At the Dehiwala Zoo, There’s a need for better animal care

Restrained by chains and surrounded by food particles and faeces.

Risidra Mendis

The National Zoological Gardens is amongst the oldest in the Asian region and is 82 years old.  Initially set up by John Hagenback as a transitory home for captured wild animals, waiting to be transported to Zoos in Europe, it became the property of the government of then Ceylon in 1936. The Dehiwala Zoo, as it is commonly known occupied 11 acres of land at the beginning and on becoming a government owned entity functioned as a place of entertainment for the public who were also interested in seeing and learning about the various animals kept there.

In 1980 the focus changed with the zoo becoming one of the pioneers of the “open zoo” theory. As its website states, “the menagerie concept of old was abandoned for open spaces and ‘soft’ barriers instead of bars.”

Now occupying 23 acres of land, the zoo is home to 265 species varying from mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, butterflies and three families of amphibians,  totaling something between 3000 and 3500 animals. The zoo’s website promotes its open concept as one where the “numbers of species in exhibits were scaled down and many animals were given significant spaces in order to facilitate their natural behavior.”  But a visit to the zoo in March this year, tells another story.

The cages where the Ring tailed Lemur, Silver Leaf monkey, Hamadryas baboon and the White toque monkey are kept were small in comparison to the distances monkeys travel in the wild. The cages also lacked greenery and trees. The Hippopotamus’s enclosure had a dirty muddy water hole while the water for the Black Rhinoceros seemed inadequate and unclean.

Home is a fenced cage
Home is a fenced cage

There were two water holes where the Sambhur and spotted deer are kept; the small one made of cement was full while the other was empty. There were no water holes large enough for the deer to bathe in. The area where the Japanese deer are kept had no water hole, but was littered with bits of plastic and polythene. The space allocated for the wild boar meanwhile seemed inadequate and had just a small water hole, but not for bathing.

Joa the African elephant had his hind and front legs tied and could hardly move. The Director of the Zoo, Dammika Malsinghe explained that the elephant was tied as he was in musth.

Restricted within an enclosure, there was one Chimpanzee repeatedly throwing himself against the glass window. The situation was made worse by a visitor who was making noises at the chimpanzee, annoying it further.

Another chimp was perched on top of a high tree gazing over the wall, perhaps dreaming of a free world.

During this visit which took place between 3 pm to 5 pm we noticed that there were no curators near the cages and enclosures to guide visitors or discourage them from harassing the animals.

What lies out there?
What lies out there?

Macaws are said to fly nearly 15 miles (24 kilometers) in search of food. Yet, the Scarlet macaw, Green winged macaws and the Blue and Yellow macaws are housed in small cages severely limiting their ability to spread their wings. The same is true of the Mountain Hawk Eagle, the Crested Serpent Eagle, the Brahminy Kite and the White Bellied Sea Eagle. Enclosed in small cages, they can hardly fly around. Pieces of polythene, a bottle and a broken windmill both made of plastic were in the enclosure of the newly born lion cubs. With no curators checking on them, one of the cubs was chewing on and playing with the windmill. The water in the enclosure was dirty and muddy.

The elephant show attracts a majority of the zoo’s visitors.  However, they may be unaware of the harassment and torture these animals undergo in preparing for their acts.  Parents encourage their children to watch the elephant show for entertainment, ignoring or unaware of the cruelty inflicted on the animals by the mahouts. The show begins with Indi, Namali and Kema walking in closely followed by mahouts with ankus’ in their hands. While the elephants perform their acts, the mahouts could be seen pointing the ankus at their legs in a threatening manner instilling fear in them. In one act, the mahouts point the ankus at the animals to have them turn around, while holding each other’s tails in their trunks. The announcers proudly claim that such tricks can only be seen at this zoo.

In one instance, when an elephant attempted to spray herself with water a second time as part of the act, the mahout jabbed her in the leg to stop her. Another was seen prodding an elephant for no good reason.

Interestingly, though it is listed as one of Colombo’s attractions, of the 2116407 tourists last year, less than 30,000 visited the zoo.

Zoo graphic

Former employee and a member of the Zoo Advisory Committee, Environmentalist and Conservationist Rukshan Jayawardene alleges that the zoo is very poorly run with the welfare of the animals getting low importance.

“The monetary benefits of running the zoo are given priority. There are a lot of animal welfare issues and cruelty at the Dehiwala Zoo. The developments that are taking place are due to the strong criticism in the past years. The Dehiwala zoo is a bad zoo. The animals are kept in poor conditions and the mortality amongst the new born animals is high. In the past a new born Rhino cub was trampled to death. A baby giraffe too died soon after birth.   New born snakes have died and a white cobra smuggled  out of the zoo was returned later. New born tiger cubs were given to a lactating sow after the cubs’ mother stopped feeding them. The sow kicked some of the tiger cubs resulting in their deaths,” he claimed.

