Opinion: Is it time to close the Dehiwela Zoo?

cage zoo

Jul 05, 2016 (LBO) – I long for a Sri Lanka where our animals enjoy the same freedom and protection from fear and harm as people do, and are respected and revered.

Over the years, concerned citizens of Sri Lanka, organizations, visitors to the Zoo, and the media have highlighted issues of suffering and inadequate care at the Dehiwala Zoo.

In the face of inaction, the animals at the  Zoo continue to suffer in silence: some visibly in pain from injuries and illness; some in cramped or over-crowded conditions; some in solitary confinement; some in spaces so constrained that they can barely move.

Visitors have noted animals that are tied to the same spot for decades, some in concrete pits separated from their newborn offspring, many without adequate food or water, and all visibly distressed and depressed.

The Zoo has become a place of suffering for all its animals from the largest to the smallest.

According to most recent data, the zoo has 3000 animals and 350 species which includes 100 species of mammals, 110 different types of birds, 65 species of fish, 3 amphibians and 10 species of marine invertebrates.

The vision for the Dehiwela Zoo founded in 1936 was to create one of the world’s outstanding zoological institutions, that is a “centre of excellence for conservation, research and education.”

“Resourceful conservation of animals by means of a learning, achieved through the exhibition of species which were adopted with loving care,” the mission statement states.

But animal lovers and rights activists ask if this is happening? Several campaigns have now begun a coordinated effort to raise awareness about this issue.

Opinion of visitors

A recent visitor to the Zoo said the Colombo Zoo has a wide range of species that you would not see in many other zoos. But it was not well looked after.

“I was quite disappointed at the state it was in. It was poorly maintained. From the look of the animals, it was obvious that they were not treated and looked after the way they should be,” Denis Perera from Colombo said.

“Most of the animals, in particular the mammals, were in tiny cages where they couldn’t even move. Another thing that I noticed was that people dump trash/garbage all over the place and that really put me off.”

Another visitor had a different view.

“Having a zoo is a good idea for a small country like ours, as most of the animals that are in the Zoo are not in the wilds of Sri Lanka,” Amila Nugegoda said.

“It is educational for children and adults alike to know about the animals in the world and see it for themselves. Otherwise how would you see them alive unless you are rich enough to visit the African continent where most of these animals live?”

On special holidays and Sundays, huge crowds visit the Dehiwala Zoo. Children enjoy the tricks performed by the animals by attending the animal shows, the authorities argue.

Animals must be treated and cared for as humanely as possible, Nugegoda adds.

“If we have zoos, the animals need to be treated humanely. Zoos should create interest and promote understanding about animals in the wild,”

“We need to create more awareness about these matters. However I think zoos simply don’t have the resources to provide the natural habitat and space required by the animals.”

Authority Inaction

The Zoo authorities, seemingly immune to the growing number of voices from across the country, continue on with a business-as-usual attitude.

The Acting Director General of the Zoological Department Dhammika Malsinghe in a recent interview said that the zoo is presently over crowed and some adjustments need to be made.

She says that during the past years it was very congested and the space for animals was insufficient and steps are being taken to restore the zoo back to its hay day when it was the best in Asia.

The authorities say that a under a new plan, an open Safari Park is under construction and some of the animal will be transferred there to address the overcrowding in the Dehiwela Zoo.

Meanwhile, a campaign to end the use of animals in animal shows at the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari is now ongoing.

ACRES, Animal Concerns Research and Education Society recently launched a campaign to end the use of wild animals in shows at the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari. This was due to concerns that not only was animal welfare probably being compromised, but also that public safety could be at risk during the shows.

“They observed that watching animals, such as the Orang Utan, performing circus-style tricks was of no educational value, it was simply reinforcing the outdated idea that animals are for humans to use as tools for entertainment and that most of the acts that the Orang Utan was made to perform were far from natural,” the organization said.

Sri Lanka’s Otara Foundation has collected more than 13,500 signatures so far in their campaign letter addressed to the president.

They have called for: a rescue and rehabilitation plan with a clear timeline for the animals; conversion of the premises for alternate public use – a park and botanical garden that protects the valuable flora on the site and provides skilled employment to the Zoo employees; the commitment to provide Sri Lanka’s children with the right education in conservation and compassion.

While admittedly the government has many issues on its plate such as reconciliation, reforms and economic development, many activists argue that proper principles of compassion and responsibility should be the cornerstone of any development effort.