Birdland

Malabon, Metro Manila /Rodriguez (formerly Montalban), Rizal Province, the Philippines

May 24 and 30, 2010

One of my vivid childhood memories was going to the Manila Zoo with Dad. He soon regretted taking me there because I wouldn’t quit feeding a hungry pony. It took a roving guard with a flashlight to whisk us out of the already-closed premises. It wasn’t just childish defiance. It was the first time my little bratty heart bled for another living thing – that scrawny pony. So, while I’m fascinated with wildlife, I abhor seeing animals emaciated and caged. Zoos are animal prisons, but these days there are degrees to this imprisonment.

Caged Eagle at Malabon Zoo

Malabon Zoo had been getting good buzz from the media so Ki and I decided to see the hype. To our horror, we found a cramped place no bigger than a front yard. Big birds like eagles and hornbills were cooped up in cages that couldn’t even contain their wing spans. No monkeyshines for listless monkeys here – one was peering forlornly through the steel bars. A black bear was tossing and turning in sleeping quarters with hardly any elbow room. The only merit in this congested zoo was seeing animals that are usually kept at bay up close and personal: a tiger flashing its saber canines right under your nose and gigantic, prehistoric-looking arapaimas from the Amazon swimming languidly in eye-level aquariums.

Tiger Baring Teeth at Malabon Zoo

Despite our unusually close encounters with such wild animals, we left heavy-hearted, like that boy years ago who took pity on that poor pony.

To neutralize the bitter aftertaste of Malabon Zoo in our memory, my friend Rita suggested Avilon Zoological Park in Montalban, about a half-an-hour drive from Quezon City. The name Avilon, literally “land of the birds,” conjured up images of wide open spaces. In fact, the zoo occupied 7.5 hectares of undulating terrain in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountain range, far removed from the congestion of Malabon.

Avilon Zoological Park: Celebrating Life!

Kiss Ass: Avilon Zoo

As if to make peace with my childhood zoo experience, one of the first animals I saw here was a pony. Or perhaps it was a donkey or an ass; I never knew the difference. Horses had a dignified stance; donkeys looked mousy. This one seemed more like the latter. It looked content and well-fed in its corral, at least.

The zoo was divided into different departments based on biological classifications or habitats. Each department had its own team of vets and keepers. These sections were distributed throughout the area that a good couple of hours could go by pretty quickly.

Our first stop was one of the two man-made lagoons – one by the entrance, the other enclosing the lion’s den further back – that spawned Amazonian fish called arapaima. No Chinese-restaurant aquariums for them here. The lagoons were deceptively tranquil at first. Then we noticed serpentine movements rippling through the murky waters. We tossed a piece of chicken meat and a violent frenzy ensued (see video below). Scores of huge and hungry arapaimas emerged from the depths and scrambled for lunch. Some have red scales on their sides which make them look even more sinister than their already fearsome snake-like bodies.

Arapaima from the Amazon to Avilon

Ki wondered that in the off-chance these leviathans escaped to the river, say during one of our annual floods, they would certainly wreck ecological havoc. I hoped the management had taken precautionary measures. Arapaimas seemed fierce enough to devour a small child! A lion cub already had the misfortune of falling into the lagoon and consequently getting shred to death by these voraciously carnivorous fishes.

There was a conspicuous absence of mammalian zoo staples such as elephants, giraffes, and zebras. In their place were smaller, lesser-known mammals, such as mouse deer, tapir, porcupine, civet cat, armadillo, and bearcat. Mostly nocturnal, they were housed together in a dimly-lit hall where flash photography was prohibited. Since it was daytime, they were mostly snoozing.

Only the meerkats showed some activity. I knew meerkats from the Animal Planet hit show Meerkat Manor, considered the first animal documentary of its kind, but I had never seen real ones. In the wild, a meerkat sentry would stand erect on a mound or stump, scanning their environs for predators, while others would go through mundane meerkat motions, like foraging and grooming. After some time, another meerkat would take its place. There were only two in Avilon. This meerkat couple would change guards, even in their “safe” enclosed environment. I laughed every time they unnecessarily changed places, but perhaps the last laugh was on me as they most likely suspected me to be a big bad wolf.

Meerkat in its Manor: Avilon Zoo

Trixie, Avilon Zoo’s Resident Camwhore

A limelight-hogging star in Avilon went by the name Trixie, a primate (an orangutan or a chimpanzee, I never knew!) who had the best job in the world, as Ki put it. She did “camwhoring” for a living, i.e. making faces in front of camera-crazy zoo visitors. Bernie, her human, seemed indifferent to the attention. He ordered Trixie to smile even when he couldn’t manage one. He would nudge her back to work when she lay on his lap; Trixie sweetly obliged.

