The little zoo that serves as a wildlife refuge

May 19, 2018

Story and Photos by Bartley D’Alfonso

It’s been said that looks can be deceiving.

This is certainly true when you arrive at the Yurak Allpa Zoológico Refugio in Tarqui. It’s easy for first time visitors to drive by and miss this small zoo. But inside it is large enough to spend a wonderful hour or two here, especially for families with little ones. Located about 14 kilometers southeast of Cuenca, this private preserve hosts some two hundred creatures, representing about fifty different species.

There is something unique about this zoo: as its name implies, it is more of a refuge for injured, mistreated or abandoned wild animals, than an entertainment zoo or amusement theme park.

The name Yurak Allpa translates as “Tierra Blanca” in the native Kichwa dialect, and thus as “White Earth” in Spanish. It was bestowed by founder and owner Alberto Vele, who created the refuge from scratch in 2003 — with one injured White-Faced Capuchin monkey — using his own funds he had saved working in construction for twelve years in New York City. During the following six years, Alberto continued to build and house as many rescued and donated animals and birds as possible. The collection includes monkeys; deer; a fox; an ocelot; eagles, vultures and waterfowl; a tapir, toucans, parrots, parakeets, and macaws; penguins; ostriches; a golden pheasant; a wolf; and a sheep with four horns, which is extremely rare.

In 2009, the Ministry of the Environment (MAE) for Azuay Province registered Yurak Allpa as a bona fide zoo, thus granting public access and allowing the zoo to charge and collect entry fees. This was a major step foward as it costs Alberto $4,000 monthly to feed all of the animals. To help offset this cost there is a large vegetable garden inside. Three times weekly he drives round trip into Cuenca, and fills his pickup truck with fresh vegetables, grains and meats in the sprawling Fierra Libre Market.

But why is this facility open only on weekends? Alberto explained that many animals were rescued bearing injuries resulting from neglect, abandonment, and even intentional cruelty by previous owners. Many are still recovering from both physical and emotional stresses caused by the illegal capture and smuggling of exotic animals and birds from their native habitats. Therefore many still need time to properly heal, and weekdays when the refuge is closed serves as a quiet and tranquil stress-free time for many to gradually recover.

By law, none of them are allowed to be freed and returned to the wild.  Which is understandable, since many lived with humans from birth, and would not know how to safely survive in the natural world.

But the zoo and refuge it is not just a collection of cages, fences and enclosures. The grounds also contain many varied and beautiful plants and trees, many adorned with flowers in full bloom. Roses, fuschias and Australian Bottle Brush Trees are just some of the plant life on full display throughout.

During private group tours, visitors are handed small baskets filled with fruits and vegetables, and are allowed to hand feed the animals, which of course is excitedly welcomed by the playful monkeys.

In contrast, and as a personal note, the 100-acre San Diego Zoo (where I worked for five years from 1970 thru 1975) would receive up to ten thousand guests daily during summers, amounting to 3.4 million annual visitors. Currently it costs a family of four $196 for a one-day admission.

Scroll down to see more photos.

The Yurak Allpa Zoológico Refugio is open to the general public only on Saturdays and Sundays, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. During weekdays, private or group tours are available with advanced reservations. Entrance fees are: adults $4 and children $3, with parking available for $1.

The website is; telephone 098 – 565 – 2133. Their email is:


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