Saturday, March 30, 2013

Manila Zoo and Mali

I still recall that very old black and white photograph when I first visited the Manila Zoo with my late parents.  That old photograph, which unfortunately I can no longer locate despite the most diligent efforts, is still vivid in my mind and continued to remind me of those simple yet happy old days. 

Visiting Manila Zoo is, more often than not, a part of childhood days of everyone born in the Metropolis and nearby provinces during the seventies and eighties.  Almost everyone has set foot on this Zoological and Botanical Garden built in 1959.

Seeing those animals and birds as a child is more than fascinating.  It is a magical place where imagination runs wild. All animals and birds are a friend and qualified for being a pet.  Recalling my first visit to Manila Zoo, I felt that everything appears to be on a standstill while my imagination went free as I look at the animals in their cages. I cannot help asking how their life is at these cages? Are they better off here than in their natural habitat?

Mali-the only captive elephant in the Philippines
 As a child, my mind concocted the fantasy of having the lion or tiger as a pet.  Inside Manila Zoo, I felt that the world immediately transformed from something that is usual to extraordinary.  Inside the zoo, I had the unexplainable perception that everything is a standstill and waiting.  Inside those cages, there is nothing to do but wait.  The big question, however, is waiting for what?

I again had the chance to visit Manila Zoo decades after. Perhaps, it is to while away the time or simply my feet took me to that used to be a classy mall known as "Harrison Plaza". As this zoo is just a few meters away, I took the time to visit it and probably bring back those old memories.

I saw that elephant named “Mali”. She would be the first to greet you upon entering Manila Zoo. She holds that distinction of being the “only captive elephant in the Philippines”.  Mali has been described as “sad”, “lonely”, “miserable”,  “pitiful” and all other adjectives that connote nothing but unhappiness, melancholic or in a state of being deplorable.  As I look at her, all I can say is to agree.  Mali is indeed in a state of misery. Her cage is nothing compared to that great savannah where her relatives roam free. Mali is alone going back and forth in this concrete pen. If it is not the heat, it is definitely boredom that is killing her softly. Perhaps, the only consolation is that Mali is alone to walk in this concrete enclosure better than those incarcerated in Manila’s crowded jail system.

I observed Mali as she went around moving from one end of the cage to the other. I can imagine how deplorable her existence had been since she was separated from her mother when she was just three years old. Can you imagine being separated from your mother when you were very young and primarily dependent on her care and warmth?  If Mali has not been brought from Sri Lanka in 1974 to this zoo, she would have wondered and enjoyed the vast plains and lived a full life. Mali could have experienced the love and care of a family. She could have reared a beautiful calf herself.  She was denied all these for thirty-eight years!

It is dire agony to be captured, separated from your own kind and thereafter incarcerated without sin and transferred to a decrepit pen. Mali’s only fault is that she is an animal desired by most people to see. How hard can it be to be continually and held up in a concrete cage and be deprived of your freedom for more than three decades? Mali’s behavior inside her cage seems to show complete boredom and frustration.

There is a raging debate on whether Mali should be freed or be continually kept in this zoo. Some sectors say that Mali should be immediately freed and brought to a sanctuary somewhere in Thailand where she can have the needed company of other elephants. On the other hand, Manila Zoo authorities say that Mali, given her age and being in captivity for 38 years, is no longer fit or capable of living in the wild.

Amidst pressure from animal rights group, the President is said to have issued a directive to officials to evaluate the circumstances of releasing Mali into the wild. The evaluation includes a study of Mali’s present health condition.   I think this is good news but when was that directive issued? If Mali’s health examination showed that she is no longer fit to be freed or transferred to a sanctuary, would we just allow her to die and rot in this zoo? At the twilight years of her life, Mali should be given the chance to experience and feel how it is to roam and be free.  For 38 long years, Mali has been languishing in that concrete pen deprived of the complex needs of an elephant. If only she could speak, Mali may have long shouted to “give her freedom!” No one including an elephant would want to be deprived of that very basic need of being free.

As I continued to observe Mali, I can imagine how life had been so hard and how it has taken its toll on this country's only “captive elephant”.  For 38 years, Mali has provided all visitors to this zoo with awe and has fed their curiosity on how an elephant looked like. Many were mesmerized and held in astonishment on how huge such animal is. I think for 38 years, Mali is already qualified for retirement. She has rendered the service bestowed or forced upon her since she was 3 years old. I say enough is enough for Mali! She should be given that chance to experience foraging in the wild and to wade and play in the endless sea of mud just like what all elephants do. It is time to seriously consider that sanctuary in Thailand.

As I continued walking around Manila Zoo, I began to appreciate life even more. The different colors and variety of life, the vast array of flora and fauna, the immense diversity of life is truly astounding.  However, I cannot ignore that Manila Zoo needs lots of improvement. By just looking around, I can see that the zoo suffers from budgetary constraints as several cages appear to have been neglected.  Animal cages suffer from rusts and the passage of time is very evident. 

