MANILA (Reuters Life!) - Sisi slowly browses through the yellow pages, looking not for a phone number but for peanuts and sunflower seeds hidden in the directory.
Mali plays with a block of ice containing apples and oranges, crushing it with her feet to get at the fruit.
Sisi, a 23-year-old orangutan, and Mali, a 33-year-old elephant, are two of a number of mammals and birds undergoing behavioral therapy at Manila Zoo as part of a program to combat the stress and boredom of living in captivity.
The program is Manila’s answer to criticism that conditions at its 49-year-old zoo, among the oldest in Asia, are dismal — so dismal that other zoos refuse to send their animals there.
“As you can see, some animals here are living for almost 20 years and they are well taken care of,” said Deogracias Manimbo, the zoo administrator.
“We feed them well and we are doing our best to improve our facilities,” he said.
His zoo houses 688 animals, mostly birds and reptiles and a number of indigenous species such as the bear cat and long-tailed macaques. But there are few big animals, and a proposed animal swap with other zoos failed.
An animal rights group blocked the transfer of elephants and giraffes from Tanzania to the Philippines in exchange for crocodiles, warning that animals in Manila Zoo were housed in cramped and barren cages and exposed to sweltering heat.
“All confined animals suffer from profound boredom — some so severely that it can lead to self-mutilation and self-destructive behavior,” said the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in a letter to the Tanzanian government.
The row pits animal rights activists against zoo officials who argue that the animals are being treated properly, and that their establishment offers a cheap form of recreation in a poor country.
Donald Manalastas, a veterinarian, said Manila Zoo only acquires animals that are bred in captivity, not plucked from the wild. He also rejected calls by PETA to release the zoo animals back into the wild, saying they are better off in the zoo.
“We strongly believe that these animals that have been ‘hand-fed’ and housed for a period of time will not survive if released in the wild, for they have lost their natural ability to hunt food,” Manalastas said.
But he said maintaining a public zoo is a challenge and unruly visitors often give zoo officials a headache.
Junk food and candy wrappers or plastic bottles can be seen in some animal cages as visitors often break the “no animal feeding” rule and taunt the animals to get their attention.
Some animals in the zoo have died from intestinal obstruction after eating plastic, Manalastas said.
The zoo, open daily from 8 am to 6 pm, charges non-Manila residents 40 pesos ($0.95) and Manila residents only 20 pesos. It remains a popular choice for educational field trips and the number of visitors averages about 2,300 a day.
Reporting by Karen Lema; editing by Sophie Hardach