Zoo in a Bangkok department store

It is another slow afternoon in an endless string of slow afternoons. Life here is just variations of brown and grey. Grey-brown steel pillars and bars, grey wire mesh, grey walls, brown and grey stone floors. And the constant roar of traffic seven floors below.

The steel bars of this otherwise featureless cage are rusted. The Orang-utan – a huge male, over 20 years old - shuffles his way slowly across the hard stone floor and comes up to the bars of the cage. The female Orang-utan who is sitting there moves away to give him room.

He is twice her size, and one look in his eyes tells you he is not someone you should get in the way of.

He slowly moves up and leans into the bars of his enclosure, arms suspended, fingers hooked into the wire mesh. He presses his face against the heavy wire mesh. He looks at me. Then he closes his eyes, as if in resignation. Such is life.

Opposite their cage is a larger one with an extra outer barrier of glass to keep people and their antics at bay. Through the slightly grimy yellowish glass, I can see the huge black bulk of the gorilla. Restless, bored, alone, with only an inert suspended tractor tyre for entertainment, he prowls the length of the cage, the size of half a badminton court. After a while he gives up and lies down on the stone floor with a sigh. Another animal destined to grow old here.

This is the Pata Zoo that I visited last week, on the top two floors of a tired-looking department store in Bangkok’s Pinklao area, off the tourist track.

There are dozens of species of monkeys, local and exotic birds like flamingos and macaws, and even rabbits, goats, a Shetland pony and a large pig, two tigers and a clouded leopard, in small cages - the largest being the gorilla’s - on this rooftop, in the middle of the city. There is no live plant in the cages. On the floor below are snakes and some aquatic species. There are several pythons. All the reptiles are in glass-fronted boxes lined with straw, arranged in a gloomy semi-dark environment. The whole floor is aptly called The World of Darkness.

The fact that the two-storey zoo is in a department store is bizarre enough. But it is also, in its layout and conditions, almost early 20th century. Across the world, the concept of a zoo has come a long way. The Pata zoo has not. In afternoon “performances” on weekends, primates dressed in children’s clothes are made to lift weights, ride bicycles and do other tricks, even involving fire.Activists have tried to have it closed down, citing the jail-like conditions for species that are intelligent, social and active, and which in those confined conditions become bored, depressed, lonely, sad and dysfunctional.

But the zoo, which has been around for over 30 years, is legal. The Department of National Parks (DNP) told The Straits Times that Pata has a permit that has just expired and has applied for a renewal. It added that there are 44 registered private zoos in Thailand.

The Pata zoo was started by the Sermsirimongkol family that owns the department store. Mr Roger Lohanan, a Thai wildlife and animal rights activist, believes the family sees it as a legacy and wants to keep to it. It has the only gorilla in Thailand, he noted.

“Most Thai people are not happy with this zoo in a building,” he said. “But the family won’t let it go.”

The Pata Zoo has capitalised on loopholes and contradictions in Thailand’s laws, which have produced a veritable legal Gordian knot.

Wildlife is covered under wildlife protection laws, but they protect only species, not the animals’ welfare, Mr Lohanan said.

Thailand does not have an animal welfare law yet; it is in parliament in its second reading. Mr Lohanan is trying to persuade parliamentarians to broaden the law to protect not just domesticated animals, but also wildlife. But the DNP opposes that, saying there is already a wildlife protection law.

Another question is, in the event of a fire, how are the animals to be evacuated?

The Bangkok Metropolitan Association’s laws apparently don’t say anything about animals in a fire, and there is no regulation against keeping animals in a building. The Pata building itself passes all the safety inspections.

Then there is also the issue, Mr Lohanan noted, of the “powerful” zoo lobby. The DNP is afraid of the business interests backing the private zoos, some of which are big and make money, he said.

The Pata Zoo’s director, Mr Kanit Sermsirimongkol, responded readily to questions. His brother Winao, who once sold flip-flops for a living, had started the zoo in 1982, he said. The family maintained the zoo because “we love animals and want to conserve them”.

“If we breed enough animals then we will return them to the forest but that might involve processes, it is not easy. We have to think about their food; whether the community nearby will hunt them or not - but it is what the zoo has to do. But it will take time.”

Asked about those who oppose the zoo, he dismissed them as placing too much emphasis on “feelings” and being part of an ignorant social trend against zoos.

“I must ask those people back why they don’t like it if they understand the animals, and understand the zoo?  The zoo is a place to breed, conserve, research, and swap animals, understand animals. It must give knowledge to people.”

He said while in an open zoo the animals had more space, in a “closed zoo” like Pata, it was easier to treat them in a hurry if they fell ill.

Most wildlife conservationists and even zoo professionals see these as bogus arguments. It is almost impossible to introduce any captive, zoo-bred animal to the wild; it rarely survives. And if access to animals in a more open zoo was a problem, there would be major problems in every open zoo around the world.

Mr Lohanan laughed when he heard Mr Kanit’s explanations. “That’s what he’s been saying for 10 to 15 years,” he said. “We are not asking him to stop maintaining a zoo, we’re talking about having a zoo like this, and in a building. Surely they can turn this into a proper zoo on the ground.”

nirmal@sph.com.sg