(With big old Ellie in the background)
I saw the saddest looking elephant at the Manila Zoo last (Sat) 01 Dec. We went there in the hopes to teach my young daughter the actual size and sight of the animals she would normally just see in her books. Little did I know that after a what seems to be a lifetime ago of seeing the Manila Zoo, only some structures have changed but the same old animals from my own childhood have remained. Others that have died, the lions, the giraffe, were no longer replaced and so we searched for them to no avail. Some mummified version of these animals were displayed in front of what is supposed the zoo's public information center. I really don't know what to expect anymore of Philippine government officials and how they take care of properties under their stead, but I guess I am just grateful that they haven't completely left this public zoo to be in advanced stage of dilapidation and ruin. However, one step at the zoo and you will unmistakably smell the decaying manure in the air. It stays with you throughout your tour of this cramped place, which on this particular day is quite teeming with a full range of middle-class families.
Another sad-looking or rather depressed-looking, and combative animal in there was the gorilla. I am not sure if this particular monkey is actually a gorilla but she happens to be the biggest monkey in the zoo. I safely assume she is a she the way she was pitifully stroking her human-like fingers as if cradling her young. I could immediately sense her quiet desperation as she bravely put up a fight to keep her composure amidst hecklers in the crowd. Some unruly bunch of men and schoolkids were trying to rile her up to get her attention. They directed obsceneties at the poor creature who might not understand the actual meaning of those hurtful language, yet undoubtedly feels the weight of it all by the sheer force and volume those words were repeatedly uttered. In retaliation, the poor monkey avenged herself by spraying them with water she ingenuously stored in her mouth. She blasts her mouthful of vengeance to unsuspecting onlookers. But some of the crowd is all too familiar with this angry antic and moves away in time to salvage themselves from the shower of water mixed with the monkey's own saliva. They cheer and continue to heckle the monkey leaving her with no peace. Trapped in the cold bars of her solitary cage, she moves and is left with no choice but to endure the loud stares and angry words directed at her. She has no room for even the littlest of privacy. I begin to think that if she has the chance to escape in her bettle-trapped-in-the-glass existence, the first thing she might do is commit suicide. Sadly, shaken by the venom of the inhuman crowd and human-like animal, I veer away from the gorilla never to return again in her spot. I snap photos of her, caputuring her oblivious stares and vacant soul.
So I tell my husband-toting daughter to stay away from the gorilla and move on to the birds. Surely, the birds must be the least violent creature in the wild. We stare at some brightly colored male peacoks with complimentary hues of indigo and jade on its backside. Suddenly, a pure white peacock opens up its fanlike tail. He is bereft of any color and as such the effect is quite dramatic. He beautifully stays this way for a couple of seconds but I fail to capture his enchanting image in my digicam. Then out of the blue, just as we are stepping away to catch one last look of the giant elephant and some other birds, a big pelican (or a pelican-looking bird) tweaks its long beak against a smaller fowl neighbor. I laugh noting that he/she or rather it suddenly sees its longtime neighbor and cage-boarder as dinner. The smaller bird escapes its predator amidst violent squirming and loud quaking and screeching sounds. The birds are not so friendly animals after all.
We move on to a group of cuckoos, a solitary parrot and a handful of crows or "uwak." The moment I see the black crows or "death messengers" I am reminded of the immemorial passage in the Bible which gives it its dubious dark history. Accordingly, the crow used to be a pure and white dove sent out by Noah to scout the remains of the earth after the Great Deluge. However, instead of returning back to to the wooden hull as instructed, it lagged behind to feed on corpses of the other perished animals. The master, knowing full well that the bird transgressed as it did not go back on its schedule, punished and cursed the bird to its now lowly disposition. Magically, the dove's purely white feather transformed to deathly black and hence became the symbol of greed and sin in the entire fowl kingdom. I feel sorry for the crows, children instantly recognize them because of this infamous biblical story.
Then we give a one last long look to the lonely elephant. This time it is quietly eating its regular supply of grass. It had a helping of grass suspended on its wide backside and which for some gravity defying reason remained there the entire time it was feeding. I wonder how it can stay vegetarian and keep its strength and stature. Where does it source its energy when it doesn't take even a gram of meat in its diet? Vegetarians would love this classic example.
At home, comfortably tucked in my sheets and dusty pillows, I tell my husband how sad the elephant at the zoo must be. I know for a fact that elephants live in herds. By nature, they are not solitary creatures like lions or tigers and any other predators of the wild. They usually co-exist in a tight-knit community to protect their young and their group. I just wished that the zoo administrators could find a companion to this solitary elephant. It may see and hear the presence and noise of the other animals trapped in this contrived and make-believe jungle paradise, but it is still not the same as a distinct elephant sound and elephant touch it may be yearning and missing all these years. "You have an elephant-like memory," a friend told me once. Elephants are amazingly intelligent and known for their keen memory. They remember the sounds of their partners and herd from memory alone. I wonder how long this elephant can keep the memory of its former loved one, former companion after its many years of being alone. The elephant's sadness, perhaps borne out of its aloneness, can be nakedly read in its big watery soulful eyes. (I later found out from Wiki that only female elephants tend to live in herds while the male elephants usually live in solitude, deliberately staying away from his group.)
I wish they (officials) could do something more for the zoo. They could definitely liven up the place by bringing in more youthful looking animals. The state of animals at present reflect the true condition of the zoo. The animals are old, sad and harried-looking. They may be constantly fed and watered but seem to be lacking of love and attention from the zoo keepers and visitors alike. They are hedged in their little corners of zoo paradise but are essentially prisoners every waking day of their lives. Some parts of the zoo are in bad need of repair and reconstruction. It would also help if they decorate the place with flowering plants to make it more attractive. Occasional vendors also litter the zoo peddling their wares of wooden snake toys, stuffed monkeys and various ice cream drops. I happily munched my deep-fried peanuts and calorie-laden chicharon while finding my way from one animal to the next. I think I may have gained two pounds while touring the compound.
Another image I wont forget in this uneventful jaunt is the ragged yet friendly photographer who offered to take my family's shot for fee. I declined as I brought my handy digicam given by my OFW sister. I wish for once logic didn't take hold of me and have said yes. He certainly looked like he could make use of some extra cash. His sheepish invitation and my quick refusal, which is what he may customarily get from zoo visitors, left an imprint in my mind. Poor people really outnumber the rich in my beloved country. On my way home, to save fare, we took the jeepney and I couldn't really help but notice how third-class this country is plying the route of scary Harrison Blvd. Street families, and not children mind you, can be seen sleeping contentedly on the sidewalks. Traces of poverty are everywhere, littered plastic bags and vandalized grimy walls that make me want to turn my eyes away. I am not certain I want to raise my child in this environment, in this country.
I leave the zoo feeling grateful again for my little comforts in life. That I have a little space blanketed from natural elements I can call my home. So many people out there have so much less than what I have and yet remain consolable in their daily struggles. Heck, even the animals in this country need help. I wish I could do more for the both of them.