Prime Minister Patrick Manning and his administration are refusing to ditch what is believed to be a plan hatched at Cabinet level to acquire the just over seven acres of prime Port-of-Spain land on which the 58-year-old Emperor Valley Zoo stands. As a result, the Zoological Society of T&T has filed for judicial review, seeking to restrain Manning, who is named as the prime defendant, from continuing to move to change the legal framework under which the society operates. The legal challenge was filed by the San Fernando law firm headed by Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, late last month, and a date for hearing is being awaited. The zoo has been in operation as a statutory body since November 8, 1952, and is home to more than 190 species of animals. It exists on state funding, earned income and donations. (See other story).
According to the statement of claim filed by the law firm, alarm bells rang in the society's boardroom when it received official word last July from the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Tourism, that Cabinet at its July 1 meeting had decided to repeal the ZSTT (Incorporation) Ordinance, No 12 of 1952, and replace it with "a more detailed legal and regulatory framework consistent with current legal design of statutory bodies." The society responded with a pre-action protocol letter, dated July 31, demanding the rescinding of this decision, without success. And by letter dated November 4, the society again objected to the legislative reshuffle, but was informed there was no turning back, the statement indicated. Maharaj told the Sunday Guardian that Manning was specifically named as the main defendant in the claim for judicial review, because he heads the Cabinet. He added: "The Government, apparently, wants to nationalise the zoo, but the Government does not own the land on which the zoo operates. It is owned by the trustees of the society."
"To operate, the zoo needs people with special skills who love animals. "If the Government takes over the zoo, it can put that prime property to other use." He said the judicial review application was the society's way of fighting for the promotion of animal rights and for the public to have the continuing right to view the animals in their St Ann's home, which is next to the Botanical Gardens, which in turn borders President's House. He said he intended to argue that the Cabinet decision was unlawful, on the grounds it would likely breach the society's right to the enjoyment of property, as guaranteed by the T&T Constitution. Maharaj is demanding that the Cabinet records, detailing all the discussions that took place leading to the decision to amend the ZSTT Ordinance, be produced in court.
ABOVE: ?Lots of small entrepreneurs make a living at the entrance to the zoo, selling windmills, plastic toys, sno cone and other items that are magnets for children visiting.
Lutchmedial: Zoo in throes of expansion
Gupte Lutchmedial, the society's president, said the Government would be going against its established policy to interfere now with the running of the zoo by an NGO like his society. Lutchmedial said the society had a market plan approved by the Tourism Ministry, which involved an upgrade of the zoo that would lead within five years to there being no need for a subvention. Some 200,000 people visit the zoo each year, and the plan was to up the fee from the current $15 for adults and $7 for children to around $25. He groused to the Sunday Guardian that it seemed to him the Government was intent on roping in the zoo in its quest to control everything in T&T. However, Lutchmedial insisted that the society had no intention of backing down, and indeed was intent on partnering with the Manatee Trust to use 369 acres of land in Nariva to house larger animals in the zoo.
He agreed with attorney Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj that running a zoo needed a cadre of dedicated people who were not stuck in the "seven to four" syndrome. Yesterday, workers from the El Socorro firm, CG Contractors were busy building enclosures for new animal exhibits, and the zoo was crowded with visitors and their children gawking at the caged creatures. Ironically, the Sunday Guardian overheard two zoo employees discussing in hushed tones plans they had heard to privatise the zoo and offer employees VSEP packages. They spoke of what employees with 25 years and over would be taking home, and whether they would be re-employed.
?Subvention up by almost $1m
?According to the Draft Estimates for the 2010 National Budget, Government gave the Zoological Society of T&T (ZSTT) a subvention of $6,004,700 to run the Emperor Valley Zoo for fiscal year 2009. For fiscal 2010, the subvention is $6,932,200 which is an increase of $927,600. Other sources of income pale in comparison to the Government's subvention. For 2010, it is estimated the ZSTT will receive a total of $1.4 million in other income. A breakdown shows that includes rent of $84,000; gate receipts of $1.3 million; sales of $1,000, subscriptions of $1,000, donations of $15,000 and $20,000 accounted for as miscellaneous income.
?Back in July, 2007, then Tourism Minister Howard Chin Lee announced a $56.8 million plan involving a Seattle, USA consultant to expand the zoo by five acres. Even earlier, the previous UNC administration had announced through then Tourism Minister Adesh Nanan in July, 2001, the zoo would be removed lock, stock and barrel to 40 acres of land in Chickland, in central Trinidad. That acreage would be transformed into a conservation centre, since a team of local botanic experts, including Prof Julien Kenny and Prof John Spence, had found there was no suitable room in Port-of-Spain for expansion of Emperor Valley Zoo. Indeed, a report stated that compared to international ratings the current zoo was sub-standard. However, Lutchmedial said the land in Chickland was not found to be suitable, because it was located in a valley.