Tiger cubs Marcus and Catriona are a riot, to say the least. While Catriona paws and playfully bites the leg of her keeper, Marcus growls impatiently as he attempts to climb the counter where their afternoon snack is being prepared.
Soon they stop fidgeting and start voraciously feeding on their bottles of milk.
These days, animal keeper Weng Iloseo is able to devote most of his time looking after the cubs.
It has been more than four months since Manila Zoo was closed to visitors, shortly after it was discovered that the facility was dumping untreated sewage into Estero de San Antonio de Abad, which flows into Manila Bay.
But because of the May elections, it will take a while before the necessary purchases and installations are made. The Manila Zoo management is hoping that they can re-open within the year.
“We are able to concentrate on the animals,” Iloseo said. “They don’t have tantrums,” he added, explaining how unruly visitors sometimes irritate the animals.
However, Iloseo said it can be lonely for them. “It’s just us. Visitors are not able to experience being with wild animals.”
Outside the clinic where they keep Catriona and Marcus, the only sounds that you hear are those of insects and migratory birds. Depending on where you are, you can either hear a cacophony of bird sounds or the high-pitched hooting of the gibbons.
Animal keeper Boy Tabiong, who has been with the zoo for 28 years, said the lack of visitors also have an effect on animals like the famous elephant Maali.
“I noticed that at first she was lonely because she had no visitors,” said Tabiong, who has been caring for Maali.
He said Maali has since adjusted. In their bid to keep Maali happy, Tabiong said the animal keepers would gather around the elephant whenever she is being fed – to simulate what it’s like when there are visitors around.
For most of the interview, the Sri Lanka-born elephant kept playfully spraying water at Tabiong in a bid to catch his attention. Maali, Tabiong explained, wanted him to feed her more bananas.
The number of Zoo Crew volunteers also ballooned after the closure. Because there are no visitors, volunteers spent their Saturdays facilitating enrichment activities for the animals. These include feeding activities that would bring out their animal instincts and help them exercise.
Atty. Jas Garcia, the officer-in-charge of Manila Zoo, said they are “happy” for the animals.
“If you go around, it’s like a sanctuary. The animals are relaxed…except for certain animals like Maali who is used to being the star of the zoo.”
Garcia said the lack of ticket sales do not really affect them since most of their budget, which is around P113 million, comes from the city government.
“Right now Manila Zoo continues to serve as a sanctuary for abused and abandoned wildlife species,” she said.
Garcia said they are working with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in making sure they are compliant with their requirements for sewerage disposal.
She said those who were mainly affected by the closure were the employees at the ticketing section and the concessionaires.
FROM TICKETS TO PLANTS
Among those who had to change jobs was Imelda Fernandez Caligagan, who used to work with the revenue collection division. On Thursday morning, she was busy digging holes for the new plants she was now taking care of.
“They thought of getting us into landscaping. I learned how to plant and propagate different kinds of plants,” she said.
Caligagan, who has been with the zoo for 11 years but is under a job order contract, said she was initially worried that she would lose her job when the zoo closed down.
But now she is happy to be working and learning new things. “It’s difficult but it’s also nice and satisfying. I’ve learned a lot despite sweating it out the whole day…It’s okay to be tired because I enjoy my work,” she said.
Garcia said they divided the employees into groups and will be awarding the team with the most beautiful garden.
However, the zoo’s concessionaires were not as lucky. Almost all were forced to shut down their operations.
Estralla Sinoc, 71, is the last woman standing. Sinoc has been working in a canteen inside Manila Zoo since the 1960s. She set up her own canteen a decade ago.
She said she was only operating to serve the employees of the zoo.
“We were really sad. We didn’t know. And the closure was immediate,” she said. “But we can’t do anything.”
Nowadays, they are just open for lunch and would earn around 20 percent of their income before the zoo closed. She said she had to let go of three of her helpers who fortunately found work elsewhere.
While the zoo lost concessionaires, it gained many volunteers after the closure.
Zoo Crew Philippines Vice President Jerry Young, who has been volunteering since 2015, said their numbers have now more than doubled from just 30 active members before.
While he has loved Manila Zoo ever since he started going there in the 1970s, Young said he decided to volunteer to see if it is true that the animals are being mistreated. He said the zoo does not deserve the bad reputation it gets.
“It’s not true that the animals are not being taken care of. The zoo should have shut down long ago if t that was the case,” he said.
Today, volunteers visit the zoo on weekends not just to help care for the animals but to educate visitors. He said it is important for people to know how animals behave.
With no visitors to educate, they now spend more time on enrichment activities. They also decided to educate the public through the internet, using their newly launched Zoo Crew Bulletin.
“Manila zoo played an important part in my life,” he said. “While I wasn’t able to become a veterinarian, this is my way of helping animals. This is my calling.”
CALLS FOR PERMANENT CLOSURE
But for the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Manila Zoo should have long been shut down.
“Definitely we want the zoo to remain closed,” said PETA campaigner Jana Sevilla in a phone interview. “We are hoping that the animals will be taken care of even if the zoo is closed.”
The said children should be taught that “they don’t need to go to the zoos to be entertained.”
“They don’t need to see animals in cages, in enclosures to learn about animals. Taking care of animals is a huge responsibility that even the government of Manila, the keeper of the zoo, could not even do that is why it was closed down,” Sevilla said.
Sevilla called zoos “cruel” as they are “artificial facilities to house animals.” She said Maali should be in a sanctuary because elephants want to be around their own kind.
“If we bring her to a sanctuary wouldn’t it be a good retirement for her after many years of service at Manila Zoo?” she said.
But Manila Zoo’s resident veterinarian Dr. Joseph Pedron said zoos are not really for entertainment.
“The function of zoos now are no longer for recreation. It is more on education, conservation and raising awareness,” Pedron said, explaining how students spend time at the zoo for research.
While zoo employees agree that the peace and quiet now are good for the animals, they believe re-opening the zoo and further educating visitors would be for the best.
Iloseo said he would sometimes encounter visitors who did not know the difference between lions and tigers. “We correct them,” he said. “Then sometimes we bring out the cubs so people could see them close up and take pictures with them.
“We enjoy sharing information about the animals,” Tabiong said, explaining that while humans can sometimes be a nuisance, engaging with them becomes an educational experience.