Amid pandemic, Philippine zoos continue to fight for survival

·Contributor
·10 min read
Ocean Adventure's operations were severely affected by being in a country with the world’s longest lockdown; zoos, particularly, are some of the establishments that remained closed for a longer period. (Photo: Ocean Adventure)
Ocean Adventure's operations were severely affected by being in a country with the world’s longest lockdown; zoos, particularly, are some of the establishments that remained closed for a longer period. (Photo: Ocean Adventure)

Ocean Adventure was rarely quiet. As a marine zoological park in Subic Bay Freeport Zone that also serves as a home to rescued and rehabilitated terrestrial and marine animals, it was commonly frequented by busloads of students on an educational field trip or by families that simply just wanted to swim with the dolphins or watch the sea lions perform, much to the delight of children and adults alike.

This was the same with the 32-year-old Malabon Zoo & Botanical Garden, which is one of the most famous urban zoos in the Philippines and is home to more than 500 animals – from the more popular lions and tigers to the least popular but rather very interesting water animals such as the dog-eating catfish from Vietnam, alligator gar from the United States, pacu from Brazil, and redtail catfish from Venezuela.

“We used to accommodate busloads and busloads of students on a field trip, and that was our happiness because we love teaching children to love nature. We believe that eye-to-eye contact with, say, a tiger, can affect their hearts," said Manny Tangco, the owner of Malabon Zoo, in a media interview last September.

Of course, these zoos’ operations were severely affected by being in a country with the world’s longest lockdown; zoos, particularly, are some of the establishments that remained closed for a longer period.

Life before the pandemic

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the animals at Ocean Adventure followed a routine every day. They are fed by and their enclosures and pens are cleaned first thing in the morning, while the veterinarians do their daily rounds to check on the animals and ensure that everything is normal – if they are eating properly, responding to the trainer when called, or simply just behaving normally, among others.

Ocean Adventure's operations were severely affected by being in a country with the world’s longest lockdown; zoos, particularly, are some of the establishments that remained closed for a longer period. (Photo: Ocean Adventure)
Whether we are in pre- or new normal, the veterinarians of Ocean Adventure always do their daily rounds to check on the animals and ensure that everything is normal – if they are eating properly, responding to the trainer when called, or simply just behaving normally, among others. (Photo: Ocean Adventure)

“Our animals would take turns doing our animal presentations and interactive programs throughout the day. This also serves as their feeding time,” Dr. Leo Suarez, Ocean Adventure’s resident veterinarian, told Yahoo Philippines. “For those that are not scheduled to do the presentations, they still participate in training sessions and environmental enrichment to keep them busy and mentally stimulated.”

The animals are also weighed during the first feed twice a week. This is done to ensure that each animal maintains a healthy body weight and condition. “Since our animals are trained, weighing is not stressful for them,” explained Suarez. “A dolphin, for example, will slide on the weighing scale platform on cue. Our sea lions, on the other hand, are brought out of their kennels and walked to the weighing scale where they will also step on the platform on cue so their weight can be read.”

The animals at Ocean Adventure are fed four to eight times a day, depending on the scheduled activities planned for the day.

“Our dolphins and sea lions eat fish and squid. We normally import the fish we feed our animals from the US three to four times a year. The amount of food given to our animals depends on each animal’s needs,” said Suarez. “On average, each dolphin is fed about 10 to 15 kilograms of fish and squid per day. Our smaller sea lions eat 5 kilograms, while the bigger ones consume 13 kilograms each day.”

Ocean Adventure's operations were severely affected by being in a country with the world’s longest lockdown; zoos, particularly, are some of the establishments that remained closed for a longer period. (Photo: Ocean Adventure)
The animals at Ocean Adventure are fed four to eight times a day, depending on the scheduled activities planned for the day. (Photo: Ocean Adventure)

Despite being performing animals in a zoo, they are no different from the marine animals in the wild. Just like any living being on earth, they, too, need a good amount of food to survive. So when the pandemic hit and the zoos were forced to close, Ocean Adventure and other zoos lost the major source of their resources for their animals’ food and maintenance – tourist foot traffic.

Zookeepers’ and animals’ shared struggles

Tangco of Malabon Zoo admitted in several media interviews that he was having a hard time supporting more than 500 animals that are in his zoo's care during the pandemic. He lost a lot of money from his savings already and he also had to borrow money from friends and family just to support the animals at Malabon Zoo.

"At the beginning of the lockdowns, I thought, 'It's just 15 days of lockdown; I can support my animals using my savings.' But when the lockdown kept extending, I realized that I was in trouble," he said.

Among all the animals at Malabon Zoo, Tangco, who personally takes care of the animals despite having zookepers, is particularly worried for the two dozens of Philippine brown deers that are in his care because this species is almost endangered already.

Malabon Zoo had been closed for 18 months. While their animals remained healthy, according to Tangco, he could not deny that they were in danger of dying due to sickness or hunger. That was why Tangco's management pleaded for donations to the public. In the facade of Malabon Zoo bore a huge call for help: "PLEASE HELP WITH YOUR CASH DONATION FOR FOOD OF THE ZOO ANIMALS. THANK YOU," it said, along with bank details where people could send their cash donations.

Tangco’s struggles are not very different from Ocean Adventure’s.

