CIUDAD JUAREZ – There’s a new fight on the border and it’s not about migration, buoys in the Rio Grande or drug smuggling. In this city, the battle is over Benito, a giraffe living in a public park.

“We want Benito to leave this park,” Ana Felix, with Consejo Somos su Voz (We Are His Voice Coalition), said, arguing Benito does not have adequate shelter or care. “In the meantime, while our movement for that continues, we’re asking for better conditions now.” 

This border city is often known internationally for its sprawling factories, cartel violence and missing and murdered women. But Ciudad Juárez is also home to an active civil society with citizens groups working to improve quality of life. That includes a growing animal rights movement. 

Benito walks past two little girls visiting the park where the giraffe lives in Ciudad Juárez. (Angela Kocherga/El Paso Matters)

Animal rescue groups working to help Benito say the giraffe’s enclosure at Parque Central does not have enough shade or vegetation. There’s a tall, very narrow building made of sheetrock that serves as a shelter and a long pole with what looks like a tattered umbrella that barely covers the top of the giraffe’s head.

“We want trained experts and veterinarians on site. There’s nobody here with knowledge of an animal of this size,” Felix said, demanding the giraffe be moved to an established zoo or wildlife sanctuary. Her group usually helps street dogs in Ciudad Juárez. Now she’s part of a coalition of animal rights organizations that have banded together to help relocate Benito.

The issue has pitted animal protection advocates against the state government and park authorities. Park administrator Rogelio Muñoz balks at the idea of relocating Benito.

“We have a permit and the proper conditions to house that type of animal,” he said. The park has new funding for improvements including nearly $60,000 to improve Benito’s habitat, according to Muñoz. “We’re going to make his house bigger. We’re going to make it double the size.”

The new structure has been designed, according to Muñoz, but he did not have a specific date for when construction will begin. His expertise is in business administration not wildlife management.

The issue resonates across the border in El Paso where Laura Sanchez shares concerns about Benito’s wellbeing. “It’s not a zoo so it doesn’t have the facilities nor the staff to take care of the giraffe.” 

Sanchez usually collects donated supplies for animal rescue groups in Juárez that help stray dogs and cats. Now, she’s trying to find Benito a new home by “transferring him into a much better location either in the U.S. or Mexico.

“It doesn’t matter at this point, just somewhere better for him,” she said. 

Another beloved giraffe had been living at the park since 2001. When Modesto died last year the search for a replacement began. There was a contest to name the new arrival. Chihuahua Gov. Maria Eugenia “Maru” Campos announced the winning name with great fanfare at the park in May. Benito no doubt is in honor of Mexico’s President Benito Juárez, the city’s namesake.

The celebration turned to protests over the summer as animal protection advocates scrutinized his living conditions and took to the streets chanting “Save Benito. We are his voice!”

They also have a social media campaign and petition drives on both sides of the border to relocate the giraffe. And they’re calling on the governor of Chihuahua to intervene on behalf of Benito.

Felix’s group has asked for a public audience with the governor as provided under Mexican law. Sanchez is considering a lawsuit. 

Director of public information for the northern zone of the state of Chihuahua Carlos Omar Barranco said, “It’s been documented that Benito is fine.” And, he said, “They are making improvements for even better conditions for both the animal and the habitat.”   

Benito looks over the top of a fence at Parque Central where the giraffe lives in Ciudad Juárez. (Angela Kocherga/El Paso Matters)

Barranco said the park was about to sign an agreement with the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez to provide veterinary care to all of the animals in the park. Burros, ducks, peacocks and other birds that call the park home. 

Amid public pressure, representatives of two federal agencies in charge of protecting and managing wildlife visited Juárez in June. They met with animal rights groups, the park administrator and inspected Benito’s enclosure.

SEMARNAT, the agency responsible for permits, responded to a request on Aug.  23 to verify Parque Central had a valid permit. A spokeswoman said she’d check, but has not confirmed the permit yet.

PROFEPA oversees the “dignified and respectful” treatment of wildlife. The agency is “evaluating documentation provided by the inspector at the site,” according to an email from a spokesperson for the agency. And Benito can remain at the park pending improvements to his enclosure, the email stated.

Muñoz, the park administrator, said Benito was donated by a zoo in Culiacan. 

The zoo director hung up when asked if the giraffe came from the zoo. He declined subsequent attempts to reach him by phone and text requesting confirmation the zoo donated the giraffe.

Animal advocates are asking for a detailed plan of care for the giraffe. The park administrator says his next plan is to find a female giraffe to keep Benito company.

“Of course supervised by experts,” Muñoz said.

Felix questions that. “If they can’t take care of one, why bring in more animals?” 

A large sign on the fence of Benito’s enclosure says, “We are making improvements to my habitat.”

Visitors are aware of the controversy, said Erasmo Castañeda, a father at the park with his wife and two daughters.

“A lot of people are talking about Benito,” he said.

On a sweltering summer day his young girls called out to Benito and the giraffe ambled over, looking for a snack. Castañeda used the opportunity to take a photo of his daughters with the giraffe.

Castañeda remarked about the controversy, “Most people think he, Benito, doesn’t have to be living here, like he’s living.”

Angela Kocherga is multimedia editor for El Paso Matters. She has dedicated her career as a journalist to reporting stories on both sides of the border for readers, viewers and public radio listeners....