Notes & Essays
Mali the Elephant May Not Be as Lonely as You Think
An animal welfare advocate writes against sending the 'lonely' elephant to Thailand.
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The Unpopular Opinion is Esquire’s space to provide additional insight and introduce new perspectives to issues that we may think have foregone conclusions. These articles don't always reflect our editorial stance, but we publish them here to continue the discourse.

 

Dear friends here in Manila and abroad,

In the last couple of days, the same old PETA campaign has again been making the rounds on Facebook. It shows Manila Zoo's 43-year-old elephant as the loneliest elephant, so sad that she is comforting herself by holding her tail. Sad, right? Then you click on the link and it talks about Mali's poor life at the zoo.

First, the facts. The elephant holding its tail is not Mali (alternatively spelled Maali). It's a photo of an elephant at a Russian zoo from forever ago. PETA knows this, of course, but it's a photo with a story that's designed to tug at your heartstrings! So you, the animal lover that you are click the link, sign the petition, and show your support for the idea of transferring Mali to another country.

Let me tell you my personal Mali story.

Tammie and I moved to Manila in March 2012 after spending 12 years in the U.S. and Canada training animals. We both have degrees in Exotic Animal Training and Management from Moorpark College. I worked in the movie industry in California, training dogs, cats, wolves, lemurs, capuchins, porcupines, eagles, hawks—the works! Tam worked at the L.A. Zoo with tigers, sea lions, koalas, wallabies, and more. Then, we moved to Canada and began working at the BC Wildlife Park, handling bears, wolves, moose, bison, cougars, raised some lion cubs, and trained a whole schwack of free flight birds. To date, that's 17 years of training, training, and training all sorts of animals. But enough about us.

In June of 2012, I chanced upon a news broadcast that PETA was involved. They were protests trying to convince the Manila City government to turn over Mali to them to be transported to a "sanctuary" in Thailand. That very evening, through Manila's social network, we got in touch with the Manila Zoo vet in charge and sent some texts and e-mails expressing our support for the Manila Zoo. We sent our resumes and asked if we could help. Luckily for us, they agreed.

There's John, a volunteer and Mali's best friend. He goes in with her, free contact, no bull hook. He can look into her mouth, ask her to lay down, lift her feet, he bathes her, rubs her down, brushes off any dirt and sand in the cracks and crevices of her elephant skin.

PETAs concerns were many, Mali was lonely, her enclosure was barren and concrete, her nails were untrimmed, she was unhealthy...and on and on and on.

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When we met Mali, we were with zoo vets Dr. Manalastas and Dr Chip, her keepers Noel and Boy, plus a volunteer for 12 years, John, who had an amazing relationship with Mali. Mali was loved!

We talked about starting a training program to start working on PETA's main concern—foot care. We came up with a plan, made some arrangements to modify a training area where we could work with her in a protected setting.

We started coming in two days a week, from Lipa Batangas to Manila Zoo. A two- to three-hour drive in rush-hour traffic to get to the zoo in time for Mali's breakfast at about 9 a.m. Two days a week was not the ideal training schedule, but it was what we could do.

At first, training was simple: our goal was to teach Mali a bridge. A bridge is usually a whistle or a clicker (we used a whistle) or even a simple word like "good" that bridges the gap in time between the correct behavior and the arrival of the food. Imagine you're training your dog, you say "sit," hold your hand up, finger pointing at his nose; his nose follows your finger up, his bum touches the ground and you say "good!"  and then give him a treat. You just used "good" as a bridge. So again, the first days were simple, we would find a safe spot where we could feed her then blow a short quick blast on a whistle, PEEP! Then feed. PEEP! Then feed. Rinse and repeat.

She may or may not fit in with other elephants, she may not act like an elephant should, she may have poor elephant social skills from being alone for so long.

She's a smart elephant, and she learns quickly. Next we asked her to start coming to a permanent training area, she on one side of a fence, and we on the other. She had to learn to present different parts of her body so we could touch it and get her to move into position for training.

Plans changed. Foot care became a lower priority and blood extraction became top priority. PETA was pressuring the city government, the Bureau of Animal Industry, and the DENR to provide blood so they could prove that Mali was a sick, unhealthy elephant.

To do this, we asked Mali to position herself alongside the fence, raise up her trunk, and open her mouth to be fed. Then we raised the criteria: Do all of the above and then flap your ear through the bars so we can touch it. This training took months. Remember, two days a week, for 10 to 15 minutes per day. Finally, we got her to hold her ear steady, long enough to draw blood. It was hit or miss sometimes: The vein we use for blood collection is behind her ear, it's a huge vein, you can't miss it and yet we did! We would get in the vein but there would be no blood—an elephants heart beats about 30 times a minute, compared to a human's heart rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute—so it was a question of timing it right and then the blood would rush into the syringe.

