The late Colonel J.H. Williams, the author of ‘Elephant Bill and Bandoola’ during two visits he made in the 60s to Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, wrote about the Dehiwala Zoo in an article that was published in the Ceylon Observer. He said, “I have travelled far in five continents and never missed an [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

More zoos? When we can’t even manage one

Ravi Corea discusses possible solutions to revive the ailing Dehiwala Zoo and make it once again the ‘gem in the Garden City of Colombo’

The late Colonel J.H. Williams, the author of ‘Elephant Bill and Bandoola’ during two visits he made in the 60s to Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, wrote about the Dehiwala Zoo in an article that was published in the Ceylon Observer. He said, “I have travelled far in five continents and never missed an opportunity of visiting a Zoo. Some of them have been the most famous in the world but there is only one I can describe as a gem. It is the Dehiwala Zoo in the Garden City of Colombo, the capital of Ceylon.” Reading it one wonders whether the zoo the late Colonel Williams refers to is the one and the same Dehiwala Zoo that exists today?

The reality is all animals die as all life must eventually and animals in zoos are not exempted. The issues or concerns with the recent deaths or for that matter any animal death at the Dehiwala Zoo are whether they were avoidable deaths caused by human error, negligence or due to just plain ignorance. The recent deaths of a lion and a hippopotamus at the Dehiwala Zoo had raised a lot of attention about the Dehiwala Zoo and its capacity to take care of the animals in its care. These deaths whether they were due to negligence, natural causes and/or preventable deaths have led to a controversial debate and even become a political issue, yet the more important concerns that need to be addressed in the zoo are still being completely overlooked.

The recent deaths of a lion and a hippopotamus at the Dehiwala Zoo have raised a lot of questions

When a group from the opposition party visited the zoo even they overlooked these critical concerns though they did make one insightful observation but unfortunately failed to pursue it any further. Otherwise it would have led to identifying some of the root causes that had beset the Dehiwala Zoo not just from a few months ago but for decades.

The insightful observation was how is it that experts from Sri Lanka have helped to design an award-winning zoo in Singapore and why they cannot do the same for the Dehiwala Zoo? If they had pursued this observation further they would have found out that the so-called experts they are referring to is just one expert and he was the late Lyn de Alwis who held the dual directorship of both the Dehiwala Zoo and the Department of Wildlife Conservation at one time. It was during his time as zoo director that he was invited to design the now world famous Singapore Zoo. It is mostly his ideas, planning and designs that had made the Singapore Zoo what it is today.

While it would be very easy to dedicate this article to all the accomplishments of the late Lyn de Alwis, the important point is that since Lyn retired from the Dehiwala Zoo there has never been another professional zoo director to run the zoo! This is like a hospital not having doctors and nurses to care for its patients or a school operating without teachers!

Managing a zoo is a complex affair especially considering that the collection consists over hundreds of different species that have their own species specific as well as individual needs. This means a zoo has to not only feed and house these animals but also satisfy their physiological, psychological, ecological and nutritional needs.

Today even zookeepers have to be educated. The days when zookeepers needed only a shovel, a wheelbarrow and a strong back are long gone. Today zookeepers are expected to know animal husbandry, nutrition, operant conditioning, enrichment and conservation. Of all these skills and knowledge animal enrichment has become an important responsibility of zookeepers.

Many animals that have to cope with small or un-stimulating environments resort to stereotypic behaviour which is basically repetitive behaviours that serve no obvious purpose such as pacing, star gazing, or bar biting. Self abusive behaviours such as repetitive hair plucking, regurgitation and re-ingestion (the practice of repetitively vomiting and eating vomit) are also common in captivity. These are the tragic consequences to animals when they are kept in sterile enclosures.

These behaviours are never ever observed in wild animals. Today these afflictions are known as “zoochosis,” or psychosis caused by confinement. Enrichment is an effort to combat zoochosis and many zoos have enrichment programmes where they provide animals with distracting toys or puzzles to play with, food that takes longer to eat, or more complex structures and additions to their enclosures.

What this all means is that people who work in a zoo in addition to being qualified and experienced professionals must also have the passion and love for animals. It is this combination that makes a good zoo professional as much as a good doctor or a teacher. The animals in the zoo have to be their priority. A zoo cannot be run by bureaucrats appointed from various other professions. A zoo needs a dedicated qualified staff that considers the animals under their care as their main motivation, vocation and dedication. Based on the above it is very easy to see why the Dehiwala Zoo had failed and is failing very badly.

If the Dehiwala Zoo is to be brought to its past glory then one of two things must happen. The easy fix is to recruit zoo professionals or people with captive wild animal experience and passion for animals to run the zoo. Basically from the Director down to the zookeepers have to be people who are qualified and knowledgeable to take care of captive wild animals.

The second solution is to go into a public/private partnership and hand over the management of the zoo to a professional organisation or company. This is not a radical or novel concept because some of the greatest city zoos in the world are managed under public/private partnerships. To cite a few examples the four zoos and aquarium belonging to the City of New York, the zoo and wild animal park belonging to the city of San Diego and even the London and Whipsnade Zoos are all managed by private societies under competent people. While these cities own these zoos they have very wisely accepted the fact that for these zoos to flourish they need passionate and competent professionals to manage them.

Then why can’t the Sri Lanka government do the same for the Dehiwala Zoo? Without being encumbered and burdened with a steadily declining zoo that has become a national embarrassment they should hand over its management to zoo professionals or privatize the zoo. It is quite obvious the Department of Zoological Gardens does not have the necessary expertise to manage the Dehiwala zoo let alone any other captive wild animal facility. It is outrageous that they are planning to establish several more zoos, aquariums and even a safari park when they cannot even manage one zoo! To establish these captive wild animal facilities without the proper qualified and experienced personnel will only bring untold misery, suffering and death to animals. This would be just repeating at a larger scale and magnitude what is currently happening at the Dehiwala Zoo, where animals are suffering horrendously as a result of the prevailing ignorance and other shortcomings of the zoo management.

Privatizing the zoo cannot be so unusual especially considering there are government regulations and policies allowing private schools, hospitals, medical colleges, drug rehabilitation centres and even children orphanages. It is just a matter of changing policy, legislature and putting in place regulations to transfer the Dehiwala Zoo’s management to a competent organization.

The government should seriously consider one of these options to revitalize the zoo and bring salvation to the unfortunate animals that are suffering in the Dehiwala Zoo. If the government is willing to sincerely pursue one of these initiatives then there is no doubt that the Dehiwala Zoo will regain its position as the Gem of the Garden City of Colombo.

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