Remember our animals too during these difficult times

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Elephants roaming at the Taiping Zoo - Photo: R Ganapathy/Aliran

Faced with declining visitors, zoos were badly hit during the recent lockdown. Benedict Lopez looks at how they are coping. 

Globally, the daily news on the coronavirus pandemic usually focuses on statistics on reported cases, fatalities, shutting down of businesses, loss of jobs and various hardships the people face. But little was reported on the impact of the pandemic on animals in zoos.

Zoos and aquariums are often outside public interest as they are seen in many countries as leisure and tourism-based activities, ie activities not deemed essential. Little or no funding from governments was available.

Like many places across the globe, zoos were forced to close as part of national lockdowns. People, including tourists and children, were denied visits to these zoos. Some zookeepers lamented many of these animals still look forward to the attention of visitors. Despite the lockdowns, some of these creatures, including rare and endangered species, would convene at their designated places daily, hoping to meet non-existent visitors. 

Many zoos around world faced serious unprecedented problems even in ensuring food and water for these animals, due to restrictions imposed to contain the pandemic.

These are difficult times for zoos, aquariums and animal conservation programmes across the globe. Never have animals globally been confronted with such a challenge. Fortunately, many animal lovers around the world chipped in to feed and provide care for these animals.

In Malaysia, Zoo Negara in Ulu Kelang, Selangor, is also facing tough times. It reopened on 10 June, after being closed for almost three months. 

Opened in 1963, the zoo is managed by an NGO, Malaysian Zoological Society. It has faced a financial quagmire as ticket sales stopped due to the movement control order from 18 March. 

Fortunately, an online food delivery service donated RM200,000 to Zoo Negara to help see it through during this difficult period. This contribution, made through Zoo Negara’s “Adopt an Animal” programme, helped with the upkeep of the zoo and food supplies for the animals for a while.

Money raised through Zoo Negara fundraising activities are spent mainly on the health, enrichment, veterinary care and welfare of the animals. Private firms sometimes step in to sponsor animals, and companies are recognised for their contributions when there are newborns.

The zoo spends just over RM1m a month and needs at least 500,000 visitors annually to break even from ticket sales. Spending all the revenue it earns does not leave the zoo with any funds for other activities like education, conservation and scientific research.

The zoo desperately needs more visitors to sponsor and cover its additional operating costs and expansion plans. In 2014 Zoo Negara drew a record 708,000 visitors, when China presented Malaysia with two giant pandas, Xing Xing and Liang Liang. But visitors have plummeted since then. In 2016 only 435,000 visited the zoo, and even that figure fell to 368,000 last year. 

Due to its current financial constraints, Zoo Negara Malaysia reportedly dipped into its emergency funds to maintain the zoo. But these emergency funds, meant for such unforeseen circumstances, will not last long. Caring Malaysians, especially animal lovers, should spare some thought and money for these poor animals.

Zoo Negara used to receive five-year federal grants of RM5m, but these stopped in 2004. Now the government only gives a one-off government grant. Its reflects negatively on our country if the federal and state governments cannot provide a fixed yearly allocation to places showcasing our flora and fauna.

The government should provide a minimum yearly grant of at least RM5m to each of our three zoos: Zoo Negara, Malacca Zoo and Taiping Zoo. Private firms should also regularly donate to our zoos as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes.

It is puzzling why elected representatives – especially those from states where zoos are located – have not highlighted the dilemma zoos face. Could it be because such concerns have no political mileage for our legislators?

Many people are unaware that zoos play a key role by ensuring that endangered species are protected. By placing them in captivity, zoos enable these animals to procreate through breeding programmes. Wildlife numbers can be increased through such breeding.

Animal rights activsts, however, argue that only a small minority of creatures in zoos are part of captive-breeding programmes. They say animals in zoos “suffer tremendously, both physically and mentally. They often display neurotic behaviour, like repetitive pacing, swaying, and bar biting” in limited, confined spaces. The animal rights group Peta even argues that “zoos are an idea whose time has come and gone“.

Some zoos have heeded such criticism and taken steps to naturalise the spaces for their animals. Zoos will have to do more if they want to stem the tide of declining visitors and avoid alienating naturalists and wildlife lovers altogether.

Visiting the Taiping Zoo in March this year was a re-education course for my friend and me. It opened our eyes once again to nature’s precious natural gifts around us which we seldom appreciate. Just imagine a world without animals!

Zoos offer some visitors, especially children, their first encounter with species from the animal kingdom, even if many usually walk by quickly with just a cursory glance at the animals.

For the more observant young visitors, zoos could inspire a lifelong love for wildlife and spark an interest in understanding the interdependence of animals and their original habitats. These children could become the wildlife lovers and conservationists of tomorrow who will champion the protection of these precious habitats in the wild. 

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. An eternal optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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