I saw that now empty cage near those vendors and I remembered that lone Orangutan who used to give pleasure to visitors.  “Sisi” the Orangutan, just like Mali, lived alone for decades in an iron cage reported to be not suitable for her kind. I recalled that lonely look in her eyes and the sad emotion similar to an old man praying for succor.  Now the cage is empty. “Sisi”  gained her freedom through death in 2009. Poor Sisi has languished in her cage under very appalling circumstances for 28 years! It is only in death where her sufferings can be said to have ended. almost all her entire life, Sisi was detained in a cage with nothing to make her life worthwhile.

Manila Zoo is a landmark. Since it was built in 1959, the zoo has been a special place of interest.  Almost all children in Metro Manila and from other places have taken time to visit this zoo.  Visiting Manila Zoo is part of growing up and it seems not complete without a trip to this zoo.  It is almost customary and traditional for parents to bring their children here. Just ask around and it is easy to find a household where a child has a photo commemorating that first visit to Manila Zoo.  Children who visit this zoo gets easily entertained by the funny antics of monkeys, scared by the large reptiles, snakes and crocodiles and delighted by different kinds of birds with their beautiful colors and of different sizes.

This place is very ideal for family outings and gatherings. Aside from Rizal Park, friends and those on a date can take refuge in this zoo whenever the budget is tough. Entrance fee is almost negligible. It cost less than forty pesos (P40.00) and Manila residents can avail of a discount. It is accessible for different types of transportation.  It is practically a walking distance from a mall, the Central Bank, and the reclaimed area of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

While the City Government of Manila is doing its best to take care of the animals and to maintain the zoo despite the budgetary or financial constraints, it cannot be denied that this problem has very negative effects on this landmark.  It may have become a financial burden on the part of the City to take care of the zoo given the enormous cost of its maintenance.   It is not easy to ensure the well being of hundreds of animals, birds, reptiles, including those endemic species with a very limited budget. It is on this end that we can understand why Manila Zoo has become to that awful state it is now. Perhaps, the bureaucratic red-tape and the convoluted governmental process have contributed to the ailing state of the zoo. As a government-run institution, Manila Zoo is also affected by the very slow process of procuring the necessary tools and equipment to upgrade its facilities.

Despite the dilapidated or neglected structures of the zoo, I am not ready to recommend, at this time, the closure of this facility. While I do not like to tolerate the thought of having animals captured in the wild and be made captive in such facilities, closing Manila Zoo would deprive future generations of children to experience and see animals, reptiles, birds and endemic species up close.  

Manila Zoo is one place where all sectors of society can enjoy. The entrance fee is reasonable and it is easy for the families to just pack up their food and enjoy a picnic within the limits of their budget.  During my visit, I saw that families and friends still enjoy a boat ride in the man-made lagoon or river despite its almost neglected and garbage ridden waters. Yet, I can see the smile of families with their children as they paddled their way in the river. Photos are even taken to capture the moment while in the boat. 

There was a time photographers abound the area inside and outside the Manila Zoo. They would take photos of visitors, print it and sell it for a price. With the emergence of digital cameras and cellphones capable of capturing awesome photos, being a Manila Zoo photographer is a dying profession.  In my surprise, I still saw a group of photographers offering their services. 

Another attraction of this zoo is the “kinder zoo” that has a separate entrance fee. It is here where children can have a close encounter with a variety of animals and birds. Kinder zoo is a “petting zoo”.  You can have those colorful cockatoos and parrots perch on your shoulder and have yourself photographed.  Visitors can experience touching a pot-bellied pig, a giant tortoise and a beautiful colored snake.

As I looked at them whose photos are being taken while they hold the animals, I cannot help asking myself if the welfare of the animals are not prejudiced by their being in close contact with humans. I can imagine how stressed these animals and birds while they are being petted, held, embraced and sometimes squeezed during photo sessions.  Perhaps, it is time that the “encounter” between the animals and humans be defined and studied to determine whether there is a negative effect on both.

While inside Manila Zoo, I recalled my visit to Subic Safari where the closest recreation of the animals’ natural habitat can be seen. Potbellied pigs and Ostriches are placed in a wide area where they can move freely. In Manila Zoo, its 5.5 hectares is not enough for around 500 animals reportedly consisting of 106 species.  

My visit to Manila Zoo brought back a lot of memories.  I remembered when I was a child, I cried over those artificially colored birds that are sold near the entrance.   When I was very young, I was really attracted to those chicks and birds that were multi-colored in blue, pink, violet and whatever color there is in the rainbow.  The birds or chicks are placed in small cages with provision for water and food. Yet, after a few days, I am lucky to see them survive. I have not been able to raise a single chick into maturity during my younger days.

There is a continuing debate on whether or not this facility should be closed. The primordial consideration should be the welfare of the animals, birds and reptiles kept in this zoo including those endemic species.  There should be an objective and scientific study to determine whether they are taken cared of or not.  Veterinarians, concerned animal groups and organizations have to be called in to determine what is best for the animals.  Closing a landmark such as this should take serious deliberation. It should not be based on mere assumptions. There should be a balancing of interest between the animals and the future generations who would like to experience visiting Manila Zoo.

At any rate, it may be time to revisit Manila Zoo before it is too late… for Mali.

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