For decades, countless families have visited the Manila Zoological and Botanical Garden, better known as the Manila Zoo, for a treat: to see in the flesh some of the creatures they would not otherwise see in the workaday world. The zoo’s biggest attraction is its sole pachyderm: the 38-year-old and 7-ton Mali, born in Sri Lanka in 1974, and a resident for the past 35 years. Visitors flock to her enclosure to take photographs and admire the majesty of the elephant. But according to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) Asia, Mali has to be relocated for her own good.
In a report, Peta said it flew in American pachyderm specialist Henry Melvyn Richardson at its own expense to examine Mali. The visual examination was conducted last May 29, and Richardson discovered that Mali was afflicted with serious foot problems that could lead to infection—a common cause of death among elephants. Richardson also observed that Mali’s 2,000-square-meter enclosure is inadequate. Most of all, she is suffering from loneliness, he said.
“My major concern is that Mali is alone. Female elephants in their natural habitat never leave the herd,” Richardson was quoted as saying. “Mali’s social and psychological needs are being neglected at the Manila Zoo. Even the best intentions … cannot replace these needs, which can only be met by the companionship of other elephants.”
The solution Richardson proposed was to move Mali to a sanctuary. “In my experience, even elephants who have been alone for more than 20 years integrate well with other elephants when moved to a sanctuary,” he said. This is precisely the solution being offered by Peta; it said it had “secured [for] Mali a place at a sanctuary with 14 other elephants in northern Thailand” and would shoulder the expenses related to her transport there.
This episode began in earnest early in May, when visiting rock star Morrissey asked President Aquino in a letter to send Mali to an elephant sanctuary in the United States. But the Manila Zoo management rejected this request, just as it also subsequently rejected Richardson’s assessment of Mali’s state. “You cannot assess her psychological condition and behavior in a few hours. It will take you days and months of observation,” Manila Zoo chief veterinarian Donald Manalastas told reporters. “Mali has been alone here for more than 30 years. Her parents were poached so she has never had companions except vets. She has stayed here for too long. She will not survive the wild.”
Manalastas said that after Richardson’s visit, he and his associates decided to begin training Mali so they could tend to her foot injuries. He admitted that they could not approach the elephant to address the problem “because Mali is a wild animal and is not trained for such procedures.” He also said Mali’s enclosure would be improved with additional earth and greenery.
Peta quoted Richardson as saying that other zoos, even those better equipped, had discovered that they could not properly care for elephants in their custody. “While the Manila Zoo does the best it can with what funds it has, good intentions are not good enough, as I think it is now well understood,” he said.
This sad situation calls to mind what Mahatma Gandhi once famously said: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.”
In a country where poverty and hunger continue to be a grim reality, it is hardly surprising that allotted resources are inadequate to maintain a halfway decent zoo or an abiding policy to keep captive animals in an environment that will ensure their well-being. But insisting on keeping Mali in the state she is in because “she has been alone here for more than 30 years” does not make sense and reflects a misplaced stubbornness.
A workable solution has been offered by Peta, with no cost to the government and certainly no insult to its sovereignty. If it is true that Peta had secured a place for Mali at the elephant sanctuary in Thailand—and there is no reason to doubt this committed organization’s sincerity—the government should accept the offer. Let Mali live the rest of her days with her own kind. She may have been in solitary for too long, but they say elephants never forget.
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