At the end of April I went back to Sao Paulo in Brazil for my cousin's wedding and to visit my family. It'd been nearly three years since the last time I'd been to Brazil, so as you can imagine, lots had changed.
I grew up in Sao Paulo - a city that developed way too quickly for its own good and without the much needed planning it deserves. However, despite the changes, it was very familiar. The constant rush of people, the incredibly large number of cars and subsequent bad traffic, the lack of green areas and the most heartbreaking part of it - the large amount of street dogs. I may sound too critical of my hometown and that is exactly what I am. I criticise it because I love it and appreciate its potential.
During my last days in Sao Paulo, we went to a place called Aquario Itaquera. Please note that this is not the famous Aquarium of Sao Paulo. I used to go to Aquario Itaquera very often when I was a child - my family and I refer to Aquario Itaquera simply as Aquario. It is difficult to describe exactly what it is, as it has a bit of everything, but it is mainly a large commercial space with a small theme park included. Therefore, as you can imagine, it is a paradise for kids. You get to see animals, different types of plants and go on the park's rides all in the same place. I had really good childhood memories from Aquario. However, as a child, you often miss the signs that things aren't quite right. In fact, most adult Brazilians that grow up in that reality may not notice anything wrong with it at all.
I love animals. My idea of a great day out when I was a child would be to visit a big pet shop like Aquario. Trust me, when you grow up in a massively urbanised city, anything that offers you a glimpse of an animal is great in your little innocent eyes. However, I am no longer a child and after studying ecology and seeing first hand the effects of bad animal care and wildlife trafficking, I can no longer enjoy what they offer. It was a big disappointment and completely ruined my childhood memories.
Brazil is currently going through a huge politically induced economical crisis - anyone from a developing country will know that most times politics and corruption are pretty much synonyms. The crisis forces people to find any way they can to make money and so once again, we humans use animals for our purposes.
To be fair to the efforts made by the local authorities and IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), things have indeed changed since I last remember it. Fifteen years ago or so, wild caught reptiles and other exotics were sold just before the entrance of the Aquario by many individuals. There were so many sellers of wild caught exotics that the prices were ridiculously low. I remember them pilling around the queue of cars that were about to enter Aquario offering little tortoises, tiny baby iguanas, etc. I have a very vivid memory of these three tiny red footed tortoises being pushed inside the car towards me through the open window and wanting to take them home so badly!
During my recent visit, I noticed that there were no obvious illegal exotics sellers around - note the 'obvious' in the sentence. However, there were 'private' sellers outside with boxes full of puppies and kittens. The worst part of it was the state of said puppies and kittens. You could tell that they'd been crammed in those boxes on show for the entire day. These were not happy and excitable puppies and kittens - they were sad. So sad, no amount of baby talk could get them to even lift their ears. I'd have tried to take a photo but I know what these 'private' sellers are like. They do not like cameras and I am rather fond of my life. So, I went inside the Aquario.
What met me inside was almost as horrifying. The actual 'Aquarium' side of it wasn't all that bad - after all, the place is famous for the sale of many different species of fish. The tanks were clean and although some of them were crammed, the turnaround of fish in that place is truly impressive. If only these fish were well kept when they got to their new homes, I wouldn't have that much of a problem with it. What shocked me, however, was a separate section of 'Aquario'. The section named 'Pet Shop'. Yes, in English. It is a pretty big space mainly taken by shelves full of products relating to the care of pets. From the entrance you can hear the distant chirping noise of birds singing - and can immediately tell that there are quite a few of them. At the very back of the shop, you are led to rows of small pilled up cages filled with different types of birds for sale. I already hate the idea of birds in cages not being able to spread their wings and fly. But what met me, made me want to cry. Some of the cages were so full that the birds were fighting for a space to stand that wasn't the cage's floor. And let me tell you, the floor was dirty. So dirty I am pretty sure that considering the amount of birds, it had been a few days since they last cleaned it. I asked one of the shop employees if they moved the birds to a bigger cage for the night and with a very confused face she said 'of course not'.
Now, bear in mind that this is a licensed establishment that can legally sell these animals and should therefore, be regulated as to how the animals are kept. The scene was so sad that I couldn't stay looking for long. So I moved on to the rodent section and felt like crying all over again. The first scene that met me were two glass tanks packed with Syrian Hamsters. No exercise wheel, no hides available and certainly no space. The only things available were a bowl of food and a small water bowl that needed a good clean in the middle. If you have ever researched the care of Syrian Hamsters, you will know that these are solitary creatures and so after a certain age, they should be kept apart. Although the majority of the hamsters in the tanks were pretty young - after all, they are up for sale - some of them were already way past the age of being kept in groups.
There were other types of hamsters too. All crammed in tiny spaces with no toys, hide or means of exercising available. The areas housing the rabbits and guinea pigs, also needed a good clean. All in all, the visit was a complete disappointment. I started remembering my trips to Aquario as a child and realised that what I was seeing was nothing new. That had always been the case - I was just too young at the time to know that the state those animals were being kept wasn't acceptable or fair on them.
You could say 'Oh but things are slowly changing' or 'At least it changed a little' but that is not good enough. It has been more than 15 years and things have barely improved at all. I think about the generations of birds, dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs and rabbits that have been put through the same terrible conditions, and I feel ashamed to be human.
I love Brazil. It is an incredibly beautiful country and this beauty is mainly due to its flora and fauna. We need to cherish and look after it because when everyone starts saying 'what a shame...', it will already be too late.