Friday, June 13, 2014

Ethnography 101: My Manila Zoo

I would always ask my college and graduate students in Anthropology, aside from learning anthropological concepts and theories inside the classroom, to explore places, experience cultural or social happenings, and write ethnographic accounts using the participation-observation method. 

I am posting in my blog with the writer's consent selected ethnography penned creatively by my students to contribute to the emerging sub-discipline of anthropology called 'Virtual Ethnography'. 

Photo from

Basically, virtual ethnography is also referred to as Webnography. We cannot deny the fact that with increasing use of technology and the Internet, there is now a demand for online spaces on ethnographies.

By Elisha Ponio

Before all else, I must say that although I love animals, I dislike the concept of zoos and ocean parks. I’m not trying to be dramatic or anything—it’s just discouraging to consider how something alive and breathing can be reduced to a mere display. More often than not, these displays are coated with dual purposes, such as a zoo which also serves as a rehabilitation area for animals. After all, perhaps there is a noble motive behind this ‘tactic’ in order to put animal activists at ease, and that is to contribute to the welfare of other creatures.

            For this ethnography, I had to try as much as possible to strip myself of my bias against zoos. I had to keep myself open-minded to the possibility that the animals are better off within their cages. It was time to search for proof.

During the Ethnography (in present tense)

            I arrive with some family members at Manila Zoo around 4.45 in the afternoon (the traffic was unbelievable!) on April 25, 2014. It’s a Friday. After we park, we pay the entrance fee (Php100 for adults and Php60 for children below 4 feet). The first thing I notice are the vendors selling green mangoes, popsicles, and other things at the entrance. I step on bubblegum (eew…) when I notice the payphone. I wonder why there’s a payphone here. Heck, I wasn’t even sure payphones still existed in the Philippines, but for some reason it’s a welcoming sight, even more welcoming than the elephant statue nearby.

            The first visitors I see are around 5 children with a couple who is most likely their parents. Then, I notice the big dome-shaped cage filled with birds of different species. First observation? Too many birds, too little space. Though I don’t linger for long since that is supposed to be the last part of the suggested trail.

            We walk to the Asian elephant area. I read the description. Part of it says that only males have tusks. Does that mean poachers kill only male elephants for their tusks? It makes me imagine how many female elephants have been widowed when their husband elephants get killed.

            Maali, the only elephant, is now 40 years old. Has she been trapped her entire life? I don’t know, so I try to approach the man in orange. His name is Kuya Noel, Maali’s keeper for 10 years (wow!). I find out from him that Maali is the only elephant in the Philippines so it’s a privilege for him to work with her. I wonder if she’s aware of the fact that she’s all alone as she chews her grass, the only green against the greyness of her area. There’s elephant dung in three or four spots within her cage. I move on.

            We enter the reptile area. I see the reticulated pythons. The complex, geometric patterns of their bodies (that’s how the sign describes them) amaze me. They are completely still (you’d think they weren’t alive) until I see one of them blink. I step on bubblegum again. A man ahead of me growls at the snakes. A boy beside me growls at them, too. It’s probably because humans, who are usually so afraid of them, now have the liberty to scare these snakes in return, but the snakes remain unmoved.

            Then, I see the turtles. Like the birds, they are so many in such a tiny pond. I peer closely at one of the turtles on the ground and realise she’s burying her egg. It’s a bittersweet sight to see.

            My Dad tells me to check out the hippo. I wonder if I’m dreaming because all I see is a gigantic longganisa. But no, it’s not a longganisa, it’s the hippo. A father nearby says it might be pregnant. I can’t even tell if it’s male or female. Whether it’s a boy or girl, it’s totally cute.

            At the sides, I approach the crocodiles. First observation? Like the snakes, they are completely still. I wonder if they think they’re still alive. Next observation? Their pond is littered with a few plastic bottles and a slipper. My sister claims she saw a Yakult bottle, too. My reaction? Annoyance. I hope their pits and ponds get cleaned soon before they ingest a bottle. Plastic bottles should not be part of a crocodile’s diet.

            The deer aren’t better off either. They don’t have that much trash in their area, but their legs are swarmed with flies; they’re really stinky. There are black pellets all over the ground, and I am appalled at how thin their fur is. Maybe it’s the heat?

            Then there’s a grassier area in the middle. My jaw drops upon seeing this weird hybrid of a brown horse and a zebra. It’s really creepy at first until it stands beside a more normal-looking zebra. They actually look like a couple. Nearby, some sheep stand in the middle, looking lost. They look filthy, not white at all. I can only imagine how hard it must be for the sheep to carry the weight of their dirty wool in this heat. I start crying because I feel bad for the sheep.

            I try to stop crying when we approach the tiger. My Dad thinks it’s pregnant, which is possible because it’s caged and separated from all the other tigers in the zoo that are in a more forest-like area. At first, the tiger is still. It just looks at us, but my Dad (being the crazy person that he is) starts using his baby voice and talks to the tiger. The rest of us laugh at him, but the tiger tries to run after him when he starts to leave. My cousins and I call back my Dad to get the attention of the tiger and we spend thirty minutes just cooing at the tiger and observing its wild antics as it walks on the ledge of its pool, chasing after its huge purple ball. When it jumps, we scream. When it pounces, we scream again. It is just like my pet cats.

            We waste so much energy on the tiger that the lion doesn’t rouse us as much anymore even if it also has a purple (less ragged than the tiger’s) ball. It is as active as the tiger, and it is just as cute. At first, I say it’s a lioness, but my sister points out its mane which has been cut. Too bad it doesn’t look like the real thing anymore because of its lack of a bushy mane. Some metres away, a sign that reads “SMOKING AREA” hangs overhead. I frown. (Why would there be a smoking zone here?)

