On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

The zoo’s last legs

Time to rest: Saleng’s age is equivalent to 178 human years and he has not had a female companion in many years. — Filepic/The Star (2017)

THERE was a time when going to the zoo was an exciting family affair, but not anymore. Young ones now frown on the idea of keeping animals in cages.

Being exposed to information online, many young Malaysians, like their global contemporaries, also hate the idea of animal tourism.

Likewise, young people can’t imagine why their parents would still want to eat shark fin soup.

Recently, when the Melaka Zoo revealed it needed to buy a lion, the tender document went viral and earned a roar of disapproval.

It’s a Catch 22 situation for the Melaka Zoo. It needs to replace 28-year-old Saleng the lion, also known as the King of Malacca Zoo, because authorities feel he should be allowed to rest and not be paraded.

Saleng’s age is equivalent to 178 human years, so the state has certainly made the right call. Also, he has not had a female companion in many years.

If that’s not enough, there have been allegations on social media that Saleng is scrawny, and likewise the tigers there. The state authorities have steadfastly denied the claims, though.

Melaka is stuck with the zoo. It can’t simply shut it down and release the animals.

As with all zoos, maintenance is an expensive affair. It has also become increasingly politically incorrect to keep animals locked up in small, cramped conditions because many of us see zoos as prisons for animals.

Revenue has dropped and this has worsened following the Covid-19 pandemic since zoos have been forced to close temporarily.

But even before the pandemic, a rethink about zoos worldwide was brewing.

Animal parks and sanctuaries, like those in Africa, have taken over from zoos as they allow animals to roam freely in a huge natural enclosure. Unfortunately, this would never be possible in land-scarce Malaysia.

The only argument for retaining zoos is the focus on conservation and education, especially to save endangered species and make the public aware of nature’s wonders.

For example, the lion the Melaka Zoo wants to buy isn’t captured from the wild but likely from breeding programmes. The inability to find Saleng a mate is a sad story, though.

In zoos elsewhere, breeding has been successful, and it has helped, to some extent, in stopping the extinction of some animals.

With zoos, the public can see animals up close and not merely on screen in TV programmes or online videos. Not everyone can afford to travel to Africa on expensive safari excursions to see real animals roaming.

But in the end, the cost of confining animals completely outweighs the benefits. It’s a violation of animal rights because no one should lock animals up.

Zoos are like circuses. They are a thing of the past. Animals are not supposed to be beaten to entertain us. We know these animals are forcibly trained to do these tricks against their will.

It’s good that most circuses have closed shop because people have lost interest in such lame entertainment, and operators find the astronomical cost of running circuses too difficult to bear.

Most animals in zoos look either bored or stressed because they are confined. They’ve been robbed of their instincts and hunting skills because they are fed.

They sleep most of the time because there’s really nothing they can do.

It’s a cruel business because inter-generational bonds are broken when animals are sold or traded between zoos. It basically amounts to splitting up families.

Last week, a mistreated and dangerously overweight elephant that spent more than 30 years languishing inside a notorious Pakistani zoo made world news when he was freed, thanks to a wide-reaching and lengthy campaign led by singer Cher.

Kaavan, who became known as “the world’s loneliest elephant” after his partner died in 2012, had spent 35 years in captivity – and in shackles – at Islamabad’s Marg-hazar Zoo, a run-down institution that served as his home until the American icon secured his release.

It had taken four years for the animal-loving singer and a team of experts from Four Paws International to rescue the 36-year-old elephant. Those involved in the operation said they spent weeks training him to calmly enter and exit his custom-built crate (designed to transport a 5.5-tonne mammal) so they could take him to the Cambodian Wildlife Sanctuary.

Likewise, the campaign against animal tourism in Thailand has stepped up with tourists being discouraged from taking pictures with drugged tigers.

Riding on elephants has also been frowned upon, owing to growing concerns about the distressing way these animals – reported to be among the most sensitive and intelligent mammals – are treated.

Now, most tourists, especially those from the United States and Europe, prefer to just observe elephants from a distance in their natural surroundings.

Better educated travellers now understand that they must respect animals and that there should be no physical contact with them.

Before they dive into the ocean, scuba divers and snorkelers are now reminded not to touch or feed sea creatures.

Except for the petting section, zoos have also disallowed the public from animal feeding.

Writer Benjamin Wallace Wells, in an essay titled “The Case for the End of the Modern Zoo” wrote aptly that “the whole animal captivity picture began to look decidedly more grim and less defensible”.

Zoos are not going to be closed any time soon, but there must be a better way to see these animals in bigger and more natural preserves. So cages must be done away with.

Politicians who still only talk about building zoos are really relics of the past with no creative ideas to score tourist dollars. More and more holidaymakers have found Sabah and Sarawak ideal destinations because they want to experience nature and animals in the wild and not in zoos.

As Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi said, the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. Locking them up is certainly not the way to go.