HERE’S a story narrated to me by my father when I was still in short pants.
His sister once brought her eldest son-then very, very young-to the zoo. They went around, and she would tell him the names of all the animals. When they reached the hippopotamus enclosure, my aunt told her son. “‘Yan ay hipopotamo.”
“Hipopota ko, Mami?”
“Hinde. Hipopotamo,” corrected my aunt, pointing to the beast.
“Ah, Hipopota natin, Mami?”
End of story.
I don’t remember when I first went to the Manila Zoo, but I do remember the second-and the last-time I was there. In both instances I was with my father. I remember the Manila Zoo hippo very well. It looked like it had a bad case of eczema. Extremely depressed-looking, it wallowed in a pond of what appeared like Pasig River water, on which floated a couple of triangular juice-drink containers, several candy wrappers, and what must have been another wrapper already bleached by the sun. If the poor thing’s still alive today, scientists should study its amazing survival skills.
Actually, all the animals in the zoo, from what I can remember, wore a range of expressions-from total apathy at best, to a more general sort of grim fatalism (in the worst cases), to a look of suicidal desperation almost similar to the one homicidal maniacs take on shortly before they go on a rampage. The only animals that looked relatively contented were the giant crocodiles who basked in the sun with open mouths.
Oh, if those beasts in the zoo could speak, they’d probably sound like Didagen Dilangalen after a bad week at the House of Representatives.
If you want to get a good idea of what being imprisoned in the Manila Zoo does to animals, you should ask Filipinos of a certain age about the famous Spitting Monkey. He was all by his lonesome inside a large enclosure similar to a birdcage, either fussing about with his stools or glaring at people. There were large signs attached to the cage, warning visitors to keep away because the monkey liked to “manhandle” people-and to spit at them. Apparently, he liked grabbing unwary children who strayed too close-perhaps, to avenge the poor hippo’s having to live in a mini Smoky Mountain, as an act of solidarity-I don’t know. Naturally, upon being informed by their parents of what the sign said, the children would try to be sly and creep up to the cage, and then run back to mommy or daddy screaming with delight. (I guess if the monkey had been able to spit on the kids, or had shaken them up, they wouldn’t have been so gleeful.) Alas, the last time I saw the monkey, it was in a peaceful mood.
I’ve always detested monkeys, but there was one monkey who really made me laugh. I wish I knew what kind of monkey it was. My dad pointed out that it looked like the Ayatollah Khomenei, and it did: a rather sour Ayatollah at that. We must’ve stayed in front of the cage for 10 minutes or more, just cracking up.
A decade later, about 1994, I think, I went with some friends to the “mini-zoo” at Glico’s at the Glorietta, which was quite the rage then-boyfriends would even take their girlfriends there as a “cute” prelude to a date. If the Manila Zoo smelt bad, looked sad and exuded the air of a concentration camp, Glico’s had the atmosphere of (I would guess) a Singaporean detention facility: spotless, clinical, obsessively organized and just as devoid of freedom. The advantage of Glico’s was that its animals looked well-fed.
There was a little “petting zoo” at the time (and no, I’m sure this wasn’t the reason for the zoo’s popularity with lovers-you’re taking the power of subliminal suggestion too far). There was a sheep in a pen so small the animal couldn’t have turned around if it wanted to. There was a calf in a tiny (for cows, that is) corral. Some chickens and ducks were kept in a little enclosure too, and looked uneasy in each other’s company. You could, if you wanted to, buy a little hay or feed and give them to the animals. I still felt sorry for the animals but, later on, when I met the owner of the mini-zoo (who later on moved his creatures to Goldcrest where he set up the Quest science museum, now long gone), I learned that the animals weren’t kept there too long; and so I would assume that the poor calf must be enjoying the sun in some field now, with his friends, while the poor Manila Zoo animals soldier on, like prisoners of war, with no hope of release.
Today’s Manila Zoo was apparently founded by Arsenio Lacson, and its site represents the last surviving patch of a much bigger pre-war public park. The origins of the zoo are explained in the “Streets of Manila,” where there’s this tidbit: “During the American period [Jardin Botanico, the Royal Botanical Garden of Manila by decree of Governor General Norzagaray in 1858] … was known as the Mehan Gardens, named, in 1913, after an American sanitation chief, John C. Mehan. Up to 1941 it served as the city’s botanical garden and zoo (until the animals, including a young elephant named Goyo, died of malnutrition during the Japanese Occupation).”
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READER Ben Vallejo has these comments on my last column: “I have to disagree with you. Many Filipinos are not detached [from] the sea. Probably the city slickers are, but as a marine scientist, I know that fisherfolk are [as] concerned [in] conserving the seas as you and I are.
“What drives them to destructive fishing practices is poverty. They know that education may give their kids a chance to escape [from poverty] but who can get a good education now? Probably, only the rich can.
“But there is good news. Our coastal people have started to conserve their own resources.”