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Don’t throw money at a failed zoo

/ 04:04 AM April 07, 2021

Some of the hardest conversations I have with my 8-year-old son are when he asks me questions that I have no answers for. One that hits particularly close to home is when he asks me why the Manila Zoo — a facility that has caused so much suffering and that has failed animals in every way — hasn’t closed its doors for good. The only answer is that there really isn’t any justifiable reason.

No matter what aesthetic changes the government plans to pursue at the zoo, severe space limitations mean that the cages can never come close to replicating the jungles, forests, and savannahs where the animals are meant to live. Even if the enclosures on the property are enlarged, they won’t be anywhere near spacious enough for the animals to feel at home. Yet, the “improved” zoo will include gardens, a museum, a restaurant, and a new parking area for visitors. It’s irrefutable: The Manila Zoo will never be able to provide animals with what they want and need.

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Animals in the Manila Zoo are denied everything that could give their lives meaning. Every aspect of their lives is controlled and managed. They have no choice in their diets, mates, or companions. They’re in lockdown for life. Their obvious misery is why #BoycottManilaZoo was launched. The zoo is an ugly stain on our city. The grandiose claim that the upgraded zoo will be the best in Asia is like saying that one will have the best cell in the prison.

Consider lonely elephant Mali—born in Sri Lanka, she was wild-caught and shipped to the Manila Zoo when she was just a baby and has suffered for decades in a cramped, barren enclosure. To thrive, female elephants need two things: The company of other elephants and vast areas in which to roam. In nature, elephants like Mali are constantly on the move and engaging with their extended family.

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Confining Mali to such a restricted environment exacts a heavy toll on her. In a truly heartbreaking display of the impact that the zoo has had on her, she has been observed walking to the edge of her pen and reaching out her foot in the hope of taking one more step. When she realizes that she has reached the end, she steps back and tries again and again. Finally realizing that there really is nowhere else to go, a dejected Mali walks aimlessly around her enclosure, listlessly picking debris up off the ground.

Mali’s suffering is clear and indisputable. Older elephants around the world have successfully been transferred to sanctuaries, where they are thriving. For example, Canada’s Toronto Zoo transferred three African elephants—Iringa (42), Toka (41), and Thika (31)—to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary in California. And Maggie, a 27-year-old African elephant, was transported via a C-17 plane from the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage to PAWS. At the age of 33, Tina, an Asian elephant, took a three-and-a-half-day cross-country truck trip to The Elephant Sanctuary, located in the American state of Tennessee. Transporting elephants is a routine practice, and it can be done without causing them significant stress.

In 2012, author and winner of both the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature J.M. Coetzee said: “Thirty-five years is a heavy sentence to bear, longer than is served by most murderers. Mali has paid the penalty for not being fortunate enough to be born human. Now it is time to release her.” Since then, nine more years have passed.

By most accounts, Mayor Isko Domagoso is a good man with a bright political future. Peta Asia has no political agenda, and we have written to the mayor many times in hopes of opening a productive dialogue about the zoo. Our polite inquiries have been ignored. Like so many who have served before him, the mayor may one day fade into obscurity, or he could be forever known as a bold and decisive leader. By making the decision to transfer the animals from the Manila Zoo to reputable sanctuaries, where they could have some semblance of a natural life, Mayor Domagoso would be thought of as forward-thinking and compassionate.

Instead of squandering money on a zoo that is doomed to fail, the grounds could be transformed into a park or botanical garden for all residents and visitors to enjoy, and the animals sent to sanctuaries to recuperate and thrive. Peta stands ready to help.

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Jason Baker is the vice president of international campaigns for Peta Asia.

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TAGS: Commentary, failed zoo, Jason Baker, Manila Zoo rehabilitation, peta
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