(CULTURE) MEXICO — Residents of Ciudad Juárez witness countless acts of violence on a daily basis. Ready to take their minds off such bloodshed, the citizens flock to see Modesto, a giraffe living at Central Park in Ciudad Juárez. Modesto captivates his viewers by providing a source of beauty in tumultuous times. As a result, many families travel to parks throughout the city to watch animals. Read on to learn more about how Modesto inspires the residents of Ciudad Juárez. — Global Animal

New York Times, Damien Cave

Residents flock to see Modesto at Central Park in Ciudad Juárez. Photo Credit: Katie Orlinsky

Oblivious to crime, nearly 20 feet tall and tough enough to withstand wild temperature swings, Modesto the giraffe has become more than just another oddity in this bizarre borderopolis of malls and murders. He has become a magnet for people trying to escape fear and the cooped-up life caused by violence.

“We need places that are peaceful,” said Eduardo Ponce, 44, an elementary school teacher whose 2-year-old son was entranced by Modesto on a recent afternoon. “I try to think positive.”

That seems to be a little more common these days. Several parks here in Ciudad Juárez have been attracting crowds again, residents say, because of a desire that often emerges after several years of war or widespread crime — a desire to get out, to stop hunkering down, to believe that things are better, or will be.

It is far from clear that this hope is yet realized. Murders in Ciudad Juárez appear to be down compared with last year, but the past few weeks have been especially bloody, with 21 people killed in a single day this month. No one here seems to think the struggle against the city’s rampant drug violence is over. Many are just tired of letting it rule their lives.

Mr. Ponce, for example, said he often brought his children and his nephew from El Paso to see Modesto here at Ciudad Juárez’s Central Park because their smiles and laughter offered a contrast to the faces of the children he teaches. Many of them have seen their fathers killed.

“They’re afraid all the time,” Mr. Ponce said. “When there’s a loud sound, even if it’s nothing, they panic.”

Reducing trauma, of course, was not initially the mission for Modesto. He came to this city as a calf in 2001, purchased from New Mexico by city officials who hoped he would anchor an extensive public zoo.

“They wanted an animal that would be a symbol of the city, and for some reason they chose a giraffe,” said Mario DeLeon, the veterinarian who has cared for Modesto since the giraffe’s arrival. “It’s an exotic animal, and this is a place where you can have an exotic experience.”

Early on, the zoo had two lions as well. But one died from a neurological disease, and the other died after getting its head caught in a vise of narrow tree branches. Now Modesto’s only companions are a few ostriches that run along the fence when visitors walk by.

Dr. DeLeon said that for years he had been hoping to find the giraffe a companion. He had initially hoped for a female, but because they are more expensive, he began pushing for a male, which costs $60,000 to $100,000. But even that appears to be too much.

“There are other priorities,” Dr. DeLeon said.

Government officials have been investing elsewhere in the city. Villas del Salvárcar, a neighborhood that was the site of a massacre of local teenagers last year, now has an extensive new athletic campus, with soccer and football fields, swings and jungle gyms.

As part of an ambitious public works effort outlined this month, $10.8 million in federal, state and city financing will go toward building a new baseball park.

There are also plans for a big event in October to rebrand Ciudad Juárez itself, featuring concerts and seminars, along with activities at a children’s museum — newly constructed but not yet open — just a few hundred yards from Modesto. Local and state officials say they hope to effectively reintroduce the city, perhaps best known as Mexico’s most violent, and recast it in a more positive light.

For many residents, however, the most visible changes can be felt at the parks already open, now more crowded and more protected by the police and security guards.

People like José Gómez, a well-known boxing trainer known as Chato, who opened a gym for women in March at a park near the border, said he sensed a little more confidence in the city. He said that he had more than 100 students, of all ages, and that the numbers keep growing.

“We’re trying to get people out of the house,” Mr. Gómez said. “My hope is to produce a world champion.”

Outside, in the grass a few yards away, a young girl waited for her turn to bounce on an old tire and pump her fists. Her father had dropped her off and then began walking around a quarter-mile track nearby. It was nearly dark, yet he was joined by dozens of city residents. Vendors sold candy. Teenagers flirted in the bleachers.

Other than the security guards and police officers near the entrances — or perhaps because of them — the park looked like it belonged in Dallas.

And yet real comfort and calm will take more time. It took an act of will rather than confidence to bring out Max Ruelas-Rivera, 38. He sat on the edge of the track as his daughter ran laps. It was the first time he had ventured out with her in a long time, he said, and he was still nervous.

“It’s not really changing,” Mr. Ruelas-Rivera said. “The violence, it’s the same as always.”

What had changed, he said, was his daughter, who needed to get out.