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A very big issue at Manila’s zoo

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MANILA » The chief veterinarian of the Manila Zoo looked uncomfortable as the graying, tattered elephant snaked her trunk through the rusty bars of her enclosure.

"We really need to remove those bars," said Dr. Donald Manalastas, who oversees care of the animals in the zoo. "Interest groups like to take pictures of the bars and use them for their fund-raising purposes."

Mali, thought by zoo officials to be the only elephant in the Philippines, has spent nearly all of her life in captivity since she was donated by the Sri Lankan government 35 years ago at the age of 3. Some of that time has been spent behind bars in a small pen, though she also has about 1,000 square meters, or nearly 11,000 square feet, of open-air, concrete-floored enclosures that contain sand and water.

For most of the last three decades, she has been the star attraction for the Manila schoolchildren, families and occasional tourists who venture into the small, poorly financed zoo. But in the last year, Mali has taken on international fame.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals opened a campaign to have her released from the zoo and sent to an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand. The effort has included bikini-clad protesters and attracted support from international notables.

The British pop star Steven Patrick Morrissey, known as Morrissey, joined the cause in May with a letter to the Philippine president, Benigno S. Aquino III.

"I ask that you send Mali to a sanctuary where she would have room to roam and be able to be among other members of her own species," Morrissey wrote. "Her life consists of extreme loneliness, boredom and isolation in an area that is a fraction of the size of her natural habitat."

Two months later, the writer J.M. Coetzee, who was awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, weighed in.

"Thirty-five years is a heavy sentence to bear, longer than is served by most murderers," Coetzee wrote. "Mali has paid the penalty for not being fortunate enough to be born human. Now is the time to release her."

Manalastas has little patience for the opinions of Nobel laureates and British rockers regarding Mali’s treatment.

"We have these celebrities saying things, but they haven’t seen Mali. They have never been here," said the veterinarian. "They don’t know how we are taking care of her. They are just listening to PETA."

The zoo opposes the transfer of Mali to an elephant sanctuary because of her advanced age and fears that she would not survive the sedation and stress associated with transporting her to Thailand. It is also not clear that she would be able to assimilate with other elephants once she arrived, Manalastas said.

"We have asked them, ‘Can you assure us 100 percent that she will survive the trip?"’ he said. "I believe that she considers us her family. Mali feels safe with us."

Ashley Fruno, a senior campaigner with PETA Asia, disputed the assertion that Mali might die in transit.

"We’re spending a lot of our time dispelling myths about Mali’s proposed transport," Fruno said. "Because they don’t have an elephant expert in the country, most people don’t realize how routine it is to transport elephants."

On May 29, Dr. Mel Richardson, a California-based veterinarian with extensive experience caring for elephants, visited the Manila Zoo at the urging of PETA. In his report, posted on the PETA website, he referred to Mali as a "good-natured elephant" and wrote: "Mali’s body condition was relatively good, although she is slightly overweight."

The principal concerns Richardson raised were that Mali’s enclosure is too small and inadequate for her needs, and that she suffers from potentially serious untreated foot problems related to years spent on concrete and that she is alone.

"Female Asian elephants are never alone in the wild. Never!" Richardson wrote in an email interview. "From birth to death they live in a family of other females and young males."

In his report, Richardson noted that 18 zoos around the world had closed or were planning to close their elephant exhibits after concluding that the animals could not be properly cared for in captivity. Those include the Detroit Zoo, the Greater Vancouver Zoo and the San Francisco Zoo, which together have placed 14 elephants in two U.S. elephant sanctuaries. He recommended that Mali be moved to a sanctuary by an organization with expertise in transporting elephants.

"While the Manila Zoo does the best it can with what funds it has, it just isn’t sufficient, and in the case of elephants, good intentions are not good enough," Richardson wrote.

Manalastas said he respected Richardson’s opinion but said the zoo was focused not on moving Mali but rather on improving her enclosure and care. He noted that the zoo is a government-run public service organization that charges an admission fee of just 40 pesos, or $1. So he dismissed suggestions that the zoo was exploiting Mali to generate revenue or for any other reason.

"We don’t make money off Mali," he said. "We are looking out for her interests. She has been with us for 35 years, and she has lived to an old age. We must be doing something right."

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