At Large

Free Mali now!

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It’s a good thing that the makers of the film “Life of Pi” didn’t attempt to give human traits or a personality to “Richard Parker,” the adult Bengal tiger who shares a life boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with Pi Patel, a teenage Indian boy who survives a shipwreck where the rest of his family dies.

As Pi’s father warns him early in the movie, “Richard Parker” is a wild animal with the instincts of a predator, and in a moment of weakness or carelessness, could turn on the humans who keep him fed and sheltered.

Indeed, it is easy for humans to ascribe human qualities to animals we live with. We like to believe they “feel” like we do, are affected by events the same way we are, and even like the same food or accoutrements we prefer. Maybe this explains the penchant of too many pet owners to dress up their pets in all sorts of outfits, including coats and shoes in our warm, humid climate.

So it may not be so strange that the zookeepers at Manila Zoo and others working with Mali, the resident elephant there, feel reluctant to let go of the pachyderm. One photographer, who claims to have developed a “relationship” with Mali, has even issued an impassioned letter claiming that the elephant would be devastated if she were to be separated from her human “friends.”

Authorities at Manila Zoo, replying to an appeal to ship off Mali to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, have said that she is not lacking for company as “Mali considers her keepers to be her family.” Well, how do they know this? Has Mali ever said so? She may, after 35 years in captivity, grown used to her keepers and their daily routines. But has she developed a feeling of kinship and “love” with them? Is it even possible for a wild animal to do so?

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Last week, members of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), which initiated the public call to transfer Mali for her own health and safety, delivered their formal petition to the Bureau of Animal Industry for the immediate transfer of the elephant. After public reports on Mali’s condition—she has been diagnosed with potentially fatal foot conditions—were aired last year, President Aquino ordered the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) and the BAI (of the Department of Agriculture) to study the possibility of transferring Mali. A report says the authorities “are now trying to ascertain if Mali is in shape to make the trip, and looking into Thailand’s quarantine protocols.”

Peta has been joined by other environmental and animal rights groups in calling for Mali’s transfer, which is rather urgent given her health condition. Among these are the Pilipinas Ecowarriors, with convenor (and senatorial candidate) former Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri asserting that “assuming Mali is fit to make the trip to Thailand, she would be better off in a designated sanctuary, rather than kept in a zoo here.”

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PETA plans to place Mali in Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) in Northern Thailand, upon the recommendation of several elephant experts who have evaluated numerous other sanctuaries in Asia. For their part, the Ecowarriors say Mali could also be relocated to “The Thai Elephant Conservation Center” near Chiang Mai (also in Northern Thailand) which currently houses more than 50 Asian elephants, including six of the King’s 10 white elephants.

At this point, wherever Mali might be relocated, a sanctuary that affords her not just sufficient space, a natural setting and soft ground to roam, and the company of other elephants which is especially important since elephants are natural herd animals, would be a far better place than her enclosure in the Manila Zoo, which is far too small, with a concrete floor, and two small pools, one of which, says Peta, doesn’t even contain water.

In a sanctuary, says Peta, Mali “will be guaranteed hands-on care 24 hours a day, and she will never go hungry.” Plus, she will be able to “engage in natural behavior, such as playing in rivers, socializing with each other, and foraging.” In contrast, the Manila Zoo has admitted that it has no veterinarian especially trained in the care of elephants. Which may be the reason Mali developed potentially fatal foot problems and, as admitted by zoo authorities themselves, she “has never been administered medication other than topical ointments and laxatives” in reaction to Peta’s request to conduct blood studies of the aging elephant.

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Is this any way to treat a guest who was entrusted to the Filipino people? Mali was gifted by the Sri Lankan government to the Philippine government, then under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. She has been in the country for 35 years, providing education, entertainment and amusement to generations of children and other zoo-goers. She is now the only elephant in the Philippines.

Manila Zoo management admits that Mali is the major attraction of the zoo, and losing her may take a toll on the zoo’s gate receipts and attractions. True. But don’t you think that after 35 years of unstinting service to the country, Mali deserves a restful retirement, and the care that she deserves, especially the company of other elephants like her?

What are we teaching our school children by keeping behind an enclosure a beautiful animal who is clearly suffering and whose captivity has resulted in the deterioration of her health?

What is Mali’s continued captivity saying about us as a people, especially since Peta has volunteered to shoulder the cost of her transfer and promised to take utmost care that her transport will not result in any damage to her health or psyche?

What are we waiting for? Free Mali now!

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