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On The Spot


The zoo has gone to the dogs

Skin and bone - a malnourished lioness at the zoo

By Risidra Mendis  

It was once the most visited place in the country and a place of interest for people of all ages. Situated on 23 acres of prime land with a beautifully landscaped garden the Dehiwala zoo has today become a hell hole, not only for its many animals but also for the hundreds of visitors who go there. 

Many horrible stories are related by visitors with regard to cruelty to animals at the zoo. Some of these visitors have vowed never to go back to the zoo as it has become an eyesore in recent times.

The Dehiwala zoo also known as the National Zoological Gardens with over 2000 species of animals was at one time considered to be among the best in Asia. However after a new director was appointed the standards at the zoo have dropped drastically in recent times and many animals have died.

Visitors including foreign tourists have complained that animal cages are filthy and animals look depressed, sick and malnourished. The huge waterfall at the entrance to the zoo flows into a large pond with filthy water. At the time The Sunday Leader visited the zoo a dead fish could also be seen floating on the water. The future sure looked bleak for the remaining fish in the pond. The Dehiwala zoo’s gate collection is between Rs. 3 - 4 million per month. However the treatment of animals still remains bad.

Director has two jobs

Zoo Director Duminda Jayaratne The Sunday Leader learns has some experience with animals as he was once the additional director of the zoo. However Jayaratne has taken over as zoo director in addition to his job at the Customs Department. 

Since Jayaratne took over as director many deaths of animals have been reported. A pregnant hippo, two meer cats, a lioness, all the  penguins and some spotted deer among others have died. The pregnant hippo too died while trying to give birth.

“The hippo died of complications and it wasn’t the fault of the zoo authorities. We cannot perform a caesarian on a pregnant hippo because such an operation hasn’t been done anywhere in the world. If the baby comes out the wrong way the mother can undergo complications,” reliable zoo authorities said.  

However The Sunday Leader learns that the two baby meer cats died of malnourishment. “Meer cats mainly feed on insects. The adult animal can survive on food that is close to their normal diet. But when it comes to the young they need proper nutrition and nourishment to help them grow. If meer cats are raised in the zoo an insect breeding unit has to be established to provide a proper diet for the animals. At present insects are caught from the wild and fed to these animals. We cannot always guarantee the quality of the insects when caught from the wild,” zoo authorities said.

Lioness died of cancer

The lioness that died in the zoo about a week ago was suspected of having cancer. “The animal started bleeding from the vulva from time to time and was treated by the veterinary surgeons in the zoo. The lioness had to then undergo an operation as her vagina was protruding. Two to three weeks after the operation the animal started bleeding again. One day she was found in a pool of blood in her cage. Veterinary surgeons had no option but to operate in order to stop the bleeding. However once cut open the vets discovered that the animal had a growth in its vagina,” zoo authorities said.

According to zoo authorities the zoo vets had no option but to remove the lioness’s reproductive tract. “We had to operate on the animal inside her cage as she had lost a lot of blood and was still bleeding and couldn’t be moved to the hospital.  However the animal died while being operated. She was 17 years old at the time she died,” zoo authorities said.

A number of spotted deer also died some time ago when they were manhandled by zoo keepers. The Sunday Leader learns that these deer were to be taken to a stall at the Deyata Kirula exhibition. When zoo keepers tried to catch these animals many of them had died due to fright. 

Death of penguins

A male pigmy hippo brought from the Singapore zoo was immediately put with the other small hippos. The pigmy hippo was attacked by the others in the cage and was injured.

One of the star attractions at the zoo was the penguins. All the penguins have died and fish inhabit the water once used by the penguins. The animals suffered yet another ordeal when zoo workers went on strike for a day and the animals were not fed. But while the animals starved Jayaratne had his regular meals according to schedule.

According to the zoo authorities some snakes are fed once a week. “Big cats like lions, tigers and leopards are not fed on Fridays because they have no exercise. Their bodies collect fat which is not good for their health,” zoo authorities said.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader Veterinary Surgeon Dr. Nandana Atapattu said it is a crime to have big animals in small cages. “Feeding an animal is not the only factor with regard to their welfare. Big cats should be given ample room. The Singapore zoo is a good example. They have large enclosures and enough space for big animals. In Sri Lanka it is possible to keep these animals in large enclosures by using trenches or electric fences to separate the animals from the public. However there is no space at the Dehiwala zoo to give these large animals the required space. Keeping these animals in small cages will result in their stress levels increasing and their life span reducing,” Dr. Atapattu said.   

The Singapore zoo is just over  100 acres and has given the best possible conditions to the  animals. The Vienna zoo, Sydney zoo, Chester zoo, Czech Republic zoo, Philadelphia zoo Berlin zoo, Munich zoo, United States and UK zoos and many European zoos maintain high quality standards for their animals.

Importance of zoos

Managing Trustee Bio Diversity and Elephant Conservation Trust Jayantha Jayawardene says zoos are very important for people to see animals that cannot be seen elsewhere. A zoo also helps in the conservation of animals that are on the verge of extinction. However a close check has to be kept on the standards of these animals and proper conditions given for them to live and breed. Zoo keeping is an art by itself and only highly trained professionals should be employed to look after the animals,” Jayawardene said.    

Public Recreation Minister Gamini Lokuge told The Sunday Leader that he has requested for a report on the deaths of the animals at the zoo. “I can give you a list of the animals that have died and the cause of their deaths once I get the report,” Lokuge said.

The question is who is responsible for the deaths of these animals and shouldn’t the relevant authorities refrain from bringing down animals not suitable for the Sri Lankan climate? The Sunday Leader learns that Jayaratne is at the zoo only for about an hour or two in the morning on some days and again after 5 p.m. and apparently has no time to speak to the media ‘since he is managing two jobs.’

What happens at the zoo and the suffering of the innocent animals doesn’t seem to matter to the director who when on rare occasions has spoken to The Sunday Leader says he has requested for an investigation into the deaths of these animals and is waiting for the ‘results.’ Deputy Director Renuka Malsinghe who is full time at the zoo when contacted on a previous occasion by The Sunday Leader said she is not authorised to speak to the media.

What goes on at the zoo therefore is anybody’s guess. Animals are dying, suffering and starving with no one interested in their welfare. The zoo director may think he is doing a great service to the country by doing two jobs. However it is obvious that Jayaratne’s job at the Customs Department seems to be more profitable than his job at the zoo since he takes no interest in solving the serious issues regarding the innocent animals. It is the zoo director’s responsibility to at least inquire into these matters even at this late stage and put matters right before the zoo finally loses all its valuable animals.







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