On September 16, a man who visited Manila Zoo uploaded a video of a lion violently convulsing while lying in his enclosure. The video was viewed more than a million times, and comments left on the video incited calls for the zoo’s closure.

While the viral video caused an uproar among Filipino netizens, the zoo’s scandal has only been the most recent since they first opened their doors to the public in 1959.

Prison versus sanctuary

Manila Zoo’s most outspoken opponents, perhaps, are members of the international organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Its activists have continued to protest Manila Zoo’s expansion and upkeep, on the basis that animals need to be kept in their natural habitat.

In 2007, then Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim called PETA’s claims unwarranted, and asserted that the “utmost care is being provided to these animals,” according to a news article from GMA News TV. In 2009, PETA likened zoos to prisons, and again asked zoo visitors to boycott Manila Zoo. After a blogger posted photos of the decrepit state of Manila Zoo in 2011, PETA criticized the allotment of government funds to the imprisonment of animals.

Most notably, in 2012, PETA called for the transfer of Manila Zoo’s only elephant, Mali, to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand. Mali has lived in Manila Zoo since she was donated by the Sri Lankan government to former President Ferdinand Marcos in 1977. Dubbed “the world’s loneliest elephant,” Mali is still a resident of Manila Zoo, after PETA’s pleas — with the support of institutions such as the World Society for the Protection of Animals and figures such as Dr. Jane Goodall — fell on deaf ears.

Conflicts of interest

For those who currently work for and volunteer at Manila Zoo, however, shutting down Manila Zoo is not an option. Zoo Crew Philippines Vice President Jerry Young views the zoo as a “refuge for unwanted animals,” according to a 2018 online news article by Christia Marie Ramos published by Philippine Daily Inquirer, and fears that the zoo’s closure will submit the zoo’s current inhabitants to homelessness. Young has been a volunteer at the zoo for the past five years, working with 43 other members of the zoo’s official volunteer organization to improve and maintain Manila Zoo. In an interview with Animal Scene, Young said, “It is my hope that the Filipino people will see Manila Zoo as a place for conservation and preservation of species and center for education and not merely an amusement park.”

In a statement to Animal Scene, however, former Zoo Crew Philippines volunteer Pat Sevilla questioned several aspects of the zoo, such as the use of tiger cubs as props for pictures, the presence of cages at the zoo for the staff’s own animals, and the purpose of the zoo’s tiger breeding program.

What Young’s and Sevilla’s statements had in common was a shared hope that the Manila Zoo remain a center for conservation. “I do wish Zoo Crew can continue their efforts in rehabilitating Manila Zoo by sticking to being a center for rescued and confiscated wildlife, and a home for native plants,” Sevilla said.

Good versus Bad Zoo

Not all zoos are created equal. How can you tell a good zoo from a bad zoo? Ask yourself these three questions.

1. What is the zoo’s mission? Is it an educational conservation center, or just an entertainment venue?

2. Is the zoo accredited? By which organizations?

3. How are the animals? Do they look well cared for?

Solving a problem like Manila Zoo

The Manila government website touts the Manila Zoo — formally known as the Manila Zoological and Botanical Garden, and maintained by the Public Recreation Bureau — as a 5.5 hectare educational center housing around 500 animals of 106 species. While Young believes that the zoo is properly funded in terms of its food and medicine budget, he stated in a public Facebook post dated September 18 this year that the zoo lacks funding for the repair of its infrastructure.

In 2015, Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada announced the prospective signing of a P1.5 billion joint venture agreement “to make the zoo world-class, like [the one] in Singapore,” reported Nathaniel Melican for Philippine Daily Inquirer. Nothing has been written about the project since it was put on hold in 2016.Without the continuous support of the Manila City government, Manila Zoo has had to rely on the help of Zoo Crew Philippines. Sevilla shared that her time with the volunteer organization helped change her initially negative perception of zoos into a positive one, after she realized that the volunteers did their best to improve Manila Zoo: checking on the animals in the morning, bringing the animals toys and treats, and repairing enclosures like the zoo’s Reptile House, among others.

Young advises the public to show their support for the Manila Zoo by “being educated on the purpose of zoos and help keep it clean, learn to read and obey signs.”

While it may take time for the government to approve budgets and projects, the fastest and surest way to ensure that the Manila Zoo is maintained well is to see and lead the change individually. Sevilla said, “Seeing an increase of people showing interest in volunteering for groups aimed at welfare and conservation like Zoo Crew gives me hope.”

Interested to join Zoo Crew Philippines?

Send a message to their Facebook page! Each member undergoes a training period. Some can work at home (e.g., submitting artwork), while others can give guided tours or educational talks, participate in the zoo patrol, or prepare enrichment activities for the animals. Young says that their number 1 rule is: Do not enter any animal enclosure without an animal keeper present!

This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s January 2019 issue.