro that receives animals seized from traffickers or illegally bred in the state. The State Environmental Police alone seized 10,520 animals in 2019.

Agreements with service providers that were not renewed by IBAMA’s state superintendent in Rio de Janeiro would have left the center without caretakers. The four public servants in charge of the administrative management of the place were left to take care of its 1,200 animals. For 15 days in February, only two were there to run the entire unit. Enclosures went uncleaned, and hygiene conditions deteriorated, causing the number of animal deaths to rise.

The problems at the Seropédica CETAS aren’t new. With no maintenance for more than five years, the facility is plagued by faulty roofs, rusty wiring and enclosure grids, as well as numerous leaks.

Much of this could have been avoided if the Rio de Janeiro state government had complied with a 2016 federal court ruling ordering it to build a state wildlife care center. The requirement is included in the environmental licensing process for the construction of a highway known as the Arco Metropolitano. Asked by Mongabay why it didn’t comply with the court order, the state government did not respond.

Captive wild birds are kept in conditions of squalor at the CETAS in Seropédica, Rio de Janeiro state. Image from personal collection.

According to Ascema, IBAMA has improved the management of its wildlife care centers. “Since 2014, we have noticed that new investments have been made, and fines are being converted into investment in IBAMA centers as a new strategy to streamline the administration,” the association said. The centers received a total of 3.5 million reais ($628,000) in 2014, and 6.9 million ($1.2 million) in 2020.

However, Ascema says the low number of staff responsible for procurement contracts and personnel hiring at IBAMA’s state-level superintendencies has proved to be more serious than the lack of money.

One of the main understaffed positions at wildlife care centers is that of veterinarians. CETAS centers are effectively hospitals for wildlife, but their staff don’t technically have to include veterinarians. At IBAMA, civil servants assigned to work in these centers are called “environmental analysts” and can come from a wide range of academic backgrounds.

The consequence is that the centers often operate without veterinarians. According to IBAMA, eight of its 22 units lack environmental analysts with training as veterinarians. When Mongabay asked about the number of these professionals, IBAMA said that “only three servants working as environmental analysts had degrees in veterinary medicine.”

In an attempt to address the problem, in January 2019 IBAMA announced to the managers of its centers that they could subcontract veterinarians to provide animal care.

Irregular distribution

While the total number of wildlife care centers in Brazil may seem high, their distribution throughout the country is uneven. This is in addition to the fact that many work exclusively on rehabilitation and do not receive animals for first screening and care, and that the small sizes of most of these units is a further restriction.

In Brazil’s northern region, swathed in the Amazon Rainforest, there are 11 centers, including four that belong to mining companies in Pará state. In the center-west and the Federal District, there are five centers operating. There are three in the south, 25 in the southeast, and 18 in the northeast.

The state of São Paulo, for example, has the largest number of centers in the country — 13, or 21% of the total. One is run by IBAMA and one by the state government, while five are municipal. In a state where some 30,000 illegally kept wild animals are seized each year, such a large number of centers creates the illusion of efficiency. But the reality is different.

Six of the centers in São Paulo are run by NGOs and private universities, which lack financial support, so maintaining service at these facilities is a daily struggle. In addition to overwork and underfunding, the wildlife rehabilitation system has to deal with a low number of suitable sites for releasing wildlife; just 32 sites are approved by the state and by IBAMA. They also lack a more agile structure to return non-native animals from São Paulo to their original states. In other words, the centers are overwhelmed.

Green-billed toucan feeding at the CRAS rehabilitation center at Tietê Ecological Park in the city of São Paulo. Image by Lilian Sayuri Fitorra/CRAS PET/Zoo SP.

The São Paulo Infrastructure and Environment Department told Mongabay that it is seeking partnerships to maintain the centers and working on a “destination plan” to identify local support networks. The agency also said it provides guidance on legislation, installation and operation to assist those interested in setting up new wildlife care centers.

