Zoo Negara must be run well

I like our Zoo Negara. In fact, I like it a lot.

If one goes early in the morning, just after it opens, the crowds are sparse and one can wander at leisure. It is a very nice place to walk around, too. Large shady trees mean it does not get too hot and when there are few people about, it is actually very peaceful.

Looking at the animals is fun, of course. Generally speaking, the enclosures are well thought out and naturalistic and the animals look healthy.

Not to say that there can't be improvements. The penguin enclosure is quite sad; it looks cramped and in need of a serious upgrade.

While the chimpanzees and orangutans have huge true-to-life open enclosures, the monkeys and gibbons are in drab, albeit fairly spacious, cages.

Right now, the main attraction is, of course, the pandas.

They live in their spanking new purpose-built air-conditioned home and look like lazy tai tais lounging around their luxury palace. The male panda reminded me of my students as he sat leaning against a rock with his head in his paws. Many young men take exactly that same position as they nap in my class.

That is not to say the other animals are not exciting to observe.

The last time I was there, the white tiger fancied himself a bit of a star, leaping into his moat acrobatically to the thrill of the watchers. I was half expecting him (or her, I can't tell) to strike a pose after each leap.

It was an unpleasant surprise, therefore, when I read about complaints against the zoo lodged with the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, which suggest corruption, poor treatment of animals and mismanagement.

I have not seen the report and the minister in charge has said the claims are "being verified".

Well, I hope they are "verified" as soon as possible. The zoo is more than just an example of ex-situ conservation (as espoused by the Biological Diversity Convention, of which we are a party), but it is also an important historic institution with an essential role to play for the people of this country.

Lest we forget, the zoo was the brainchild of Tunku Abdul Rahman, who said that the people of the city needed a place where they could go and relax and enjoy themselves with their families.

Learning something from the experience is also a bonus (for example, I didn't know that pandas once lived in Myanmar and Vietnam).

Tunku understood the need for a natural peaceful oasis that people can retreat to and, if I am not mistaken, he had in mind all the people, not just the wealthy. It is important, therefore, that the zoo is run well.

From a humanitarian point of view, the animals must be well cared for. From a social point of view, the zoo cannot be an elitist treat. Keeping the price low means, of course, we can't compete with the top zoos of the world. I don't really care about that.

I think it more important that apart from providing a sanctuary to animals, a zoo also plays a role in providing a community service.

You can't do that with astronomical prices.

So if those prices can be kept low if we manage the zoo better and if there is no corruption, and if that same good governance means the animals are better cared for, then action must be taken. Perhaps it is not that big an issue for many, considering the "wealth" of problems we are faced with.

Perhaps. But as I wandered around the zoo enjoying the sights, sounds and yes, the smells, along with many ordinary Malaysians, it was a moment when I did not have to think of the political, economic, societal and legal rubbish that occurs in this country.

Instead I could smile at the antics of the animals. I don't know about anyone else, but that tiny escape means a lot.

Azmi Sharom (azmisharom@yahoo.co.uk) is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.