An elephant love story: Real stories of Manila Zoo

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I retell this story for my dad, whose stories about Maali and the zoo are mostly on Facebook and harder to get to for people who aren’t already one of his more than 4200 friends. I’ve edited it for clarity and storytelling, but you can read the original thread if you connect with him on Facebook. I’ve also added a few editorial notes.

Papa, Maali the Elephant, and me

Photo (c) 2010 John Chua – All rights reserved, used with permission

From my dad, John Chua:

I am a photographer and I would rather have my photos speak for themselves, but I need to tell Maali’s story.

I don’t own the elephant. I came to know Maali in 2001, when my daughter Kathy volunteered at the zoo. She loved animals and wanted to help. As a father supporting the dreams of his daughter, I went to Manila Zoo and helped convince the Zoo director to have these young people do their volunteer work.

The zoo volunteers gave talks to students on field trips, cleaned enclosures([Editorial note: Kathy Chua has some great stories about cleaning the crocodile pens…]), and organized zoo outreach programs that brought animals to schools in order to teach kids about them. I helped out by riding a bicycle around the zoo to check on visitors, reminding them not to throw stones at the crocodiles just to see if they’re alive, or giving cookies wrapped in plastic to the giraffes.

The volunteer group grew. We had bird shows and educational field trips. We were joined by volunteers from the International School, interns from La Salle and St. Scholastica, students from veterinary schools…

One day, I noticed that the zoo keepers just threw food into the enclosures for the animals to eat. “Instead of throwing the food and just doing your job, why don’t we all get to know the animals assigned to us, and learn more so that we can take better care of them?” I asked.

A zoo-keeper replied, Sir. Madaling sabihin iyan… Mahirap gawain. (Sir, that’s easy to say, but hard to do.)

I looked straight into his eyes and said, “Watch me. I will show you how.” I don’t ask people to do things I wouldn’t do also. I looked for animals I could learn how to take care of in order to show them that it could be done.

That crossed out several animals right away. Crocodiles: not only do they not speak English, they eat them. Tigers: also out. Snakes: Slimy and don’t show emotions? Molly, the giraffe: she just gets the carrots and leaves me.

One day, when I was going around, I made friends with the old zoo keeper for Maali, the elephant. The zoo keeper told me lots of stories, and I became fascinated. I began to visit her everyday, just watching her. She was bored. She walked around, doing nothing.

I asked the zookeeper what Maali’s favorite fruit was. Mangoes, he said.

The next day, I brought a kilo of ripe mangoes. I went to Maali’s enclosure and gave them to her. The mangoes were gone in 60 seconds – everything including the seeds.

Then I noticed that when I talked to her, her eyes looked at me so attentively. I knew she was listening.

I looked forward to seeing her every time I went to the zoo – of course, with a kilo of mangoes each time. Then I got smarter. To extend my conversation with her, I started slicing the mangoes into smaller pieces. I started helping the old man carry the grass and clean the poo. I made sure the old man was beside me whenever I was inside the enclosure.

I watched every elephant episode in Discovery Channel and bought all the books on elephants that I could find at the bookstores. I learned that elephants need to drink at least 50 gallons of water every day. I learned they love cooling their bodies with water and using sand to keep insects away. I learned that they could sense your FEAR by smell. I began to learn what made her angry or afraid. She didn’t like the low-frequency murmur of diesel engines idling. She hated red trucks, like the one that delivered Coca-cola. She didn’t like horses. She didn’t like the Selecta Jingle played by the ice cream cart. Trombones or bands made her poop.

Together with my daughter Kathy, we developed behavioral enrichment programs for Maali and the other animals. Kathy went to South Africa as part of Cathay Pacific’s youth programs, where she volunteered at Johannesburg Zoo and made friends with their behavioral enrichment program specialists. She learned a lot and planned all these programs for Maali. I got a pail and started splashing Maali with water. We brought in sand for her. We froze fruits in ice blocks. We hid food in tires for her so that she could find the food in them. We spread the peanuts all over her enclosure. I’d bring coconuts or watermelons, we’d play football, and Maali would eat them afterwards. The main idea was to get Maali to look for her food, work for her food. This got her to be active.

