One of the unexpected attractions of the small Andalusian city of Jerez de la Frontera, or Jerez as it is popularly known, is that it boasts one of Spain's finest zoos.

But the zoo has a problem. In a city which has the dubious honour of being Spain's second most indebted city after Madrid, no one knows how long it can afford to feed the animals.

The signs are not good. Jerez's town hall has already run out of money to pay municipal employees - who include school cleaners, police officers, fire fighters, health workers and even grave diggers - with any degree of regularity. It can't pay for spare parts for the town's buses or police cars, let alone the electricity bills. And there are fears that the animals' food could be next.

"I've heard they are okay for now, but they're in a crisis situation," said one unpaid municipal employee who did not want to be named. "The suppliers of fresh food from the markets don't want to provide the zoo anymore because they know they won't get paid ... the place will fall apart."


In Spain, it is now almost the norm for town halls to be close to bankruptcy. Last year, Pedro Arahuete, president of the Federation of Municipalities, estimated that about 40 per cent were in financial difficulty.

But Jerez, which owes £800 million ($1.56 billion), is in a class of its own. As one national daily newspaper put it recently, "the city is on its deathbed".

Though the zoo animals can't protest about their plight, the 2200 town hall workers lost patience long ago. Some health workers have been on strike on and off for the past three years, primary school cleaners have held four strikes since September and bus drivers are almost permanently on strike. The irony that the municipal policemen who face the protesters in front of the town hall are also unpaid, is lost on nobody.

Spain's dire economic situation has exacerbated Jerez's quandary but the city's debt crisis has deep roots.

Accusations of mismanagement and top-level nepotism fly thick and fast.

"These days the number of people that come to my parish soup kitchens has nearly doubled," says a charity worker. "More and more young people are giving up on their mortgages and moving in with their parents, but even that kind of support will dry up. And then what will happen?"