Malaysian Zoos and a Call to Boycotte
Suffer the animals
By TAN CHENG LI
Caging wildlife for public display is inhumane and unethical but we still see plenty of it here.
A LEASHED pig-tailed macaque looks forlorn in its tiny hut. Nearby, a white-bellied sea eagle is tethered to a log. In a cage, a pair of nocturnal slow lorises desperately seeks cover from the harsh sun. In the paddock, a listless ostrich plucks at its own feathers out of boredom. Squirrels, a leopard cat and a tiger, all creatures which roam large spaces, are instead confined in tiny cages.
These sad sights greet visitors to a mini-zoo in Klang, Selangor. Elsewhere in the country, other mini-zoos, bird parks, reptile farms, butterfly farms and theme parks with wildlife displays fare no better. Many not only house animals in constricted, deplorable conditions and make them perform silly shows, but also run foul of the law by acquiring wildlife illegally.
Our outdated wildlife law, being narrow in scope and loophole-riddled, only serves to perpetuate such places and their inhumane treatment of wildlife.
A leopard cat looking bored in its tiny cage at the Pet Century Petting Zoo in Kampung Jawa, Klang.
Wildlife and National Parks Department’s (Perhilitan) oft-cited excuse is that it has little clout over these places because the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 (WPA) is glaringly silent on them and does not mandate their licensing.
And although cruelty to wildlife carries a penalty of RM5,000 or five years’ imprisonment under the Act, Perhilitan enforcement director Misliah Mohamad Basir contends that “cruelty” is difficult to prove. “When you say a cage is too small, it is subjective. People will ask ‘what is the right cage size for that species?’ This is not spelt out anywhere.”
There is another legislation that checks on animal abuse, the Animal Act 2006 (which succeeds the Animal Ordinance 1956), but it, too, is toothless. It comes under the Veterinary Service Department, which does little enforcement work. Also, the paltry penalty – a fine of RM200 or jail term of six months – is hardly a deterrent.
“The SPCA (Society For Prevention of Cruelty To Animals) had pushed for a higher penalty but to their dismay, when the Act was amended, it remained unchanged,” laments Shoba Mano, the founder of Remembering Sheena Campaign, which advocates against animal abuse.
The problem of poorly-run zoos is a long-standing one and is serious enough for Perhilitan to draft guidelines on management of zoos, including mini-zoos and all facilities with animal, insect and bird displays (see next page). Covering a wide scope, the guidelines pretty much fix the flaws in the WPA.
However, they are of little use because, says Misliah, they are not legally binding. The guidelines cannot be gazetted into an Order or Regulation – which would give it legal bite – because the WPA has no clauses on zoos.
This is baffling. Why draft the guidelines if they are unenforceable and invalid?
Animals on show
All these defects in the law lead to one thing: anybody can start a menagerie. Misliah says some had opened without Perhilitan’s knowledge since they need not apply for an operating licence. Perhilitan has recorded 35 such places in the peninsula. In a 2000 survey, Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) found 20 of them.
These places usually start with the owner applying for “keeping licences”. Issued for “protected” species commonly kept as pets, these are a cinch to obtain, with no questions asked on what your plans are with the animals. Then, to draw in the crowds, the zoo owner applies for “special permits” to keep “totally protected” species. It is also common to display animals “owned” by other individuals, thus expanding the animal collection.
So, do not be surprised by the sight of endangered species such as tapirs, slow lorises or orang utans in mini-zoos. The owners probably hold Perhilitan-sanctioned permits for these animals.
Wildlife should not be made to perform in silly shows.
Perhilitan’s continual issuing of licences and permits, even to past offenders, has raised eyebrows.
“In the first instance, should Perhilitan even be issuing special permits for totally-protected species?” asks World Wide Fund for Nature executive director Dr Dionysius Sharma. “Now, it appears to be no-holds-barred and seems quite easy to get them.”
Last year, 852 permits to keep and trade totally-protected species, mostly birds, were given to individuals (565), zoos (152), mini-zoos (95) and government agencies (40). There are no fees for special permits but the 16,834 keeping licences issued in 2005 for protected wild birds and animals raked in RM219,380 for Perhilitan.
With the ease in getting licences and permits, Sharma fears that mini-zoos may be fronts to feed wild meat restaurants.