One day, Kathy told me about an essay contest offered by Discovery Channel called “Postcard from the Wild.” The contest asked: In just fifty words, write down why you want to go to Sri Lanka. “Wouldn’t you like to go to Pinawala and see Maali’s cousins?” Kathy asked. She volunteered to help me tell our story. On top of 8×10 picture of Maali and me, we wrote: “I want to go to Sri Lanka to learn more about elephants so that I can make Maali’s life better.”

It won.

Discovery Channel called me to offer me a 10-day tour for two people. I was excited. The first thing I thought of was to bring Maali’s zoo keeper, because he needed to learn more about elephants too. Of course, my wife was disappointed. Why not her? But the zoo keeper declined, so my wife and I went to Sri Lanka to visit the Pinawala Elephant Orphanage. That’s where Maali stayed for a while after being rescued from a pit, before she was given by the children of Sri Lanka to the children of Philippines. In Pinawala, we met the mahoots and showed them pictures of Maali and me. They recognized me as one of them, and we became instant friends. We even found the mahoot who accompanied Maali when she came to Manila.

I felt sad for Maali. She was alone and in a small space. I wanted to know more about Maali, and the old man shared his stories. Before Maali came to Manila, there was a bigger elephant named Sheba. Sheba was a circus elephant who was sold to Manila Zoo after the circus went bankrupt. Sheba didn’t like Maali, so they had to be separated. The zoo built a smaller enclosure in the elephant space. While one elephant walked around, the other elephant had to be locked in the enclosure to avoid fights. It must have been a traumatic experience for Maali.

I’d been caring for Maali for several months when the Singapore Zoo director came to visit Manila Zoo. He saw me inside the enclosure with Maali. He called the attention of the Manila Zoo director and asked him to call me to the office.

The Singapore Zoo director asked me why I was inside the enclosure. I said I was a zoo volunteer. He told the Manila Zoo director that I should be forbidden to go inside the enclosure. If anything happened, the zoo would be blamed.

I told the zoo director: “Sir, if I don’t do this, who can do it? Nobody. I am willing to sign a waiver, but let me continue my work.”

The Singapore Zoo director was impressed with my sincerity. He said, “Mr. Chua. In case you visit Singapore, please visit me in my office at Singapore Zoo and let me find out what I can do to help you in learning more about elephants.” He handed me his calling card.

Several weeks later, I was in the director’s office at Singapore Zoo. He introduced me to the head of the department and the other staff, and he asked me to see the chief trainer, Mr. Tan, the next morning.

When I met him, Mr. Tan was giving a bath to an elephant lying on the floor. “Are you the one from the Philippines?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Can you put those gloves on and come and help me? This elephant is constipated. I want you to put your hand inside the rectum and pull out all the poop that you can find inside.”

“Yes… sir,” I said.

After half an hour of this, Mr. Tan said, “Good job. Come, let’s have a break for tea. What’s your name?”

“Sir, John Chua, Sir. I take care of an elephant in Manila Zoo.”

“Good, I will teach you a couple of things about elephants,” Mr. Tan said. Every day for a week, I took the 5am train to Singapore Zoo and reported to Mr. Tan at 7am sharp.

All the mahoots in Singapore talked to the elephants in Singhalese, the native language of Sri Lanka. They taught me the type of food that’s best for elephants. They taught me how to read elephant body language – the movements of ears, when elephants are faking a charge or doing it for real.

They introduced me to a baby elephant male. He was so adorable, I hugged him. A mahoot said, “Hug him while he is still young. He is a male elephant, and later, he will be dangerous. Better to have a female elephant than male.”

During lunch breaks, I roamed around the night safari area on a bicycle. In broad daylight, it was so different. I saw a big bull elephant taking his daily stroll with a huge log in his trunk and long chains attached to him. I asked the mahoots why. They said that male elephants are dangerous and unpredictable. Carrying a log keeps the elephant’s mind busy. If the elephant goes berserk, the long chains can be thrown around trees to hold him. (Later that year, that bull elephant injured his mahoot in the frenzy of being in heat.)

