Manila Zoo: From dirty and dated to scrubbed and modern 2
A replica of Mali, the zoo’s nearly 50-year-old elephant welcomes Manila Zoo visitors at the entrance. Photo: ABS-CBN News

How a student thesis and P1.7 billion transformed the Manila Zoo

The popular destination for the city’s kids has more than cleaned up its act and will soon be ready for visitors
RHIA GRANA | Jan 13 2022

“Deplorable,” “depressing,” “horrendous,” “major bay polluter” were among the words people used to describe the Manila Zoo. Its state of affairs had been a recurrent topic for discussion among animal rights and environmental activists for a long time. 

There’s PETA’s (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) persistent call for Mali, the lone elephant at the zoo, to be released from its barren cement enclosure. The organization said Mali, now nearly 50 years old, should instead be placed in an elephant sanctuary where it can receive proper care. 

Manila Zoo
Mali, the zoo's lone elephant, now has more room to roam around. Photo: ABS-CBN News

Sometime in 2011, the zoo became a trending topic when a blogger named Nix posted a couple of stories depicting the sad state of the animals inside it. There were those that were malnourished and wounded, in need of urgent care, housed in cramped cages and dirty habitats. At that time, plastic waste were also strewn everywhere.

Manila Zoo
The aviary is equipped with an elevated walkway. Photo: ABS-CBN News

In 2019, just when the zoo turned 60, it once again took the spotlight when Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu tagged it as one of Manila Bay’s major pollutants. As part of the agency’s efforts to rehabilitate the Manila Bay, Cimatu conducted an inspection of the zoo in January of that year and confirmed reports that the facility in fact never had its own sewage treatment plant (STP). Until it builds an STP,  the zoo was disallowed to discharge untreated wastewater into the estuaries that led to the bay. In response to this, then-Manila Mayor Erap Estrada ordered the indefinite closure of the facility.

Manila Zoo
The Butterfly Garden showcases 200 butterfly species. Photo: ABS-CBN News

Brand new Manila Zoo

After rehabilitation efforts the past couple of years, an improved and upgraded Manila Zoological and Botanical Garden was presented recently by Mayor Isko Moreno to media. In an interview with ANCX, Manila’s Public Recreation Bureau OIC Pio Morabe Jr. says a major inspiration for the redevelopment was the thesis of UST Architecture graduate Kevin Siy.

The then 23-year-old architect, a self-confessed animal lover, posted images of his proposed redevelopment plan on Facebook. This was spotted by one of Manila’s councilors, who then showed it to Mayor Isko. In July 2019, the Manileño architect had the chance to personally present his thesis proposal to City Hall and consequently donated his park design to the city government.

Manila Zoo was a big part of Siy’s childhood. “I really had a couple of great memories with my family there. And as I pass by the zoo going to school, seeing it fade through time made me turn it into my thesis project,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “I thought that making a thesis project that is close to my heart can motivate me more in making a good design.”

Manila Zoo
The Manila City government tapped Jose T. Mañosa & Associates to do the more detailed plans for the zoo. Photo: ABS-CBN News
Manila Zoo
The Botanical Garden is a haven for plantitos and plantitas. Photo: ABS-CBN News

Siy’s vision for the zoo made the welfare and comfort of animals top consideration. “Gusto ko kasi hindi 'yong mga animals 'yong naka-enclose. Parang gusto ko 'yong tao ang naka-enclose," Siy told ABS-CBN News. “Ayoko ma-feel ng mga animals na sila 'yong nae-enclose kasi parang tayo 'yong bumibisita [sa habitat nila].”

The Manila LGU tapped Jose T. Mañosa & Associates to do the more detailed plans for the zoo. According to Morabe, Siy was coordinating with the firm during the process, and parts of his design were upgraded and altered to fit existing space allotments.

Morabe was likewise instructed by the Manila Mayor to check out the Singapore Zoo to get some inspiration. Together with Trixie Mañosa, he had the chance to consult with former Singapore Zoo CEO Bernard Harrison who is known for advocating the open-zoo concept, showcasing animals as free-roaming within wide enclosures—a concept aligned with what Kevin had in mind.

Manila Zoo
The zoo now has its own Sewage Treatment Plant. Photo: ABS-CBN News

Long time coming

Since the Manila Zoo was established in 1959, this is the first time it underwent a major redevelopment—a makeover that reportedly cost P1.7 billion. 

What has changed? According to Morabe, the animal cages used to be manually operated. Now, these could be operated both electrically and mechanically. Today’s zoo also has a bigger aviary, complete with an elevated walkway, allowing closer encounters with the feathered creatures. A butterfly garden with 200 species of butterflies is also a major feature, as are the  500 other animals in the property. Mali, a popular attraction, now has a bigger space to roam around. 

Manila Zoo
The Manila Zoo noticeably has more greeneries now. Photo from the Manila Public Information Office's Facebook page

The Public Recreation Bureau OIC says the zoo currently houses 248 animal species but they are planning to acquire more. “When I took office, there was no giraffe, zebra, hippopotamus. Wala na din tayong ibang cats.” Morabe says now there’s a lion, a tiger, snakes, even crocodiles that measure 18 to 20 feet. There are macaws, cockatoos, storks, peacocks and ostriches. “Pero kailangan madagdagan pa,” he says.

Manila Zoo
The animal cages are operated both electrically and mechanically. Photo from the Manila Public Information Office's Facebook page

The zoo also finally has its own STP. “Six stages ang [wastewater] treatment nya so malinis ang end-product,” Morabe offers. The Manila Zoo also hired four in-house veterinarians.

Morabe shares that the rehabilitation effort was no joke. One of the major challenges they had to deal with was temporarily transferring the animals in smaller cages during the course of the construction. “Na-trauma and na-stress ang ibang animals kasi pukpukan ng pukpukan 24 hours a day. Si Mali hindi makatulog kaya pumayat,” he says. Some animals found difficulty laying eggs. But it was not only the animals who got sick. Some of the zoo’s staff also contracted Covid.

Manila Zoo
The fountain area remains an attraction inside the zoo. Photo from the Manila Public Information Office's Facebook page

But all’s well now, from the looks of it. Currently being built is the zoo’s museum and reptile house, a playground, parks, and kiosks where people can dine. But it can’t be visited by the public just yet. “Inaayos pa namin para safe ang mga animals, ang mga animal keepers, at mga visitors.”

The zoo is set to reopen during the first quarter of 2022.