Chris Shepherd of wildlife trade monitoring body TRAFFIC shares this concern, and adds that the zoos’ incessant demand for exotic species, to attract visitors, is fuelling trade in threatened species.
He says right now, an endangered species, no matter how imperilled here or in its country of origin, has practically no protection if it is not listed in the WPA. This is the case for many amphibians, turtles, tortoises and fish which are widely traded.
Misliah argues that Perhilitan issues special permits with care, and mostly only for non-threatened species. As for not withdrawing the permits, she says: “We need strong reasons to cancel them. We also consider that zoos contribute to tourism and the economy.”
Since the WPA cannot be totally relied on to check zoos for poor management and cruelty to animals, she says Perhilitan focuses its policing effort in terms of wildlife licences and permits. She says each zoo is checked at least once a year, usually when they apply to renew their wildlife licences and permits. Perhilitan staff then vets their stock books (which record births, deaths and purchases of animals). These are followed by irregular visits, especially for the notorious ones.
But going by the deplorable state of some zoos, the enforcement visits are not frequent enough. Also, instances where seized animals were returned to the zoo operator when he does obtain a licence or permit make a mockery of policing efforts.
Misliah says seized animals are returned only if Perhilitan finds no place to keep or release them to, provided the animals are tame and the zoo has the expertise and facilities to keep them. In many instances, she adds, confiscated animals were not returned, such as the recent seizure of seven slow lorises from a pet shop in
Bill with bite
Misliah, however, is optimistic that the current sad state of affairs in wildlife parks will be history under the proposed new wildlife legislation. The Wildlife Protection and Conservation Bill promises wider coverage, including mandatory licensing of zoos and provisions for animal welfare, minimum cage sizes, high fees for special permits and identification micro-chips for important species to enable tracking. Misliah says the current zoo management guidelines will be gazetted into a Regulation to give it legal sting.
But tabling of this Bill has been shelved countless times. It might be years before it is enforced. What can be done in the mean time to protect captive wildlife?
One way, suggests Shoba, is to stop visiting zoos and theme parks that have a poor record ofwildlife-handling. “By not supporting these places, you can exert pressure on them to change.”
But more importantly, Perhilitan can call the shots: it can always stop renewing and issuing permits to keep totally-protected species.
Report wildlife violations in mini-zoos to Perhilitan at 03-90752872.
Wildlife violations by mini-zoos in 2006 and 2007
Recreation park with mini-zoo (Pahang): Fined RM3,000 for keeping elephant teeth and hide of a barking deer without permits.
Theme park (Malacca): Kept one whitecrested hornbill, one buffy fish owl and one spotted wood owl without permits, and a wild-caught elephant calf. Cases are ongoing.
Bird park (Langkawi): Kept one paradise bird, two leaf monkeys, two pig-tailed macaques and one python without permits. Cases are ongoing. Was also fined RM270 for keeping nine stuffed birds without permits.
Mini-zoo (Kedah): Fined RM6,000 for keeping one rhinoceros hornbill, one black hornbill, three Moluccan cockatoos, two porcupines, one palm civet, one buffy fish owl, two crested serpent eagles and 25 emerald doves without permits.
Mini-zoo (Genting Highlands): Keeping a wild-caught python. Case is ongoing.
Theme park with mini-zoo (Perak): Fined RM400 for keeping one buffy fish owl and one porcupine without permits.
Mini-zoo (Johor): Kept three binturongs, two Malay civet cats, one silver leaf monkey, one masked palm civet and one tapir without permits. Cases are ongoing.
Perhilitan has withheld the names of the zoos.
Guidelines on management of zoos
The operator must prove to the wildlife authority its capability in terms of management, administration, funding and expertise.
Applications for new zoos will be vetted by a special panel with members from wildlife, veterinary, environmental and economic planning agencies, as well as Mazpa, Malaysian Nature Society and external experts.
Applications must include a concept plan specifying species, numbers and size of display areas.
Zoos must have written permission from the wildlife authority and related agencies before they can be set up.
The wildlife authority can stop the zoo operations if it fails to comply with conditions and rules.
Zoos must have good infrastructure, proper enclosures, good animal welfare and nutrition, record-keeping, ensure public safety, conduct post-mortems, offer recreation, be educational, conduct research, promote captive-breeding and help conservation.
Animals must be legally sourced.