An elderly elephant named Mali is the star at Manila’s zoo, but also the focus of a campaign alleging animal cruelty that has united the Philippines’ powerful bishops, global pop stars and a Nobel laureate.
Mali, who is 38, spends her days picking peanuts from children’s hands and being squirted with water in a concrete-floored enclosure that animal rights groups say is far too small for any elephant to enjoy living in.
They also say that, after being shipped from Sri Lanka when she was three years old, Mali is suffering profound loneliness after living her entire adult life without another elephant.
“She is definitely unwell. As much as her physical suffering ... there is also psychological suffering,” Rochelle Rigodon, campaign manager for Manila-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), told reporters.
PETA began campaigning for Mali to be removed from the zoo seven years ago, and its efforts to have the elephant spend the rest of her life at a sanctuary in Thailand have brought together a strikingly diverse group of people.
British pop star Morrissey, 2003 Nobel laureate in literature J.M. Coetzee and famous animal welfare campaigner Jane Goodall have all written letters to the Philippine government asking for Mali to be transferred.
Archbishop Jose Palma, president of the influential Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, has also written a letter calling for Mali to be shifted to Thailand.
He has formed an unlikely union with local fashion models and actresses, such as Isabel Roces and Chin-Chin Gutierrez, who have posted messages expressing concern about Mali’s plight to their masses of Twitter followers.
Their campaign has had some success, with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III ordering the Philippine Bureau of Animal Industry in May to evaluate if Mali should be transferred to Thailand. So far, no decision has been announced.
Activists say the problems at the zoo are not limited to Mali.
The zoo, owned by the City of Manila and built in 1959, is a far cry from its glory days in the early 1960s, when it boasted a huge menagerie of lions, tigers, bears, leopards, giraffes, chimpanzees and bison.
Many of the animals reside in half-century-old cages made of wire and bars, with the zoo operating on a budget of just US$1.4 million a year — small for its size, as it holds 717 animals from 102 species.
Philippine Animal Welfare Society executive director Anna Cabrera accused the zoo’s veterinarians and administrators of “gross incompetence.”
However, chief veterinarian Donald Manalastas insisted Mali and the other animals were treated well.
“We could do better but their [the animals’] care is never compromised,” Manalastas said.
He pointed to the advanced ages of Mali and another 38-year-old star of the zoo, Berta the hippopotamus, as proof that the animals were being looked after.
Manalastas also talked enthusiastically about the zoo’s success in breeding the Philippine freshwater crocodile, or Crocodylus mindorensis, which is critically endangered.
From an original four, these reptiles reproduced rapidly until there were 20 last year, Manalastas said. He added that they were able to trade eight to an overseas overseas zoo for a camel that will hopefully arrive next year.
The zoo undoubtedly remains a popular attraction, with 950,000 visitors a year, many of whom come from poor communities in and around Manila.
The Philippines has a dire poverty problem, with roughly one-quarter of the population of 100 million people living on US$1 dollar a day or less. The entrance fee for the zoo is set deliberately low at 40 pesos (US$0.95) for adults and 20 pesos for children to give the poorer citizens of Manila the opportunity to see wildlife and have a fun day out.
“This place is a social service, not a profit-oriented organization,” Manila City’s Parks and Recreations chief Deogracias Manimbo told reporters.