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Dr. Thongtip, an elephant vet from Thailand, reviewed her blood results and declared her in the pink of health.

Blood collected, packed in a cooler, and rushed to a local vet clinic. Results? Mali was a healthy elephant! Slightly overweight, but all her values were consistent with an elephant her age. Dr. Thongtip, an elephant vet from Thailand reviewed her blood results and declared her in the pink of health. He looked at her feet and her cuticles and said they were not bad—that he had seen much worse. They were not causing any foot pain whatsoever, but perhaps a slight diet modification was in order to slim her down a bit.

Now, let's talk about PETA’s concerns. Mali was a single elephant and she was lonely.

My response: Mali is a single elephant, that is fact. She was not always a single elephant. Apparently she used to have an elephant companion that bullied her mercilessly. Is Mali lonely? Mali's keepers spend many hours of the day with her, feeding her, bathing her, scrubbing her skin. They bring grass, fruits, vegetable, sand for bathing in, they see to her every need.

Then there's John, a volunteer and Mali's best friend. He has the most amazing relationship with Mali! He can do anything with her. He goes in with her, free contact, no bull hook. He can look into her mouth, ask her to lay down, lift her feet, he bathes her, rubs her down, brushes off any dirt and sand in the cracks and crevices of her elephant skin. He buys her popsicles from the roving vendors and shares it with her. He has had thousands of zoo patrons feed Mali from across the moat, sharing with them the most amazing experience. Imagine a kid from public school, getting the chance to hand an elephant a banana, she takes it gently with her trunk and kid's eyes just light up! It's the most amazing experience to witness.

Mali lives in a barren concrete encloure. Yes, she does. The Manila Zoo doesn't have a lot of funding. When we started getting involved, local residents paid P20 and non-residents paid P40. Any money collected does not funnel right back to the zoo but is pooled into the general Parks fund and then gets doled out. Her enclosure has two areas, the old section and the new section complete with a waterfall and pool. Her keepers bring in sand to help her "bathe" (think dust bath) and the keepers also provide enrichment, spreading out her food for foraging, placing treats in a plastic container just suspended high above, so she has to bat it with her trunk to get them out. Fruits are frozen in ice blocks for sweltering hot days.

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Mali is lonely? Mali's keepers spend many hours of the day with her, feeding her, bathing her, scrubbing her skin. They bring grass, fruits, vegetable, sand for bathing in, they see to her every need.

Mali would be better off in a sanctuary in Thailand, PETA says. She would be free to roam and learn to be with other elephants.

Here's what I have said to the many children we spoke to while working with Mali. Mali is old, she is in her 40s, and the median age for captive elephants is about 42, so she's a super senior citizen. Pretend Mali is your 90-year-old lola, and you have the opportunity to migrate to another country, will you bring your lola? The pros are clear, better health care, less pollution, better overall quality of life, and the cons? Different environment. She would have to leave the house she has lived in for decades, say good-bye to her routine, to her friends, maybe her mahjong group, she would have to learn a whole new culture, a whole new language. What would you think lola would choose?

Those are the issues surrounding Mali's transfer to a sanctuary in Thailand. She would leave her home of 42 years, be loaded in a container, flown to another country, endure a three- to six-month quarantine before she is introduced to another elephant. She may or may not fit in with other elephants, she may not act like an elephant should, she may have poor elephant social skills from being alone for so long. Mali is not a Thai elephant; she is a Sri Lankan elephant, which is a different subspecies of elephant. Will she be happy? Will they all get along? Will she miss her home? There's no way to really know—and at that point it will be too late.

Pretend Mali is your 90-year-old lola. She would have to leave the house she has lived in for decades, say good-bye to her routine, to her friends, maybe her mahjong group, she would have to learn a whole new culture, a whole new language.

Mali may not be housed with other elephants here but she is not without family. Her family is her keepers, her vets, her beloved volunteer and the millions of Filipino children that have watched her grow into the Mali that she is today.

PETA has collected millions of pesos using Mali as their fundraising poster child and not one cent has gone to help give Mali a better life. If PETA really cared about her quality of life, why don't we start now? Why is their help contingent on moving Mali? If they cared about her like they want you to believe they would be helping her already—not using her for fundraising.

This open letter was published by Isa Garchitorena last night, April 18, on Facebook. As of press time, it has been shared 497 times with over 600 likes. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors. Find the original post here.

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About The Author
Isa Garchitorena
Trainer and animal welfare advocate
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