Environment & Wildlife

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The Dehiwala Zoo Controversy: To Shut Down or Not?

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Will the (in)famous Dehiwala Zoo that just completed 80 years running soon be shut down? While pressure is mounting on zoo officials to end the suffering of its animals, a battle rages on, with some environmentalists demanding that the zoo be shut down altogether, and others suggesting that it be developed, and continue functioning as a conservation and education centre.  

The issue, however, is a great deal more complex than is implied by these two options.

Two Sides of the Coin

A caged ostrich at the Dehiwala Zoo. Image courtesy Campaign To Shut Down Dehiwala Zoo

An ostrich in its enclosure at the Dehiwala Zoo. Image courtesy Campaign To Shut Down Dehiwala Zoo

According to the Acting Director General of the Dehiwala Zoo, Dammika Malsinghe, the zoo has 275 species of animals and 275 permanent staff, while the income of the zoo for 2015 was Rs. 150 million. The question is, if the zoo closes down, what would happen to these animals that cannot fend for themselves because they are used to being fed by their keepers? What would happen to all the staff? Will the curators be able to find jobs looking after animals elsewhere, or would they have to take up jobs that have nothing to do with animals in sheer desperation? These are pressing questions that need to be addressed if a decision is taken to shut down the zoo.

The zoo has had its ups and downs in the past, with the chief criticism against it being that animals are not well-cared for, and are forced to reside in small, unhygienic cages or enclosures. However, earlier this year, Sustainable Development and Wildlife Minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera made it very clear that he had no intention of shutting down the zoo, despite mounting pressure from environmentalists and activists.     

Minister Perera, while speaking at the zoo’s 80th year anniversary at the Dehiwala Zoo, said that there are many NGOs that want the zoo shut down because the animals are suffering. “There are shortcomings at the zoo and we are working on these issues to make the zoo a better place for its animals. But the zoo will not be shut down,” he said.  

Featuring prominently amidst the criticism hurled at the Dehiwala zoo, is a petition put forward by Embark Founder and animal rights activist, Otara Gunewardene, to close down the zoo, and this has caused quite a stir. In her petition, Otara states that she joins thousands of compassionate and concerned citizens of Sri Lanka and the world who have come together to call for the closure of the Dehiwala Zoo. “Together, we appeal for a rescue and rehabilitation plan with a clear timeline for the animals, the conversion of the premises for alternate public use such as a park and botanical garden that protects the valuable flora on the site, provide skilled employment to the Zoo employees, and the commitment to provide Sri Lanka’s children with the right education in conservation and compassion,” her statement reads.

Otara Gunewardene says in her petition that animals being confined to small enclosures is one among many issues that are serious cause for concern. Image courtesy lt.lk

Otara Gunewardene says in her petition that animals being confined to small enclosures is one among many reasons why the Dehiwala Zoo must be shut down. Image courtesy lt.lk

According to Gunewardene, the animals at the zoo “continue to suffer in silence”, with some of them being confined to very small spaces, and others in pain due to injury or sickness, among other issues that the petition highlights.

“The Dehiwala Zoo has become a place of suffering for all its animals from the largest to the smallest… In response, government officials have stated that the Zoo provides “education” and “entertainment” to Sri Lanka’s underprivileged children, and therefore it should not be shut down. It is time for the Sri Lankan government to STOP exploiting Sri Lanka’s most vulnerable entities; our children from disadvantaged and remote parts of the island, in order to keep the Dehiwala Zoo in operation under the guise of an “education” that the majority of Sri Lankans know to be inadequate, misleading and cruel,” Gunewardene explains in her online petition.

She adds that the wildlife ‘education’ programmes of the zoo involve the animals being put on display and being “forced to perform dangerous tricks for crude entertainment.”

Rectifying Problems?

Zoo officials say that plans are underway to replace cages with enclosures for the bigger animals. Pictures here is a tiger in a newly constructed enclosure.

