Almost forty years ago, I used to be a Volunteer at the Dehiwala zoo. There were three of us who were passionate about animals and wanted to be as close as we could to as many as we could, on any given day. Our job was to walk the baby animals around the zoo and keep them with us in the kids play area so children could come play with them. Whenever we could, we would go inside the cages and pet the animals, help clean up and do other odd jobs around this beautiful garden space.
From the time I was born, the only thing I remember is my great love for animals and nature. It is what my childhood revolved around. Helping the abandoned squirrels and birds recover and setting them free, helping my mother earn some extra money selling eggs from free range chickens, a house filled with rabbits, hamsters, ducks and my first dog Pip. We were blessed with all this, whilst living in the heart of Colombo. Little did I realize that over the years I was being taught norms of society and what we think our culture is. Outings to see animals in the zoo, reading books with the fun life of animals in a circus, buying birds to keep in cages, being taken to a temple to walk under elephants because it was apparently good luck. These are some things that I thought good things to do and an extension of my love for animals. This was what led me to doing my best to secure a job at the zoo. Little did I realize that what I/we had been taught according to the norms of society about caring for animals was actually harmful to them.
My choice of studying Biology was to help the animals and environment and to make our world a better place by keeping as much of our natural resources alive as possible. I never lost my passion for animals and nature and tried to stay as close to it as possible but as the years went on I started to drift away from what was my life long dream. Every day was another day to improve the business, from one new venture to another. The time came after 25 years when I realized where my heart truly was. Over the years I had been fortunate to learn and to realize the issues with animal welfare, both here and abroad.
After stepping out of Odel, I decided to revisit the Dehiwala Zoo, a place I knew so well. What I saw broke my heart.
My first observation was the sad state of the animals; I noticed that little had changed in terms of space and living areas for the animals. They still remained in the horrific concrete cells. Whether you believe in zoos or not, this type of caging is very much a thing of the past. I saw the tigers pacing back and forth , signs of stress in horribly dirty enclosures. I saw frogs and fish in tiny glass boxes. The fish have to swim in the same place as there was nowhere for them to swim to. Bears pacing back and forth, monkeys staring out of tiny mesh spaces, several birds of prey packed in to small spaces, and some of them injured. The sea lion was not visible in the small pool. Only later did I discover that the sea lion lived in a dark room at the back in a tub. The ostriches have almost no feathers, the elephants were in the same place they had been in for more than 60 years, chained by the front leg and back leg. A newer elephant area with a lot more space which I assume was built to give them some freedom only had more elephants with chains so short that they could barely move. Even the baby elephants are tightly tied. They were swaying furiously from side to side. I saw the same with the bears. One was standing on a rock swaying from one side to another and so was another one in the back. Monkeys staring out of small dirty cages, cockatoos and other birds hanging on to the mesh of their cages, maybe they are the only ones who still seemed to have some hope of escaping one day. The only open nice area is the walk-in aviary but now this place also has some cages with peacocks and a hornbill that was looking out of his cage at the pelicans who were flying free in the lake nearby. I don’t recall these cages ever being there and I remember it being a nice aviary. The zoo was filled with children from schools. Some pointing and laughing, some asking why the animals had no water, some being educated by their teachers that all this is ok. These children are the future of Sri Lanka and no matter what their level of income and opportunity, they deserve the right education.
I was back in a place which I was almost ashamed to have worked in. This was hard enough for me to come to terms with, knowing how I never realized the horrific life these animals lead in their tiny cells day after day. I had hoped that maybe time had changed things and at least some of the animals may have had a little bit of freedom compared to before. I have discovered instead that not only had time stood still but that things had become worse. I remember during my days as a volunteer, that the animals even though they were in their small spaces, were well looked after and well fed. The animals used to be healthy and the gardens well maintained.
If we don’t want to care for these animals anymore and, if we can’t care for them, then we should not keep this zoo going. Continuing to make profits off this horrendous suffering is blood money of another form. It is quite ok to not do something we are not good at. We do not have to follow the path set by people who were not Sri Lankan. Sri Lanka was built on the principles of freedom for all. Each country has their own strengths and own direction and we certainly have ours. Our freedoms and choices cannot involve being cruel to animals or by exploiting them for entertainment.
Sri Lanka can shine bright like a light in the world, if we can be who we truly are. The land area of the zoo is beautiful and it should be used as national gardens, where people can enjoy nature and spend time outdoors. A place free of misery and filled with laughter and happiness with outdoor eating spaces, picnic areas and play areas for kids would greatly uplift this morbid venue. Green spaces are much needed for people to thrive in cities. There is a chance to make more revenue, giving the people working here a chance to make more money, while increasing opportunity for outside food vendors too. At Dehiwala Zoo, enough have died and enough have suffered.
When I left the zoo, my home and Sri Lanka to pursue my studies many years ago, I made a promise that I would be back to help my friends, the animals of Dehiwala Zoo, amongst others. Animals have hearts, families and dreams of a peaceful existence, as we all do, yet we humans don’t allow them these basics for a quality of life.
Indi my dear friend was a baby elephant I knew so well. She has remained in the same place for over forty years. While I have had the freedom to raise a family, travel, love and laugh, she has not. Bandula the bull elephant is over 60 years old and has spent his entire life staring at the passersby, with the hope that maybe one of them, one day, would have the heart to let him free. I cry for Kruger the lion who was so gentle and loving and never spent a day outside his space of no more than 100 sq feet, inside the animal hospital. I visited him on one of my visits to Sri lanka, a year or so before I heard he died. Even three years after I knew him as a cub he came close to me as an adult lion and rubbed himself on the bars so that I could scratch him and talk to him. That was his little comfort. Then there was Kiri the chimp who I used to carry around the zoo. He was now in a concrete area with no water, no shade and with others like him just laying around, with no stimulation or quality of life whatsoever.
Now I am finally at a time which I believe is at long last theirs. It is their time to be heard. I will not stop working until these animals in cages have the life they deserve. Until all of us can live in a country where our children have the right education, where the people earn the right living. I long for a Sri Lanka where no money is earned from the suffering of beautiful souls, where our animals, are as important as our people, where our forests and our environment is valued and preserved. We live in a country like no other, gifted with so much biodiversity, rich with compassion, filled with kindness and radiating with love. It is time to find our true selves, and the true Sri Lanka.
The time is now. We have waited long enough for change. I know that together we can make it happen. I believe in a compassionate Sri Lanka.