For researcher Angela Maria Branco, government agencies and civil society have never understood wildlife care and the need to structure the service. “Government responsibility was transferred to society, which seeks support to meet a demand that requires a highly qualified physical, technical and operational structure, which doesn’t exist,” she says.

“In Brazil, awareness about the need for CETRAS units has increased, but new centers are still needed, and existing ones have to be improved,” says veterinarian Liliane Milanelo.

Milanelo coordinates the wildlife rehabilitation center, or CRAS, at Tietê Ecological Park (CRAS PET) and has been working in the field for 16 years. Located in the city of São Paulo, CRAS PET is run by the state government and is one of the largest in the country, caring for an average of 11,000 animals per year, most of them are victims of wildlife trafficking.

For the large Amazonian states of Mato Grosso and Amazonas, the situation is the opposite. Mato Grosso is Brazil’s third-largest state and spans ecosystems varying from the Amazon to the Cerrado grasslands to the Pantanal wetlands. It’s also the epicenter of Brazil’s habitat loss due to agriculture, countless incidents of wildlife roadkill, and recorded 1,457 wildlife seizures in 2020. Yet it has just the one wildlife care center, located in Lucas do Rio Verde municipality, a small facility managed by an NGO. The state government told Mongabay that it plans to build its own unit in the city of Cuiabá.

Amazonas state also has only one CETAS unit, run by IBAMA and reportedly working at full capacity. The city government of Manaus, the state capital, closed its center in 2016 and has no plans to reopen it.

Partnerships for greater efficiency

In Minas Gerais state, the wildlife care centers operate under a partnership model. Federal and state governments, state prosecutors and NGOs work together to provide quality animal care.

The state has the largest number of IBAMA centers (in Belo Horizonte, Montes Claros, Juiz de Fora and Nova Lima), which have been co-managed by the State Forestry Institute (IEF) since 2013. The IEF also has its own units in Divinópolis and Patos de Minas.

A simple operational dynamic has been implemented in the three joint centers, whose staff include biologists, veterinarians and caretakers from the two institutes. Animals that arrive through federal agencies or are voluntarily turned in by the public are under IBAMA’s responsibility. Those brought in by state agencies are the charge of the IEF staff.

When it comes to specialized labor, the NGO Waita is crucial for the synergy among the Minas Gerais partners. The organization is responsible for incorporating biology, veterinary and animal science students in the operation of the Belo Horizonte center, which received 11,224 animals in 2019 and 8,015 in 2020.

Ultrasound scan on a collared anteater at the Patos de Minas CETRAS, Minas Gerais state. Image by IEF MG.

“As government agencies are slow to hire employees, Waita provides more flexibility in finding people to work — about 30 interns and volunteers work there each semester,” says, Fernanda de Souza Sá, the NGO’s president. State prosecutors also assist by distributing equipment paid for by companies that commit environmental violations and sign conduct adjustment agreements mediated by prosecutors.

The IEF told Mongabay that it plans to open a CETRAS in Paracatu municipality in early 2022. In 2023 and 2024, there are plans to open units in Uberlândia and in Lavras. The wide network of release sites also helps the state’s centers to function properly. Currently, there are 62 such sites and plans for another 90 to be open by 2024.

According to Yuri Marinho Valença from the Tangará CETAS in Pernambuco state, the wildlife care centers have for years been denied the real importance they deserve. But more sectors have taken on this responsibility. “CETRAS had their functions redimensioned and there has been significant improvement in their facilities and service,” he says, adding that “the centers still carry the burden of an obscure past, written by administrations without parameters and regulations, when instinctive action often created conflict situations.”

For Angela Maria Branco, while there are more care centers, their number and structure are insufficient and mean little in terms of providing care for thousands of victimized animals.

“Society must demand that governments respect environmental legislation and set up centers to assist wild animals,” she says, “primarily focusing on returning them to nature, in addition to conducting public health studies.”

Banner image of veterinarian Liliane Milanelo weighing a collared anteater. Image by Lilian Sayuri Fitorra/CRAS PET/Zoo SP.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Oct. 7, 2021.