An Elephant Love Story


An Elephant Love Story

For 10 years now, photographer and advocate John Chua has been one of the special caretakers of Manila Zoo’s most famous resident, Maali. Today, as the zoo celebrates its 52nd anniversary, it also celebrates this special bond between man and beast.


July 25, 2011, 12:30 PM

MANILA, Philippines — I am a photographer and I would rather have my photos speak for themselves, but I need to tell Maali’s story.

I don’t own the elephant. I came to know Maali in 2001, when my daughter Kathy volunteered at the zoo. She loved animals and wanted to help. As a father supporting the dreams of his daughter, I went to Manila Zoo and helped convince the zoo director to have these young people do their volunteer work.

The zoo volunteers gave talks to students on field trips, cleaned enclosures, and organized zoo outreach programs that brought animals to schools in order to teach kids about them. I helped out by riding a bicycle around the zoo to check on visitors, reminding them not to throw stones at the crocodiles just to see if they’re alive, or giving cookies wrapped in plastic to the giraffes.

The volunteer group grew. We had bird shows and educational field trips. We were joined by volunteers from the International School, interns from De La Salle and St. Scholastica, students from veterinary schools.

Feeding Maali

One day, I noticed that the zookeepers just threw food into the enclosures for the animals to eat. “Instead of throwing the food and just doing your job, why don’t we all get to know the animals assigned to us, and learn more so that we can take better care of them?” I asked.

A zookeeper replied “Sir. Madaling sabihin iyan… Mahirap gawin.” (Sir, that’s easy to say, but hard to do.)

I looked straight into his eyes and said, “Watch me. I will show you how.” I don’t ask people to do things I wouldn’t do also. I looked for animals I could learn how to take care of in order to show them that it could be done. That crossed out several animals right away. Crocodiles: not only do they not speak English, they eat them. Tigers: also out. Snakes: Slimy and don’t show emotions? Molly, the giraffe: she just gets the carrots and leaves me.


One day, when I was going around, I made friends with the old zookeeper for Maali, the elephant. The zookeeper told me lots of stories, and I became fascinated. I began to visit her everyday, just watching her. She was bored. She walked around, doing nothing.

I asked the zookeeper what Maali’s favorite fruit was. Mangoes, he said.

The next day, I brought a kilo of ripe mangoes. I went to Maali’s enclosure and gave them to her. The mangoes were gone in 60 seconds — everything including the seeds.

Then I noticed that when I talked to her, her eyes looked at me so attentively. I knew she was listening.

I looked forward to seeing her every time I went to the zoo — of course, with a kilo of mangoes each time. Then I got smarter. To extend my conversation with her, I started slicing the mangoes into smaller pieces. I started helping the old man carry the grass and clean the poo. I made sure the old man was beside me whenever I was inside the enclosure.

Learning about elephants

I watched every elephant episode in Discovery Channel and bought all the books on elephants that I could find at the bookstores. I learned that elephants need to drink at least 50 gallons of water every day. I learned they love cooling their bodies with water and using sand to keep insects away. I learned that they could sense your fear by smell. I began to learn what made her angry or afraid.

She didn’t like the low-frequency murmur of diesel engines idling. She hated red trucks, like the one that delivered Coca-cola. She didn’t like horses. She didn’t like the Selecta jingle played by the ice cream cart. Trombones or bands made her poop.

Together with my daughter Kathy, we developed behavioral enrichment programs for Maali and the other animals. Kathy went to South Africa as part of Cathay Pacific’s youth programs, where she volunteered at Johannesburg Zoo and made friends with their behavioral enrichment program specialists. She learned a lot and planned all these programs for Maali.

I got a pail and started splashing Maali with water. We brought in sand for her. We froze fruits in ice blocks.

We hid food in tires for her so that she could find the food in them. We spread the peanuts all over her enclosure. I’d bring coconuts or watermelons, we’d play football, and Maali would eat them afterwards. The main idea was to get Maali to look for her food, work for her food. This got her to be active.