The pair reminded me of a bear-and-human duo I saw in Shanghai’s safari park. The cuddly black bear donned a similar girl’s dress, also posing for photos. When the animal would sit to rest, its trainer hit it with a stick. People just turned a blind eye and found the whole act cute. I never saw Bernie hit Trixie, but I felt the same pang in my heart as I did in Shanghai. Call me a killjoy, but I could never fully enjoy animal entertainment, no matter how seemingly innocuous.

Person-and-Primate Pair: Bernie and Trixie in Avilon Zoo

Albino Carabao and her Suckling Young: Avilon Zoo

Curiously, there were farm animals in this zoo. Growing up in a farm, I never imagined livestock to be exotic enough to merit an entire zoo department. This was for the benefit of urbanites whose agricultural experience was limited to Farmville on Facebook. Here they could get a glimpse of the food chain before it had been packed in plastic stamped with a smiling cow logo. We chanced on a mother with her suckling young and an epiphany: The rightful recipient of its mother’s milk had to compete with another species – humans – for its mother’s milk!

Bottomline, this was the land of the birds. The spotlight was on its winged residents, whose queen for me was the white peacock. Elegant and immaculate, it looked like a royal bride crowned with a tiara and trailed by a long train of snow-white tulle. Think Princess Di on her wedding day, except that this bird was male. So I guess I should say drag queen.

White Peacock at Avilon Zoo

Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo: Avilon Zoo

With apologies to the Manhattan Transfer, Avilon was a literal Birdland, a place for another kind of musical improv – the avian kind. The zoo’s gregarious welcoming party was a company of cockatoos and parrots, saying guttural hellos to visitors and perching on their shoulders for photo ops. A cacophony produced by a congregation of birds (small passerines and larger arboreal birds) rang through the aviary section. Different species shared aviaries where they socialized by fluttering about noisily. Others were more languid and quiet (eagles and peafowl that cocked their heads as if eavesdropping). Still others paced around their enclosures (pheasants and flightless birds such as the emu and cassowary).

Resting or Nesting?

Owl, Eagle, Trainer: Avilon Zoo

Indian Peacock at Avilon Zoo

Peaceful Perch of a Dove: Avilon Zoo

Birdhouses that looked like miniature pagodas on stilts surrounded a green lagoon. Pigeons were in a flurry of activity, doves on solitary perch. Actually, I couldn’t tell the difference between them. I just went by a personal, unscientific differentiation: a dove was pensive and graceful (as I imagined a symbol of peace should be), a pigeon, social and rowdy.

The green lagoon was a net-less sanctuary for water birds. It was surprising to see them not flying away in this open environment. I had seen similar migratory egrets in Candaba Swamp; I wondered why these ones had chosen not to migrate overseas. Could they have found a permanent home here? Didn’t they feel the need to chase seasons and taste exotic prey? Or was this a case of Stockholm Syndrome?

The Green Lagoon at Avilon Zoo

We saw the green waters stirring many times and shuddered at the thought of another Amazonian monster lurking below the surface. Other than the portentous movements, this section had a decidedly Japanese zen tranquility.

Finally there was the Jurassic Park section called the department of herpetology – the enclave of reptiles and amphibians. Coming from the aviaries, I realized that birds and reptiles were close cousins, sharing the same prehistoric eyes and rubbery skin. As descendants of the dinosaurs, birds were practically reptiles with feathers. The collection ranged from giant crocs to tiny monitor lizards.

A Cold-Blooded Sun-Worshiper: Avilon Zoo

The climax of the visit was worthy of animal porn. We caught a couple of giant turtles getting it on in full view of the visitors-turned-voyeurs. I was compelled to document their “rhythmic groans” on video. This might be the only time they knock boots this century! The video below is not in slow-mo; they’re turtles so what do you expect?

Movement is freedom,exemplified by a bird in flight. Although the animals in Avilon are confined (except the pigeons and water birds), they are still ambulatory. It might still be a long time before the Philippines can have a safari park where animals roam free in acres-wide enclosures. Better yet, do away with all kinds of animal captivity. For now, Avilon Zoo is the country’s best place to instill a love for animals and a sense of conservation to people. Old-school zoos such as in Malabon ultimately promote animal abuse and disrespect for wildlife.

