The Long View: Zoo Stories

Zoo Stories

by Manuel L. Quezon III

Philippine Daily Inquirer

January 10, 2005

HERE’S a story told 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. Finally, they reached the hippopotamus enclosure.

Yan ay hipopótamo.“ my aunt said to her son.

“Hipopóta ko, Mami?”

Hinde. Hipopótamo,” corrected my aunt, pointing to the hippo.

“Ah. Hipopóta natin, Mami? ”

End of story.

I don’t remember when I first went to the Manila Zoo, but I do remember the second -to the last- time I went. It was with my father. I remember the Manila zoo hippo very well. It looked like it had a bad case of eczema (is that the English translation for An-an ?). The extremely depressed-looking hippo wallowed in a concrete pond filled with what looked like Pasig River water, on which floated a couple of triangular Sunkist juice drink containers, several Stork wrappers, and what must have been a Chippy wrapper, now bleached by the sun. If the poor thing’s still alive, scientists should study its amazing survival skills.

Actually all of the animals in the zoo, from what I can remember, bore a narrow range of expressions that varied from total apathy at best, to a more general sort of grim fatalism, to (in the worst cases,) a sort of suicidal desperation verging on a look befitting homicidal maniacs shortly before they go on a rampage. The only animals that looked relatively contented were the giant crocodiles who basked in the sun with their mouths open.

Oh, if those beasts in the zoo could speak! They’d probably sound like Dingalen Dinangalen after a bad week at the House.

If you want to get a good idea what being imprisoned in the Manila zoo does to animals, you should ask Filipinos of a certain age about the famous Spitting Monkey. He sits used to sit in a large birdcage-like enclosure all by his lonesome, either fussing about with his stools, or glaring at people. Large signs were attached to the cage warning visitors to keep away because the monkey liked to “manhandle” people -and spit. Apparently he rather liked grabbing unwary children who strayed to close, giving them a good shake. Perhaps as an act of solidarity to revenge the poor hippo’s having to live in a mini Smokey mountain, I don’t know. Naturally upon being informed by their parents of what the sign said, children would try to be sly and creep up to the cage, and then run back to mommy or daddy screaming with delight (well that is what I saw; I guess if the monkey did expectorate on the kids, or worse, shake them up, they wouldn’t have been so gleeful). Alas, last I saw him the famous monkey 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 ten minutes or more, just cracking up.

A decade later, about 1994, I think, I went with some friends to look at 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’s smelly, sad and has 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 Glicos zoo’s advantage being that its animals looked extremely 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 it 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 hadn’t been kept there too long, and so that poor calf might be enjoying the sun in some field now, with his friends, while the poor Manila zoo animals soldier on, POW’s with no hope of release.

Today’s Manila zoo was apparently founded by Arsenio Lacson, and its land represents the last surviving patch of a much bigger pre-war public park. The origins of the zoo are explained in “Streets of Manila”, in which  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 elepehant named Goyo, died of malnutrition during the Japanese Occupation).”

Postscript, February 28, 2005:

James Litton sent the following fascinating information: “In your column of January 10, 2005, titled ‘Zoo Stories’ you wrote that the site of the present Manila Zoo represented ‘the last surviving patch of a much bigger pre-war public park.’ This is not correct. The site of the present Manila Zoo was the pre-war city dumps of the City of Manila, the pre-war equivalent of ‘Smokey Mountain’ or ‘Payatas.’ Goes to show how small Manila was before the war. The street that bounded the northern part of the present Zoo, now named Quirino Ave., used to be named ‘Cortabitarte.’ Some of the animals at the Jardin Botanico did not starve. Many escaped their cages. At one time, the Acacia trees of Isaac Peral (now U. N. Ave.) was full of monkeys that escaped from the old Manila Zoo. I know all this from personal knowledge as I lived before and during the war in Isaac Peral Street. Going to La Salle every morning, we would pass Cortabitarte and the City Dumps, now the site of present Manila Zoo.”

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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