The mortality rate is also high for the big cats at the Dehiwala zoo, Jayewardene added, stating that there is a lack of commitment and a will to change at the zoo.

“The animals come last always. The bottom line is money. We can’t play with their lives. This is unethical and immoral. The Dehiwala zoo’s night safari is also a strain on some of the animals because these animals are not rested during the day or night. Zoo officials don’t want to see the reality, it is just business as always. As humans we should have more humanity towards animals’, he further charged.

Just a peephole for a look out.
Just a peephole for a look out.

Jayawardene is of the opinion that the Zoo should be shut down.  He suggests closing of enclosures where an animal dies instead of placing new animals there.  Though officials at the Zoo say they are involved in, in-situ conservation and breeding programmes, he dismisses it as being untrue. “It is better to concentrate on the animals in the wild and put our money for their welfare,” Jayewardene said.

Malsinghe refuted Jayawardene’s allegations claiming she was not aware of situations where a baby Rhino had been trampled to death or of new born snakes dying at the Zoo. She said the giraffe that died had not been a baby.  He had been weak and suffering from diarrhoea and had died when he slipped in the mud and fell. This had been about 10 years ago, she added.

Commenting on the death of new born tiger cubs Malsinghe said that incident too happened about 10 years ago and at the time the cubs had been given to a lactating sow because their mother had rejected them. She said she wasn’t sure if any of the new born cubs died. New cubs have been born at this zoo since then and “we have no problem in finding foster parents for new born cubs now”, she added.

In the case of the disappearing white cobra, two inquiries, one by the Zoo and the other by the police had been held but no arrests made. The cobra had been found in a gunny sack inside the premises of the zoo a few days after it disappeared.  Malsinghe claimed that the gunny seemed to have been thrown over the perimeter wall, adding that this incident too had happened five years ago.

She stated that the zoo animals don’t die like they used to in the past.

Malsinghe dismissed the claim that animals on show for the Night safari can be seen during the day, because those areas “are barricaded at day time and visitors are not allowed there.”

Most visitors come to watch the elephant show.
Most visitors come to watch the elephant show.

“There will soon be a proper animal management program where excess animals will either be exchanged with or donated to foreign zoos.

Other extras such as snakes, deer and sambhur are released to the wild in coordination with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC).”

“Conservation centres at the Dehiwala Zoo, the Safari Park in Hambantota and the Pinnawala Zoo have been set up to breed the Rusty Spotted cat, the Pangolin and the Slender Loris and release them to the wild in coordination with the DWLC,” Malsinghe further added.

Plans are afoot to demolish all the cages, and build suitable enclosures.  The Lions, Bengal tigers and Chimps will have new enclosures, and a modern aquarium will soon be added as well as two spacious aviaries and new cages for the birds.

The zoo will also have a new hospital.  The welfare of the animals, visitors and employees is also taken into consideration. CCTV cameras will also be installed at the Dehiwala zoo this year.

Animal enclosures must be free of plastics and polythene.
Animal enclosures must be free of plastics and polythene.

Malsinghe maintains that the chimpanzees have been allocated the maximum space possible.  “If we are to give them sufficient space we need at least ½ acre. If the chimps are in open cages we have to have hot wires but that is not ethical. The macaws are in small cages because these are breeding pairs,” Malsinghe explained. Commenting on the lack of water facilities in some of the enclosures Malsinghe said that not all animals require a bath and the drinking water given to them is sufficient. “The Japanese deer enclosure has drinking water inside the den and is not visible to visitors.  The water in the Hippos enclosure is changed every day. But hippos defecate in the water. So it looks as if it has not been changed for many days. We will be installing a filter system. Work on it will start at the end of 2018”, she said.

Joa meanwhile will be sent to the Safari Park in Hambantota before the end of April, ‘where he will have a bigger space to roam around,” Malsinghe said.  She added that there were no plans to stop the elephant shows but some changes had been made and the circus performances by the elephants had been discontinued.

Expressing surprise that the mahouts carried the ankus during the show, Malsinghe said she would” check on that.” adding that the animal enclosures were expected to be clean and free of plastic and polythene. She told Counterpoint that she will inquire into the matter and “the harassment caused to the chimpanzee by a visitor,” on her return from a trip overseas.

Though environmentalists have been pushing to have the zoo relocated, Malsinghe confirmed no decision on that has been made. Commenting on the zoo’s income, she said, “Only once the projects are completed can we say if we have incurred profits or losses.”

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