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A people’s zoo

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A people’s zoo

12:10 AM January 26, 2016

I have been a fan of the Manila Zoo for over 50 years, so I was very happy to read in the Inquirer’s Jan. 17 issue that Mayor Joseph Estrada was preparing a brand-new zoo for Manila. If the new zoo can serve as the inspiration of a new Manila, and the new zoo fosters maximum people’s participation in its design and construction, we may be surprised by how good the results will be for us: We will be the envy of Metro Manila.

I hope the mayor allows the people of Manila to participate in designing the zoo and the exhibits, and in the selection of animals. There is no expert in the world who knows better than the people of Manila what this poor and overcrowded city needs in a zoo. There is wisdom in allowing people to participate in all important decision-making, but especially in the matter of a new zoo in a city with so many poor children who have nowhere else to go to see things new and exciting.

We can count on the Manila people to choose their animals wisely. We had some funny animals in the past, like the toothless old lion who thought he was Simba of the “Lion King.” They would be welcome, but we would also want a young lion so we could hear his threatening roar. We value all animals and all people.

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The city has a joint venture agreement with the Metropolitan Zoo and Botanical Garden, Inc. for this project, the total cost of which is P1.5 billion and which the company, it seems, will provide. It’s admittedly hard to think of a company that could invest so much money in animals. If the city wants support in this venture, it should tell the people the full design and the lines of authority of the project. We should expect our people to be apprehensive. One person I talked with thought the project would ultimately have nothing to do with animals, or with Manila.

We want a city where all people are equal. That’s a distant goal, but we can begin with equality in the zoo, at least for children. It can be a peso for a child’s entrance fee or P50, depending on the family’s willingness to pay. We can give each child a free soft drink and a picture of their favorite animal. At least in the zoo our children will experience equality. Nothing will take place in the zoo that all children cannot share.

It seems there have been big shifts in zoo pedagogy. When I was a boy we didn’t learn a great deal of science about the animals. We didn’t learn much about their diets, mating patterns, related animals, feeding habits, the long journeys they made to find fresh feeding grounds, etc.

Now, however, a day in the zoo is similar to another day in biology class. We need more fieldwork and less classwork.

I lived within walking distance from the famous Bronx Zoo when I was a boy. We could stand just a few feet from the lions and tigers in their cages, and see their muscles shifting as they paced back and forth. We imagined they were walking in the grasslands of Africa or

India. As dinner time neared we saw them settle down and become less tolerant of us.

In those old days, for several Sundays, I would stand at the enclosure of water buffalos. Some of the big animals would wander over to the fence and I would be only three or four feet apart from them. I could see the cloud of flies around their heads. Up close these buffalos looked very sad; I began to wonder why. Nowadays we never get close enough to the animals to share such a concern.

In the Bronx Zoo today, the most popular exhibit presents the animals behind sheets of glass. In the Congo Exhibit we see gorilla families up close, as if we were looking in through the window of their sala. We see the children playing and the very old males looking to find a place to escape from them for a rest.

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One day there was an old silverback who sat by the glass fence. The creature looked at each person as we entered the viewing hall and came close to the glass. He looked at each of us, stared as if he really wanted to see certain persons and would recognize them. They

never came, at least that day. Had they somehow known each other in Africa?

There is another popular exhibit of Siberian tigers also behind glass. Sometimes they seem to play with us. They fix us in their pale yellow stare and come walking toward us from far off. They look neither right nor left. They don’t blink and they come to within a few inches of the glass. We sense a violent storm of anger within them. Then at that dramatic moment they turn around and spray the glass exactly where we are standing.

We could sense the loneliness of the silverback and tigers’ anger. If our children could have this experience with animals, they would be more prepared for a life that relates with respect for animals.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (urbanpoorassociates@ymail.com).

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