Much like Singapore, whose name “Singapura” meant “Lion City” after a Sumatran prince saw a lion-like creature upon landing on its shores, Surabaya is also a place that got its name in reference to some animal. For Surabaya, it’s actually two – “Sura” from “shark” and “buwaya”, the crocodile. Some ancient Javanese myth had these two creatures fighting over the territory, so the story goes. As such, a giant sculpture of a shark and a crocodile in deadly combat grace the entrance of one of Asia’s biggest, and oldest zoos located in Eastern Java.
I had always made it a point to put local zoos on my list of tourist attractions to visit during my travels abroad. I already got to visit the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari in July 2006 after attending a Legal Pluralism conference. In August 2006, I went on a month-long Applied Study Program on Sexual Diversity in Indonesia. While my first time in Java in June 2006 mainly kept me in the Western area of Jakarta and Depok, this 28-day training would bring me to Surabaya which was in East Java. Besides being known as a popular international port area and playing a significant role in the independence of Indonesia from the Dutch, Surabaya also had the honor of having a historically significant zoo.
Established back when the European Colonials still lorded over much of Asia, it was meant to have the most extensive collection of animals in Indonesia. Because it is already old, some of the cages and animal’s living spaces still seemed cramped compared to most modern-day zoos. But the actual area the zoo covered was one of the largest I’ve ever seen and my legs ached from walking the distance from one enclosure to another.
Surabaya Zoo had the usual “large” animals – elephants, giraffes, zebras, camels, ostriches, a couple of lions, some tigers, a cheetah, Malaysian Sun Bears, as well as some gorillas and monkeys. But there were at least two creatures I needed to see because they were indigenous to Indonesia; and that was the orangutan from Borneo, and the Komodo Dragon from Papua.
Orangutans were said to be even smarter than gorillas and could communicate with humans better. They had facial expressions and their hands can grasp you like a real person. But the adult orangutan I saw looked so depressed and turned away as we approached to view it. Komodo Dragons, on the other hand, are notorious “meat-eaters” that will not spare humans if given the chance. Their bites are lethal because their saliva is full of bacteria that can cause infections on a wound. If you don’t get eaten right away by a “pack” of dragons, you can probably walk away but you won’t have much time left. The Komodo Dragon is a “patient” predator and will wait until you get so weak, you can’t fight it off anymore as it begins to feast on your flesh.
A few years later, after having visited our own Avilon Zoo in Rizal, I would say it was the only local zoo that could rival its foreign counterparts both in size and its menagerie of animals. It was only in Avilon that I got to see the Malaysian tapir, a capybara, an Australian wallaby, a meerkat, a gibbon, and an Indonesian fresh-water crocodile with a very narrow snout.
Like all modern zoos, it considered bigger spaces for the animals. Instead of steel bars and wire fences all the time, deep moats were built around their living areas to separate the animals from the viewing public. At least, this gives the animals a less “claustrophobic” environment. There are also more of those “petting zoo” features which Manila Zoo also offers. At the ponds, you can throw the “giant” Amazon river fishes some raw chicken heads and watch them scramble for the food. You can also feed the gibbons and orangutans by throwing them a few bananas over the moat. You can have a hawk and a falcon perch on you. You can hold the boas and pythons and have your picture taken. You can even have a photo with a “smiling” orangutan named “Trixie”.
For the long drive outside Metro Manila via the San Mateo national road, Avilon Zoo is worth the trip, even with the rather “pricey” entrance fee. For kids who have seen Manila Zoo, the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife, and even the Malabon Zoo, Avilon would be quite a treat.
Speaking of “petting zoos” and safaris, the Philippines already has many to boast about such as Subic’s (Zoobic) safari. Yet it is ironic that I saw my first safari in another country, particularly the Night Safari in Singapore. After a women’s rights follow-up training in Bandung in 2007, my good friend and officemate, Atty. Dash and I decided to stay awhile in Indonesia and do a little more sight-seeing. Through her distant relative based in Jakarta, we got to visit Bogor’s famous safari.
Bogor is just outside Jakarta, and like Bandung, it’s slightly elevated location gives it a rather cool atmosphere much like Tagaytay. Bogor’s highly popular safari allows you to bring your own vehicles to the track, and you can get close enough to actually feed the animals from your car windows. But given the dirt roads you must traverse, it is advisable that you bring a four-wheel drive. You can also purchase some fruits and vegetables from the vendors lining the road right before the entrance. Hawking their wares, they remind you that you need something to feed the animals with.
It’s quite amazing seeing these animals approach the vehicles and “demand” to be fed. The singular experience of actually having wild animals such as zebras, impalas and gazelles eat “right off your hand” is incomparable. Sometimes they even continue following the cars to ask for food. However, at the enclosure for the “big cats”, we were advised to keep our windows closed and not get out of our vehicles. A gamekeeper armed with a tranquilizer gun is on stand-by and sat in his own jeep a few feet from the animals. An adult tiger cut in front of our vehicle, simply taking its time in crossing the road, as lions lounge away at their treehouse. Seeing them up close like this was indeed a little scary considering their size and strength. Bogor will always be my “ultimate” safari experience!
At my age, I am still quite fascinated by zoos and the animals one can see there. Wherever I go, zoos and safaris will always be on my itinerary. That’s why I can never forgive myself for missing out on the Giant Panda Bear at the Beijing Zoo in May 2007. Oh well…maybe next time.