Zoo officials say that plans are underway to replace cages with enclosures for the bigger animals. Pictured here is a tiger in a newly constructed enclosure. Image courtesy Shantha Jayaweera

However, with criticism mounting against zoo officials and the appointment of a Minister who claims to have the best interest of the animals at heart, zoo officials say they have started replacing cages with larger enclosures for the big animals.

Acting Director General of the Dehiwala Zoo, Dammika Malsinghe, said at the Zoo’s 80th-year celebrations that an arena for elephants will be completed by the end of 2016 and that the elephants will be free of chains. “Some of the animals are single because we haven’t been able to get them suitable partners from overseas zoos. The excess animals will be sent to the Safari Park in Hambantota and the Pinnawala zoo. The zoo has being criticised for many years. Developing the facilities of the animals at the zoo will take time, but plans are underway to make the zoo one of the best in Asia,” she said.

Others also remind us that many reputed environmentalists who have contributed towards the conservation of animals and the environment once depended on this zoo for their education, or were directly involved with the zoo itself.

For instance, as environmentalist Shantha Jayaweera pointed out, a former Zoo Director, the late Lyn de Alwis, was instrumental in saving the Wasgamuwa National park many years ago.

Jayaweera, who is the President of the Organisation for Aquatic Resources Management, explained to Roar that the operations of the zoo don’t necessarily have to be viewed in a negative light.

“If an orphaned animal is found from the wild it is the zoo that takes care of the animal. The baby sloth bears that were abandoned by their mothers are now at the zoo because the Department of Wildlife Conservation has said they don’t have the facilities to rehabilitate these bears and release them to the wild,” he said.

Children drawing pictures of the birds they observe at the zoo. Among the arguments for keeping the zoo open is that it provides a means of education for many.

Children drawing pictures of the birds they observe at the zoo. Among the arguments for keeping the zoo open is that it provides a means of education for many. Image courtesy Shantha Jayaweera

Jayaweera added that the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage looked after a blind tusker for many years and that a child or adult who cannot afford to go to Africa to see a giraffe can see the animal at the zoo. “The zoo has successfully bred animals that are extinct in the wild. We learnt that elephants can make more than 30 sounds and sleep for four hours by studying them at the zoo. When the sloth bear gave birth to a baby at the zoo she didn’t leave the baby for three months. We learnt about this animal’s behaviour from the zoo. What would happen to the macaw breeder at the zoo if it were to shut down?” he said.

It is difficult to deny that the zoo is badly in need of improvement in certain aspects; although as, zoologist Dilan Peiris told Roar, if the zoo has shortcomings, these issues should be addressed and measures taken to improve the present living conditions of the animals. He went on to add that, “Closing down the zoo because the animals are not treated well is not the solution to the problem. The country has to have a zoo for the future generations. I have been in and out of the zoo for the past 15 years and this place is like a second home to me.” He pointed out that it is the ignorance of people that calls for the shutting down of the zoo,  “They don’t know the importance and value of having a zoo,” he said, expressing his concern that the activists who call for the shutting down of the zoo aren’t providing a feasible solution for the animals. “If you want to help the animals by improving the zoo, give us your support. We cannot exactly put all the zoo animals in cages like dogs and give them to people to look after, can we?”

Commenting on the demands to close down the zoo, environmental lawyer, Jagath Gunawardena, told Roar that the Dehiwala Zoological Gardens is a Government department and since the mandate of the zoo has not been given to another Government department, there is no logical or justifiable reason to shut down the zoo. “There is no other department that plays the role of the Zoological Department and nothing has happened for the zoo to be closed down,” Gunawardena explained.  

Going by what we have learnt, it is evident that environmentalists and activists appear divided on the issue of whether the zoo should be shut down or not. The one thing most people involved claim to have in common, however, is that they have the animals’ best interests at heart. For now, the fate of the animals at the Dehiwala Zoo will depend on the development initiatives that officials have thus far promised.   

Featured image credit: Flickr/Nazly Ahmed

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