“The food supply that we had in store during the beginning of lockdown was projected to only last for a couple more months only. With no cash flow to support the operational costs needed to care for the animals, the management did a fundraising campaign. Unfortunately, most zoos all over the world were also badly affected by the pandemic and doing the same thing to raise money,” Suarez remembered. “Moreover, people also lost their jobs. Soliciting monetary support from the public proved to be very challenging and the money raised from the campaign was not sufficient.”

Fortunately for Ocean Adventure, a beach resort that is also owned by the same company that owns Ocean Adventure eventually provided some support to the zoo’s operations.

Several staff members – trainers, zookeepers, aquarists, divers, and veterinarians – also volunteered to stay at Ocean Adventure to continue the daily care of the animals. The trainers, particularly, chose to stay and volunteer so they could continue the regular weighing of the animals, training sessions, and environmental enrichment. “The daily routine of the animals was not changed – except of course for the shows – to make the animals feel as if everything was normal,” explained Suarez.

Ocean Adventure's operations were severely affected by being in a country with the world’s longest lockdown; zoos, particularly, are some of the establishments that remained closed for a longer period. (Photo: Ocean Adventure)
Several staff members – trainers, zookeepers, aquarists, divers, and veterinarians – volunteered to stay at Ocean Adventure to continue the daily care of the animals. (Photo: Ocean Adventure)

“At the start of the lockdown though, the trainers noted that the dolphins were behaving unusually, looking at the stadium as if they were looking for something. They observed this behavior several times for a few days. No one knows what they were doing but it seemed that the dolphins were anxious and probably wondering where the crowds are,” he shared. “So, our trainers spent more time swimming with the dolphins after this observation and noted that they stopped looking at the stadium.”

Further, no lockdown could stop Ocean Adventure from dedicating their time and service to responding to dolphin strandings, which has always been their mission.

"We managed to respond to several cases last year and helped Bureau of Fisheries & Aquatic Resources (BFAR) rehabilitate a short-finned pilot whale in Bataan for three weeks. Since travel to other provinces was not possible, we continued our support to the different BFAR regions and gave our assistance on several cases of dolphin rehabilitation. We still trained marine mammal first responders through the Philippine Marine Mammal Stranding Network, but via Zoom this time," shared Suarez.

He added, "We continued monitoring the nests of sea turtles in our beach that were laid from the previous season and saw to it that the hatchlings were released safely. Several turtles were also brought to us for rehabilitation."

Reopening the gates to the animals’ human friends

Recently, the government had allowed establishments like theme parks and zoos to reopen their gates after the de-escalation of the alert level in Metro Manila to Level 2.

Malabon Zoo welcomed back their visitors on November 7 already. Tangco, however, stressed that they would be "very conservative" in their reopening, especially now that even the younger children (the population that remains unvaccinated) are already allowed to go to non-essential establishments. Now, they can only accommodate up to 30 guests at a given time. Health and safety protocols such as wearing face masks and practicing social distancing would also be enforced. He is doing this not only to follow government guidelines but also to protect the animals in his care.

Malabon Zoo is still accepting any form of donation. Just recently, the Philippine Postal Corporation and the Art Association of the Philippines, Inc. organized the 1st Philippine Postal Corporation Art Competition, whose 10% of the proceeds will be donated to Malabon Zoo to help bring some relief to the animals.

Ocean Adventure, on the other hand, said that they are already seeing a rise in the number of guests coming in to visit and see their animal presentations.

According to Suarez. Ocean Adventure’s veterinarian, “This is a huge difference from last year. But with the reduced number of guests, we can accommodate to ensure social distancing among the crowd and some restrictions are still in place, we are still far from the pre-pandemic normal.”

Ocean Adventure's operations were severely affected by being in a country with the world’s longest lockdown; zoos, particularly, are some of the establishments that remained closed for a longer period. (Photo: Ocean Adventure)
Ocean Adventure is already seeing a rise in the number of guests coming in to visit and see their animal presentations. (Photo: Ocean Adventure)

Suarez is happy with the positive feedback that they are getting from the guests, many of whom thank them for ensuring the health and welfare of their animals particularly during the lockdown.

“Getting this feedback from our guests is very heart-warming and greatly appreciated by our staff, especially by those who volunteered to stay in the park during the lockdown to take care of the animals. Most of us did not see our families for more than two months,” he added.

As their current operations remain to be far from “pre-pandemic normal,” Ocean Adventure found ways to rework their operations to accommodate current demand.

“Our current staff members are now doing multiple tasks to cover for the former staff members who have resigned and moved on to other jobs,” said Suarez. “We also now use treated water from our sewage treatment plant and collect rainwater to water our plants.”

Ocean Adventure's operations were severely affected by being in a country with the world’s longest lockdown; zoos, particularly, are some of the establishments that remained closed for a longer period. (Photo: Ocean Adventure)
Ocean Adventure found ways to rework their operations to accommodate current demand. For one, they now use treated water from their sewage treatment plant and collect rainwater to water their plants. (Photo: Ocean Adventure)

The animals seemed to have missed the crowds of guests. According to Suarez, “Our animals are getting more attention and interactions from people, which they like. Scientists did a study on the effects of shows and interaction programs on dolphins and found that these are enriching for these animals in zoological institutions.

Trainers noted that during the first few shows after a period of hiatus, the dolphins were more energetic than usual when doing the behaviors asked from them,” Suarez added. “Perhaps they were excited to do the shows after several months of not seeing a crowd.”

Juju Z. Baluyot is a Manila-based writer who has written in-depth special reports, news features, and opinion-editorial pieces for a wide range of publications in the Philippines. He covers societies, cultures, and gender.

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