The skyline pigeon is still “dreaming of the open, waiting for the day that he can spread his wings and fly away again….”

Animal Lover Ki

15 thoughts on “Birdland

  1. Small zoos have found disfavor in the U.S. for the reasons you mention: sympathetic claustrophobia, animals in unrealistic settings, and the whiff of cruelty that permeates the air. The cost of populating and running a rambling animal park or zoo is probably staggering and there now seem less places to go and see wildlife than back in the bad old caged up days. The latter place you visited looks like a fine example of a zoo with good intentions and management. Thanks for the pictures and the tortoise porn.

    • It’s more than a whiff. It’s a stench of cruelty! But yes, I don’t think this Third World country can afford a safari park when half its population lives on $1 per day. Avilon is the best one we have for now. It’s not perfect but at least it’s not depressing.

      Oh, my pleasure (for the tortoise porn). :)

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  3. looks like this zoo is far better than the Manila zoo! 2 decades ago, when I was still in manila working, I have not heard of this zoo. during that time, there are less places to explore. Maybe there are lots of places but we are unaware. Now due to social networking and the abundance of blogging, the people are made aware of this “media promotion”. Very good, informative article. BTW, how much is the entry fee?

    • Sorry I always leave out hard facts in my entries. Avilon opened in 2003. The entrance fee now is P300.

      The place is sprawling but there are at least 2 food centers within the premises. Sunglasses and a hat are a must. It’s only accessible through a pockmarked dirt road from the main highway. It can take its toll on your car’s shocks.

  4. Lovely Lovely Lovely pictures AJ! I can’t begin to tell you how envious I am of you right now. I would love to go to a zoo having such a great variety of animals and such happy animals! Unfortunately, here the zoos are not that well kept. Infact, you could hardly find a good one. By the way, I loved …….1. The way you kissed that ass (lol) 2. The photogenic picture perfect chimpanzee……she(or he) looks like a shy bride (I don’t know how did I come to that one…….but she does). 3. The pigeon with beautiful feathers. We call those types “Masakali” out here.

    Movement is indeed freedom. And I am not happy with the way the zoos are kept here. The condition is deplorable. So so so, keep posting nice pics of happy animals so that your readers who can’t see happy animals otherwise, can see them in pictures:)

    Thanks!

    • Dhanyawaad Nehha! :) I guess our countries are similar that way – we don’t have decent zoos. Avilon is really an exception rather than the rule here. And even then, it still doesn’t compare to animal parks abroad.

      So, do I kiss ass so well? :)) And now that you’ve mentioned it, I dunno now if Trixie is an orangutan or a chimp. I get confused when it comes to zoological nomenclature!

      I do love “masakali”. My dad saw one perching by the hospital window while he was having chemotherapy. He took it as a good omen – the Holy Spirit visiting and comforting him. I believe it too.

  5. I’ve never seen a white peacock in person. It’s beautiful!! Male birds are almost always more gorgeous than female ones… it’s not fair, is it? :P
    And I’d like to think that Trixie smiles for people to give them a heart-warming moment. It’s a bit sad to think her smile is the result of being trained well…

      • Until I saw these birds in real life roaming Los Angeles County Arboretum I didn’t know that the proper term for them was “Peafowl”. Peahens are the females, Peacocks the males, and the babies are “Chickpeas”. Oh, I mean “Peachicks”. I saw a white Peacock in person in of all places in a New York City churchyard:

      • Same here, Thomas. I just learned the word “peafowl” in Avilon. It’s more than being politically correct, it’s also biologically correct! :) I prefer your “chickpeas” though. Haha!

        Oh, and lovely photo! A white peacock in a churchyard in New York? Strange, 3 times over! :) I can’t find the entry in your blog though. Can you post the link?

  6. haven’t dropped by for a long while, and it is always a pleasure to read snippets of your (mis)adventures amigo. btw, just in case you don’t know – there’s a natural conservation something something right in the middle of Bacolod city. right beside the Capitol. what makes it great? the fact that huge corporations are tapped to sponsor cages/animals and they ALL look content and suspiciously OVER fed. totally agree with you, heart bleeds when i see caged animals.

    • Didn’t know about that till I saw your FB album. Kewl! Should check it out next time I go home. Oh, and I hope you’d stay in Manila long enough to see Erich, Ruby, and, ehem, yours truly. :)

    • Thanks much, Jim. The rate the world’s going, your prediction may sadly come true. Wildlife conservation doesn’t end at protection from poaching. It should also be about protecting wildlife habitats from industrial waste and encroachment of development.

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