Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Wish for Mali, the Lonely Elephant

Here's my column article on Mali for the February 2013 issue. 
Parts 2 and 3 are in the March and April issues of ANIMAL SCENE magazine. 
Click to enlarge



By Khrysta Imperial Rara

For this month of hearts, my heart goes to Mali.

Vishwamali is a 38-year old female Asian elephant living at the Manila Zoo. Nicknamed Mali, this good-natured giant has been the subject of controversy for the past several months, hogging headlines and meriting front page photos in the major dailies, online news sites and magazines. She is also at the center of a tug of war between zoo officials and the international animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA).

The controversy began when PeTA revealed that Mali, the lone elephant and star attraction at the zoo, is suffering from foot problems that pose a serious threat to her health. She is also leading a very lonely and miserable life which is tantamount to cruelty, the group said, since elephants are extremely social creatures. According to PETA, zoo officials have neglected Mali.

Curious about this creature that has elicited so much media coverage, I visited her last December 31. What I saw has prompted me to wish for her transfer to an elephant sanctuary where she can, for the first time in more than 30 years, enjoy and bond with her own kind and where elephant experts can care for her.

On that day, Mali was up and about, eating hay in front of 20 or more people. Her enclosure was surrounded by a dry moat and Mali would often stand by the edge of the moat and swing her trunk to and fro, giving the impression that she wanted to jump over to the side of the spectators.

“Mali’s concrete enclosure provides her with little stimulation. Zoos workers have taught Mali that visitors can be a source of food because they encourage hand-feeding which is dangerous and strictly forbidden at most zoos. It’s likely that Mali was hoping to get treats from the people across the moat,” said PeTA Asia’s Rochelle Regodon when I asked her about this.

Mali also kept on putting one foot up alternatively. I knew from the press coverage that she had foot problems, but I didn’t think it would so bad that she would stand on three legs for several minutes at a time. Officials have admitted that there is no elephant expert at the zoo and Mali has never been subjected to any veterinary check up in more than 30 years.

“The lack of a preventive foot care program is putting Mali in jeopardy of severe foot disease with accompanying pain and suffering. Under the current management, Mali’s health remains at risk, until she is trained using ‘protected contact’ methods to allow proper care of her feet,” wrote wildlife veterinarian Dr. Henry Melvyn Richrdson who has been providing care for captive wildlife, including elephants, for more than 40 years.

In addition, Dr. Richardson observed “several days’ accumulation of feces and urine” in Mali’s night quarters and “little shade in her entire enclosure” to protect her from the sun.

Dr. Richardson visited Mali on May 29, 2012 and his subsequent report is filled with concern for Mali’s physical and mental health under the present conditions at the zoo.

According to him, arthritis and incurable foot infection are the main reasons why elephants are euthanized.

“Mali has cracked nails, overgrown cuticles, smooth pads and cracks on her pads. All of these are a direct result of living on hard concrete instead of the dirt, sand, grass, rivers and ponds of her natural habitat. These cuticles will harbor bacteria and set up the potential for abscesses. Her cracked nails and pads can allow bacteria to enter the sensitive connective tissues of her feet and are known to lead to infections of the bones of the toes,” he said.

“This is all the more significant considering the accumulation of feces and urine in her night stall,” he warned.

“Training for blood work is occurring, but this training is being done incorrectly, and Mali’s painful foot condition is still being ignored. Mali's feet are causing her pain right now,” Rochelle explained.

As to her mental and emotional health, I’m no expert but most visitors at the time immediately saw that Mali is indeed very lonely. Even the international Association of Zoos and Aquariums has ruled that female elephants must never be housed alone.

“My major concern is that Mali is alone,” Dr. Richardson disclosed.

Visitors to the zoo have also noticed Mali’s loneliness.

“She’s sick, you know. Just look at her skin,” said a 12-year old boy standing beside me.

“I really pity her,” said a young girl. “She’s very sad. She’s all alone because her parents died and she’s an orphan.”

Another woman suddenly turned to me and to my surprise, asked: “Why don’t officials send the poor elephant to a sanctuary?”

There were many comments and all of them sympathized with Mali. It seems many Filipinos are now familiar with the situation of Mali, thanks to frequent press coverage. Most visitors commented on the elephant’s solitary situation and the fact that she should be with her family and other elephants.

Obviously bored, Mali walked to a small concrete pool in her harsh concrete enclosure. Then she walked over to a gate and grabbed two concrete rocks with her trunk. She put the first one in her mouth and began chewing it. She held the second with her trunk and banged it against the gate and walls of her enclosure. A caretaker then came and hosed her and the rock came tumbling out when she opened her mouth to gulp in water.

Another man entered the enclosure and tried to get the second rock from Mali’s trunk. At first, she wouldn’t give it but later, she dropped it. The first man then hosed her again and I noticed that it wasn’t done lovingly or patiently. Mali must have felt it too because she then chased the man who sought protection from a concrete barrier. The caretaker was obviously afraid of Mali.

“Let’s get away from here,” a male visitor told his young child. “That elephant throws rocks at people. She’s done it before. We might get hurt.”

“This is another sad example of how Mali is denied of natural behaviors. In the wild, elephants use rocks for scratching and to plug water holes so they can access the water source later on,” Rochelle stated.

Another thing that bothered me and the other visitors was the fact that Mali kept on rubbing her trunk and front feet against a pointed steel bar protruding from broken concrete block on the wall of moat. I was afraid she’d hurt herself.

“That’s a valid concern. Mali’s trunk was actually cut in September last year. Given the dilapidated state of her enclosure, future injuries are a very real risk,” Rochelle quipped.

Even President Benigno Aquino has ordered zoo officials to evaluate Mali’s situation and transfer her to a sanctuary. “We wish to inform you that we already directed the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Bureau of Animal Industries (BAI) to determine the condition of Mali and facilitate her transfer to a sanctuary upon completion of their study and evaluation on the matter,” wrote Executive Secretary Paquito N Ochoa, Jr., in his directive dated 15 May 2012.

According to PeTA, the sanctuary that has accepted Mali in Thailand is for Asian elephants. Eleven former captive and working elephants have been rehabilitated there and are now enjoying a wonderful life at the sanctuary. The sanctuary founders and staff are confident that Mali will fit in well with their herd.

Although city officials have mulled over the possibility of asking another elephant from Sri Lanka, PeTa has assured the public that “the government of Sri Lanka …will not transfer an elephant to the Manila Zoo” since the zoo lacks the resources to adequately care for one elephant. “It would be cruel to subject another elephant to this environment,” Rochelle clarified.

“The Manila Zoo veterinarians have stated that they are not elephant experts and that Mali has only been treated with topical betadine for superficial wounds and laxatives in the entire time she has been at the zoo. They have never performed a proper physical exam. They have never performed blood work,” Rochelle stated in no uncertain terms. “This is neglect.”

Because elephants do not thrive in captivity, eighteen zoos all over the world have closed down or plan to close down their elephant exhibits. Fourteen elephants from eleven zoos, among them the Detroit Zoo, the Greater Vancouver zoo and the San Francisco zoo, have now been transferred to two elephant sanctuaries in the United States where they are currently living the way elephants are meant to live.

PETA’s campaign to send Mali to a sanctuary has caught the attention of wildlife institutions and experts all over the world. More than 30 have written Philippine officials about their concern. At least 50,000 people from all over the world have signed the online campaign for Mali. Read more about it in my column next month.