By Risidra Mendis
It was a fun filled occasion for people but certainly not for the animals of the National Zoological Gardens in Dehiwala, when it was declared open to the public by Sustainable Development and Wildlife Minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, a few days ago. Night time at the zoo is usually quiet as the animals are finally free to get some rest away from the prying eyes of the visitors. However, their nocturnal peace was shattered when an area of 15 acres was opened to the public. Even though the Minister and Director General National Zoological Gardens Dammika Malsinghe assured animal welfare activists and the media that animals will not be harassed when the night zoo is opened, that is exactly what happened to some of them.
The scheduled opening of the zoo was 7.30p.m. However, as the deadline drew near, at around 6.45p.m., loud noises of last minute construction work were heard near the Bengal tiger enclosure. The workers were more focussed on meeting their deadline before the minister’s arrival, than on the welfare of the sleeping animals.
Even though the minister arrived at around 7.12p.m., officials from the ministry and zoo as well as foreign dignitaries were kept waiting for Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who never arrived. It was State Minister of Finance, Eran Wickramaratne who finally arrived to represent Samaraweera.
The first enclosure Perera visited was that of the Bengal tigers where a cub was kept inside the cage until he arrived. This enclosure was brightly lit up, despite the assurance by zoo officials that all enclosures would have dim lights at night. The cage connecting the Bengal tiger enclosure was finally opened. But as the minister and distinguished guests looked on, the tiger cub refused to come out. Zoo keepers could be seen forcibly pushing the cub to get him out of the cage. After about 15 to 20 minutes, the cub reluctantly came out of the cage and the zoo keepers shut the cage doors. The terrified animal could be seen limping and trying to get back into its cage in fear of the bright lights and visitors. Frightened, he finally chose a dark area close to its cage and sat on the ground. The cub refused to move from that spot and remained there long after the minister departed.
Perera moved onto the second enclosure of Bengal tigers and White tigers. A piece of raw meat attached to a hook could be seen hanging from a cable wire inside the enclosure. The piece of raw meat was lowered to the centre of the enclosure for the Bengal tiger to catch it. As the Bengal tiger got close to the piece of raw meat visitors started flashing their cameras to capture the tiger catching the piece of meat. The Bengal tiger got scared of the flashing cameras and turned around and ran away from the piece of meat. Zoo officials obviously failed to understand that getting animals to perform in such a manner is also considered as harassment. The Bengal tiger enclosure also had a newly cemented pond with water. The drinking water for the Bengal tiger had cement dust floating on the top.
There was, however, some respite for the reptiles and the ornamental fish and some of the other animals such as the zebras, who were seen peacefully walking around in their enclosure.
The night time silence was once again disrupted for the animals when a video on the night zoo was screened to blaring music.
Ironically though, the leaflet given to visitors coming to the night zoo clearly states that it is strictly prohibited to harass, tease and feed the animals. In his speech, Perera clearly says the animals will not be harassed and that the night zoo is the ideal place for people to relax and enjoy watching the behaviour of nocturnal animals.
“The zoo is now moving toward the ‘born free – cage free’ concept. I’m an animal lover and I will make sure that no animal is harassed at the night zoo,’ Perera explained.
Malsinghe stated that “After 81 years, the Dehiwala Zoo was opened for the first time at night to the public. We had about a month to get everything organized for the opening. We checked the lighting inside the enclosures and on the pathways for visitors, to make sure there was adequate lighting at night. The idea of the open zoo is not to harass animals. Today’s opening of the zoo at night was a success. Foreigners who stay in hotels and have nothing to do can visit the zoo at night.”
Some of the animals that can be viewed at night include, leopards, fishing cats, rusty spotted cats, Nile and pigmy hippos and elephants. Taking a ride in an electric buggy cart is also possible, as long as you are willing to spend Rs 2,000 for a ride lasting one hour. Visitors are advised to refrain from littering the premises. Alcohol and drugs are strictly prohibited as well.
“Taking photos using the flash is prohibited as this will disturb the animals at night,” Malsinghe explained.
However, there were some guests who thought it fit to wear glittery sarees for the opening. One can only wonder if the animals found it as unsettling as it looked.
It is now left to be seen as to how the animals will be treated when the zoo opens to the public from Friday to Sunday, every week between 7p.m. to 10p.m.