A Push for Animal Protections in This City Leaves Critics Raging

PHOTO: A veterinary student receives a horse which used to be used in a drawn-cart on February 26, 2013, in Bogota, Colombia.

One downcast night in northern Bogotá, Colombia, Mercedes Ruiz, a short 58-year-old woman with terse brown skin and graying dark hair, rummaged through stacks of trash bags.

Ruiz has worked as a binner for nearly 42 years. Every day, alongside two young nephews, she scours the private dumpsters of a rich neighborhood called Usaquén in search of recyclable materials that she can later sell at specialized centers. And from 2 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. she transports her goods in a "zorra," a wooden dilapidated vehicle hauled by a horse.

"He is 5-years-old, he is called Caravalí," Ruiz said of her horse as one of her nephews gathered some grass for it. "I check his horse shoes before I leave home and after lunch. [I also] carry some nails and extra horse shoes in case they fall on the way."

For nearly a century, horse-drawn carts and carriages have been the norm in Bogotá, breaking the fleeting silence of the night with a clacking noise that is familiar to most of the city's inhabitants. Today, animal-drawn vehicles are in the process of disappearing. The government has restricted their use, and now nearly 3,000 horse cart owners like Ruiz are supposed to turn in their animals in exchange for cars as part of a controversial animal rights bill which could radically transform the city's culture.

Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla leader who is now the mayor of Bogotá, is pushing a series of reforms designed to protect domestic and exotic animals in the city, honoring campaign compromises made to animal rights groups in 2011. Through a program called "Bogotá humana con la fauna" (Bogotá humane towards fauna), Petro has banned bull fighting, angering well-to-do Bogotanos who have attended the fiesta brava in the city for almost 82 years. The mayor also plans to fund a center to treat abused domestic pets and often speaks out against animal circuses and cock fighting, and has ordered the substitution of animal-drawn vehicles.

"It's an important form of political thought, a progressive and green approach towards policy," Andrea Padilla, a spokesperson in Colombia for Anima Naturalis, a Latin American animal rights group, told ABC-Univision. "People all around the continent are watching what is taking place in the city -- the animal protection reforms -- they are waiting to see what will happen in Bogotá."

For the past year, Petro been promoting changes that fight what he has called a "culture of death." With the aid of Roberto Sáenz, a city council member who leads the so-called "animal rights caucus," Petro has tried to raise awareness about the perilous conditions in which animals are sold in public marketplaces, and the thousands of abandoned cats and dogs in the city that are ultimately killed in pounds.

As part of the media campaign, Petro even adopted a rescued mixed breed named Bacatá – after Bogotá's indigenous name – that was scheduled to be put down. "Bacatá is going to stay in town hall," Petro said during the event in which he presented the stray dog to the media. "That is the commitment that we had during the campaign, and now that it has come true, she will be a symbol of the type of policy that the government will apply towards the protection of animals."

Opponents of the mayor however, say that while Petro has made a big deal out of his animal rights program, he has failed to tackle problems that affect Bogotá's human population.

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