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 had been fascinated with wildlife, I abhorred seeing animals emaciated and caged. Zoos were animal prisons, but these days there were degrees to this imprisonment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.
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 knocked boots this century! The video I recorded was not in slow-mo; they were turtles so what did you expect?
Movement was freedom, exemplified by a bird in flight. Although the animals in Avilon were confined (except the pigeons and water birds), they were still ambulatory. It might still be a long time before the Philippines could have a safari park where animals roamed free in acres-wide enclosures, or, better yet, do away with all kinds of animal captivity. For now, Avilon Zoo was 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 promoted animal abuse and disrespect for wildlife.
The skyline pigeon was still “dreaming of the open, waiting for the day that he can spread his wings and fly away again….”