Gone with the wild
If you’re coming from the southbound side of Roxas Boulevard, turn right at Quirino Avenue where you’ll see Ospital ng Maynila. Curiously, murals of animals from Madagascar emerge from the corner of your eye. Turn right into Adriatico Street, and there you will find the zoo.
It’s a Saturday; the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation holiday has just ended. It’s only 9 a.m. and cars are already in the clean parking lot. Further to the right, covered by trees, is the fading and moldering sign: “Manila Zoological and Botanical Garden.” The wall’s sky blue paint is turning dark gray, mirroring Manila’s polluted sky in the supposedly bright morning. Beyond that, there’s an entrance gate framed with recently planted trees and the new elephant statue erected by the front of the entrance—a pretty photo cropped from the bigger picture.
According to criticism in the media, Metro Manila is being cleaned up just for the Apec activities. Is this sudden polishing of Manila Zoo a coincidence? We can’t assume. Despite this, we can say that—like Manila’s Apec lanes, new road fixtures, and strict traffic enforcement—Manila Zoo has been given an emergency facelift at a moment when good presentation is paramount. The Philippines has done this before. For example, during Pope Francis’ visit, informal settlers were rounded up and taken somewhere, although authorities deny it. Our country is piling up band-aid solutions for important events and political purposes.
You pass a crowd of kagawad holding batons by the zoo’s entrance. They’re watching out for the informal settlers who usually dwell around the area. But the Apec summit having just ended, most are nowhere in sight—like the garbage scattered around the mass of vendors that used to camp outside the zoo.
In 2014 Manila Zoo raised its entrance fee to P60, apparently to fund renovations and the acquisition of new animals. You nurse a twinkle of hope that the capital city’s zoo would rise to the competition presented by private zoos all over the country,
You go in, completely baffled: There is no starting point. But almost automatically, your feet lead you to your right, to the controversial elephant named Mali. For 40 years she has lived in solitude, imprisoned in her concrete space. Her situation has been extensively covered by the international media yet it has been forgotten, like many other issues.
Mali is not the only animal in the zoo to exhibit clear distress: ostriches shedding when they shouldn’t be, an unnaturally dirty hippo swimming in green waters, skinny tigers, birds in and out of their cages… The list goes on. And why are there plastic bags and bottles in animal enclosures? It’s been more than a year since the entrance fee hike, and going around the zoo takes less than an hour. You start looking for the promises of giraffes and exotic monkeys, only to find the same old, wounded animals.
There is no direction or organizational structure—a tiger enclosure is squeezed between monkeys, guinea pigs and domestic cats are in cages, big enclosures are empty and in a state of decay. Most of the cages may reach minimum standards, but problems do exist in zoo management, hygiene, and animal welfare.
It won’t be hard to inspect the animals more closely. The rusted cages and railings have no other barriers, so you can simply put a finger inside. Trash can also fit through the railings, as shown everywhere in the zoo. Bird droppings paint the ground outside the aviary, and a flock of those birds are also outside, perched on the cage. You look for a zoo employee, but the staff seems nonexistent.
A zoo should serve as an educational institution for Philippine flora and fauna. Manila Zoo is nothing like that. The Botanical Garden is itself hard to locate. Frustratingly, the lack of signs on most of the animal enclosures forces the curious to guess rather than learn. A regular person like yourself can barely tell the difference between the various birds or monkeys. You find an information booth, and it lacks what it should have: information.
After the quick trip around the lonely animals, parks, playgrounds, and a big green lake with only ducks, you find yourself at the entrance again. There is a small “Kinder Zoo”—a public-private partnership within Manila Zoo. Its focus is on children, and you get to pet the animals but the entrance fee is higher. The animals seem well cared for and the staff members offer photo ops with owls, snakes, and other animals.
A P1.5-billion rehabilitation plan for Manila Zoo was announced last July by Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada. The city government has been “planning” and “discussing” such a plan for years already—since Mayor Alfredo Lim’s term—and the official announcement was made only in 2015.
As it turns out, Metropolitan Zoo and Botanical Garden Inc. (MZBGI) will carry out the rehabilitation of Manila Zoo. It is, however, a new company with no experience, and there is scant information on it.
Estrada wants Manila Zoo to be one of his lasting legacies—a world-class zoo. The rehabilitation is supposed to be undertaken for six months. But after your visit that day, you realize that there was nothing going on to that effect. You step out of the zoo, and you think of the distressed animals, the dirty waters, the trash in the tight spaces, even in the trees.
Looking at the bigger picture, our country is run by a government that gives promises here and there but is also saddled by hundreds of failed projects. The pork barrel scam and overpriced projects in Makati are still in flames, but seem to have been forgotten. It’s been six years, and there is still no justice for the Maguindanao massacre victims. The lumad killings are not generating enough concern from the Filipino people.
Infrastructure and transportation investments have increased since President Aquino took office, yet traffic and public transportation have not improved. Education gets the biggest share of the budget every year, and still not all children go to school.
Where is our country going? Manila Zoo mirrors the prevailing system; it is like a ripple that continuously tears through the surface of a sea called the Philippines.
We are the Malis of our country. We have been living in a corrupt system for so long, imprisoned in our barely sufficient land. But we have a voice, unlike the animals in the zoo. Using it together for the liberation of not only the animals but also ourselves can bring wave upon wave of change that can give way to cleaner waters for generations to come.
Angel Chan, 17, is a political science freshman (major in global politics and cat loving) at Ateneo de Manila University.
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