            Next, I spare a couple of minutes staring at a monkey with red nipples (or was it a baboon?) and another baboon (?) eating a bright yellow mango. They are funny creatures. As for the actual monkeys, I spend more time observing them, trying to see if they act like humans. First observation? They love to hold things. Next observation? The ground has a couple of candy wrappers mixed with branches and stones at the bottom of their pit. I try not to roll my eyes at the litter and instead focus on the monkeys again. They climb the trees and the monkey bars (LOL, monkey bars!) so effortlessly that I wish I could imitate them. Before I move on, I catch a glimpse of a little ‘toddler’ monkey. It is sooooo cute.

            I stop walking when I see and hear two tigers fighting in one of the tiger pits. Their roars are definitely scary but unforgettable. I move along after they stop fighting to check out the hippo again. It’s now submerged in its murky, leaf-covered water. It makes me want to take a bath, too.

            As dusk starts to settle, I find myself back in the bird area. I take my time looking at the different species of eagles, marvelling at how pretty they are. The stench of something like fish hits my nostrils and it makes me ask myself if birds and fishes smell the same. It starts to get noisier by the minute and I wonder what the birds are trying to tell each other. I approach the different owls, taking note of how they perch together with heads bowed low as if they were praying. I try to talk to an eagle owl and it opens an eye at me for a minute before it goes back to ignoring me.

            I’ve reached the end, which is also the beginning. I walk to the merienda area which resembles a cafeteria. A mahogany tree stands nearby, but it’s no ordinary tree. Its sign says, “TREE FOR LIFE” along with the date it was planted here (April 15, 2000) which also happens to be the same day as my sister’s birthday. I continue looking around the merienda area and notice a Nativity scene, a wishing pond, and a statue of some saint. They’re not animals but I guess they’re on display, too.

            Before we leave, I notice the sign at the entrance that says “MANILA ZOO IS A NO SMOKING ZONE” and I suddenly remember seeing a smoking area near the lion’s cage earlier. I wonder if the staff people are aware of how ironic that situation is. I see a suggestion box but it doesn’t enter my mind to tell that to them.

            It’s time to leave now.

-          Overall impression: Not clean enough.
-          Are the animals better off in this zoo than in the wild? No.
-          But did I enjoy seeing the animals up close? Half and half. I felt pity mixed with eagerness.
-          Was it worth Php100 after all? Yes, but they’ll have to improve the maintenance.
-          Will I go back? I’ll never know till then.

(Please don’t mind how fragmented my notes are.)

Entrance fee 100Php, someone selling green mangoes and popsicles. I stepped on bubblegum. A man is playing a flute. There is a payphone. A big elephant statue greets my eyes. There’s a family, a crying child.

Dome-shaped cage. Birds. We were walking at the wrong start. So we walk.

Elephants. females (Asian elephants). Don’t have tusks. So does that mean they kill males only for tusks? Maali is 40. Kuya Noel has been her keeper for 10 years. Dating tauhan ni Kim Atienza. Only elephant in the Phils.

Lots of snake poop. Reticulated python. Complex, geometric pattern. Like a handbag. Orange bug. Everything is still until one of them breathes. No blinking. They are alive, too. Kumpol-kumpol sila. I’m getting the shivers all over. I stepped on bubblegum again. Parang mag-asawa sila, sabi ng Ate sa tabi. Why are they standing? Some guy roars at the snake. Some child roars at the snake.

Painted turtle. They’re so many in such a small place. Laying an egg. Eating. They’re like snakes. Hippo looks like a longganisa from afar. Isa lang yan, wala na? Sabi ng Tatay sa tabi, buntis daw si Hippo. So cute. Still getting shivers. I smell animals.
Anong nandito? Oh shucks, it’s a crocodile!!
There’s cotton on the place, like UP. Still like statues. Are they holding their breaths, too?
Deer hair looks so thin. Deer stood and looked at me. Maraming langaw. Lots of black pellets on the ground. Empty chairs. What is this mangrove? What the hell is that horse? Phil eagle. Horse and zebra. Pregnant zebra? Two sheep. Dirty sheep. I started crying. Little white horse. Tiger is so cute. but small and caged. Pag alis ni kuya tumayo siya. Ball (ragged). The tiger loves my dad. It attacked!!!
Some boy roars at the tiger. When I said bye, it said bye (by meowing??).

Weird poop. Lion. No mane, but it has balls. Don’t bite your cage!!! Ball niya mas ayos kaysa sa tiger.
Manong Guard Jaime is from Bicol. He has a child studying in UP Diliman. Eating mango monkey. WHY IS THERE A SMOKING AREA??!!

Tiger in a much bigger cage. Alone and sleepy. Another tiger: scratchy. Fish: catfish. Sweet and sour, sabi ng Ate sa tabi. Another tiger with tiger. Candy wrappers and litter on the floor of the monkey cage. Monkey bars. They like holding things. Ang daming kalat. What’s that rattling noise? Some monkeys on the tree. One fat monkey with bald patches. There’s a baby monkey!!! Smelly. Fighting tigers!!! Cute hippo in the water.

Boat to the peacock. Pretty birds, eagles? Sea eagle. They run nicely. The birds are so noisy. Wala sa cage? Brahminy Kite bird, so pretty. White droppings everywhere. Smells like fish. Owls are sleeping. Some signs describing the owls are incorrect. They sleep together in the dark with their heads bowed like they’re praying. Some birds aren’t caged. They’re flying overhead. Eagle owl, so fat. It opened an eye and closed it. Such warm brown eyes. It opens from above? The upper eyelid is still.

Different species of birds in one cage. The end is the beginning. Merienda area. Tree for life. Nativity. Souvenirs. Some saint. Posters of missing people.


We are in the car, it’s still traffic, and it feels like I’m caged, too.

No comments: