The inside story of how Puerto Rico lost its only elephant Mundi the African elephant was the pride of Puerto Rico's only zoo. But her fate became entangled in the island's recent struggles with natural disasters and a debilitating debt crisis.

Puerto Rico lost its only elephant — and cracked open a well of emotions

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Earlier this year, the only zoo in Puerto Rico was ordered to close after years of worsening conditions brought on by the island's debt crisis and recent natural disasters. That means hundreds of the zoo's animals are being flown to sanctuaries across the U.S. For many Puerto Ricans, it's been bittersweet because of what the zoo's closure reflects about the state of the island. The evacuation of its animals has been going on for weeks now. And NPR's Adrian Florido was there as its most iconic animal - Mundi, the African elephant - prepared for her flight off the island.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Mundi was two days from boarding a cargo jet that would fly her to her new home at an elephant refuge in Georgia. And Carol Buckley, who would be her new caretaker there, was trying to coax her into a giant transport crate - practice for the day of the trip.

CAROL BUCKLEY: There's my girl. Do you want some watermelon? Oh, look at that girl.

FLORIDO: It wasn't going so well. A day earlier, Buckley said, something had struck Mundi from behind while she was inside the crate, and she'd panicked.

BUCKLEY: She is now questioning everything in her environment around this crate. So now we've got to start over again and get her to that trust level.

FLORIDO: Buckley suspected but could not prove that it was a BB gun shot from over the fence. Things were tense at the zoo. Armed federal agents were standing guard because people angry that Mundi was being taken off of Puerto Rico had been talking on social media about ways to sabotage the trip. Before Puerto Rico's economy floundered and the zoo began a long decline, it had been a source of deep pride on the island, and Mundi was its beloved main attraction. For a lot of Puerto Ricans, she was still a reminder of those better days, and it's why some people fiercely opposed her departure.

BUCKLEY: People have very mixed emotions about her leaving because they love her. But it has been amazing - the number of Puerto Ricans who have messaged me, talked to me, crying, because they love Mundi so much, but saying, please take her, please take her and give her a better life.

FLORIDO: Mundi never had a great life. She lived in a small enclosure with no other elephants for 35 years. But things at the public zoo started getting much worse about 15 years ago as the island's debt crisis took hold. Raquel Brana is an animal rights activist in the West Coast city of Mayaguez, where the zoo is located.

RAQUEL BRANA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "The zoo's budget dried up," she says. And soon the zoo, once a place many Puerto Ricans took pride in, became a horrific place for the animals.

BRANA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "I could name all the animals that suffered there," she says, "and the ways they died." Spider monkeys controlled with a beating stick, lions housed in dank concrete cells, black bears confined to tiny cages, expired food, almost no medical care - when Hurricane Maria struck in 2017, the zoo closed to the public. Brana and other activists at that point wanted its animals evacuated and the zoo closed for good. But not everyone wanted that. Lynette Matos had loved the zoo since she was a kid, and she wanted to save it.

LYNETTE MATOS: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "After Hurricane Maria, there was a lot of talk about closing the zoo for good," she says. "And we realized if we didn't help, it might never reopen because our government wasn't doing what needed to be done." Matos formed a group of volunteers called the Save the Zoo Foundation, and they got the government's permission to go in and maintain the zoo grounds and to fix hurricane damage. They raised money for food and veterinarians. They threw birthday parties for Mundi the elephant.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in Spanish).


FLORIDO: Their goal was to keep it up until the government started spending the millions in federal disaster recovery money that the zoo would be getting to rebuild from Hurricane Maria, so that it could eventually reopen.

MATOS: (Speaking in Spanish).

FLORIDO: But it never happened. In February, Stephen Muldrow, the top federal prosecutor for Puerto Rico, announced that the U.S. Justice Department had reached a deal with Puerto Rican authorities to close the zoo.


STEPHEN MULDROW: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "In short order," he said, "all of the animals will be relocated to sanctuaries where they'll get the best care available." As part of the deal, federal prosecutors agreed not to pursue charges over animal welfare violations. Lynette Matos of the Save the Zoo Foundation was devastated.

MATOS: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "It was sad, surprising and difficult," she said. "We'd hoped for a different outcome." Raquel Brana, the animal rights activist, was thrilled.

BRANA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: She called it a great triumph for Puerto Rico.

MONICA CRAIG: He's a good boy, Felipe. You're doing so good. I'm proud of you.

FLORIDO: At the zoo, Monica Craig was caressing Felipe, a friendly, white rhinoceros who'd be traveling on the plane with Mundi the elephant. Monica and her husband, Pat Craig, run The Wild Animal Sanctuary of Colorado, and the Justice Department asked them to handle the zoo's evacuation.

CRAIG: I mean, this is a huge process. It's going to take us months to get this done. I mean, not months because we have to be finished by the end of June.

FLORIDO: But you've already been working for months.

CRAIG: Oh, yes.


CRAIG: Yes, 100%.

FLORIDO: The next evening it was time to go. Mundi the elephant was still reluctant to enter her crate, so the transport team gently forced her in by tying a rope around her front foot.


FLORIDO: Just before midnight, Mundi, Felipe the rhino, two hippopotamuses, a donkey and an impala were on their way to the airport in a caravan of flatbed trucks, dozens of police and choppers overhead. People lined the route to wave goodbye.


FLORIDO: On the airport tarmac, Carol Buckley tried her best to soothe a nervous Mundi through the bars of her crate, reaching in to stroke her trunk as she flared her floppy ears and swayed back and forth.

Are you talking to her?

BUCKLEY: Yeah, of course. She's getting a little impatient now. Everybody else, all the other animals are on the plane. It's her turn now.

FLORIDO: As the sun rose on May 12, a crane hauled Mundi into the side of the massive 747. Buckley stood back and watched with tears in her eyes.

BUCKLEY: I really am so grateful to the people of Puerto Rico for, you know, making this sacrifice to let Mundi go. And this is an amazing gift that they've given.

FLORIDO: Mundi was headed to a radically new life at Buckley's Elephant Refuge North America in southern Georgia, joining two other elephants on 850 natural acres. Just beyond the airport fence, a small crowd gathered to watch the plane take off. Miriam Nunez was there, overcome, she said, by that feeling that every Puerto Rican knows from having to say goodbye when someone they love has had to seek a better life off the island.

MIRIAM NUNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "On the one hand, I'm happy," she said, "because I know Mundi's going to be better off. But on the other hand, I'm sad because she's left." Adrian Florido, NPR News, Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.


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