The mahoots taught me the weak points where they hit elephants whenever the elephants disobeyed orders. They gave me the metal hook that mahoots use to control the movement of elephants.

I learned so much from the trip and couldn’t wait to make Maali’s life better back home. I brought back photos of all the enclosures, and the use of open space inspired Manila Zoo.

When I saw Maali again, I took the metal hook and all the things I had learned from Singapore Zoo. The first thing I did was to hook Maali’s left ear like the way the mahoots showed me. She followed, but I saw that she was hurting. I stopped. I said to myself, “This is not the way to go, John. You are not a trainer. You are not going to have a show. This is not a circus. You are not going to hurt Maali because you want her to follow you, John. You are not going to hurt MAALI.”

I threw the hook away and hugged Maali. I said, “No, Maali. You can have your way. I am not going to hurt you.” So that was the end to my career of being the top-notch Elephant trainer. Sometimes Maali listens to me, sometimes she doesn’t, and it’s okay.

I was afraid to get close to Maali. I knew that if I was close to her, I’d begin to love her and care for her. I’d begin to feel how she feels. When she was young, she met her cousins and relatives in the Pinawala elephant orphanage. She would have remembered them. You know how elephants remember. It must have been traumatic for her to be captured again. She must have been put in a red diesel truck – that’s probably why she gets so angry at red diesel trucks – as she was taken to the seaport.

I’m afraid for her every night. No matter how big she is, she’s too weak to defend herself against people who can harm her: zoo visitors who throw plastic bottles and aluminum cans into her enclosures, disgruntled employees who might take their revenge, people who might poison her for their own greed in order to get Manila Zoo closed ([Ed. note: Manila Zoo sits on 5.5 hectares of great real estate in Manila]). I’m afraid organizations will just take advantage of her for publicity. I’m afraid I might lose her.

I have many dreams. I have made so many dreams come true. I dream that someday there’ll be a place for Maali. Not Manila Zoo, but stretches of open sugarcane fields. When I shoot on location in places like Pampanga or Batangas, I dream of Maali grazing among the sugarcane she loves. I often pay the workers to load sugarcane in my car so that I can bring the sugarcane to her. She loves them.

Our weather, the climate, the greenery, the hospitality of the people… this makes it the best place for Maali. Have you seen how the children respond to Maali? I love each time I let the children help me feed Maali. Many elephant sanctuaries pale in comparison to what we have in our country. There’s one in Tennessee – but the climate is cold for an Asian elephant, the surroundings are dry, and the elephants don’t interact much with people. Have you seen how Maali plays with my shoelaces? She can untie my shoelaces with her trunk. We play tug-of-war with it. I always lose, so I need to buy new shoelaces every time we play.

I never wanted publicity for Maali and myself. We enjoy life by ourselves. While I don’t own Maali and Manila Zoo provides most of the zoo, I do my share. I buy food for her. I provide a water spray machine for her showers, and other necessary things. I never complain. Even in the middle of a typhoon, I am always there for her to make sure she is okay. This one is for Maali.


Sacha here again. I tell this story because Manila Zoo has broken out into public consciousness thanks to an earnest but misguided blog post that’s calling for the zoo to be shut down. The cybersphere is abuzz. There are rumours that the elephant only eats one loaf of bread a day, and that the zoo keepers maltreat the animals. There are organizations putting together an online petition to shut down the zoo. You know how easy cyberadvocacy is. Just a few clicks and you can feel like you’ve made a difference. Strident blog posts are easy to retweet or reshare.

But the real story is deeper and more inspiring than any sensationalist blog post or picket line. My family has so many stories about Manila Zoo because of the way my sister and my dad have taken it into their hearts. Ask my dad about Maali and children. Ask my sister about nursing a sick pony throughout the nights. Ask the zoo keepers about the names and stories of the animals they take care of. Ask the countless people whose lives have been touched.

I’m glad people care about causes. Here’s one where you can make a real difference: not by calling for Manila Zoo to be shut down, but by volunteering and by being inspired. You can make a difference through such little things: picking up litter, giving talks, interacting with animals and people. Find my dad on Facebook and now on Twitter. Feel free to reshare this and get the real stories out.

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