An Elephant Love Story

Postcard from the wild

One day, Kathy told me about an essay contest offered by Discovery Channel called “Postcard from the Wild.” The contest asked: In just 50 words, write down why you want to go to Sri Lanka.

“Wouldn’t you like to go to Pinawala and see Maali’s cousins?” Kathy asked.

She volunteered to help me tell our story. On top of an 8×10 picture of Maali and me, we wrote: “I want to go to Sri Lanka to learn more about elephants so that I can make Maali’s life better.”

It won.

Discovery Channel called me to offer me a 10-day tour for two people. I was excited. My wife and I went to Sri Lanka to visit the Pinawala Elephant Orphanage. That’s where Maali stayed for a while after being rescued from a pit, before she was given by the children of Sri Lanka to the children of the Philippines.

In Pinawala, we met the mahoots and showed them pictures of Maali and me. They recognized me as one of them, and we became instant friends. We even found the mahoot who accompanied Maali when she came to Manila.

I felt sad for Maali. She was alone and in a small space. I wanted to know more about Maali, and the old man shared his stories. Before Maali came to Manila, there was a bigger elephant named Sheba. Sheba was a circus elephant who was sold to Manila Zoo after the circus went bankrupt. Sheba didn’t like Maali, so they had to be separated.

The zoo built a smaller enclosure in the elephant space. While one elephant walked around, the other elephant had to be locked in the enclosure to avoid fights. It must have been a traumatic experience for Maali.

Pinoy mahoot

I’d been caring for Maali for several months when the Singapore Zoo director came to visit Manila Zoo. He saw me inside the enclosure with Maali. He called the attention of the Manila Zoo director and asked him to call me to the office.

The Singapore Zoo director asked me why I was inside the enclosure. I said I was a zoo volunteer. He told the Manila Zoo director that I should be forbidden to go inside the enclosure. If anything happened, the zoo would be blamed.

I told the zoo director: “Sir, if I don’t do this, who can do it? Nobody. I am willing to sign a waiver, but let me continue my work.”

The Singapore Zoo director was impressed with my sincerity. He said, “Mr. Chua. In case you visit Singapore, please visit me in my office at Singapore Zoo and let me find out what I can do to help you in learning more about elephants.” He handed me his calling card.

Several weeks later, I was in the director’s office at Singapore Zoo. He introduced me to the head of the department and the other staff, and he asked me to see the chief trainer, Mr. Tan.

Every day for a week, I took the 5 a.m. train to Singapore Zoo and reported to Mr. Tan at 7 a.m. sharp. All the mahoots in Singapore talked to the elephants in Singhalese, the native language of Sri Lanka. They taught me the type of food that’s best for elephants. They taught me how to read elephant body language — the movements of ears, when elephants are faking a charge or doing it for real.

I learned so much from the trip and couldn’t wait to make Maali’s life better back home. I brought back photos of all the enclosures, and the use of open space inspired Manila Zoo.

When I saw Maali again, I took the metal hook and all the things I had learned from Singapore Zoo. The first thing I did was to hook Maali’s left ear like the way the mahoots showed me. She followed, but I saw that she was hurting. I stopped. I said to myself, “This is not the way to go, John. You are not a trainer. You are not going to have a show. This is not a circus. You are not going to hurt Maali because you want her to follow you, John. You are not going to hurt Maali.”

I threw the hook away and hugged Maali. I said, “No, Maali. You can have your way. I am not going to hurt you.” So that was the end to my career of being the topnotch elephant trainer.

Sometimes Maali listens to me, sometimes she doesn’t, and it’s okay. I was afraid to get close to Maali. I knew that if I was close to her, I’d begin to love her and care for her. I’d begin to feel how she feels.

When she was young, she met her cousins and relatives in the Pinawala elephant orphanage. She would have remembered them. You know how elephants remember. It must have been traumatic for her to be captured again. She must have been put in a red diesel truck — that’s probably why she gets so angry at red diesel trucks — as she was taken to the seaport.

Dreams for Maali

I’m afraid for her every night. No matter how big she is, she’s too weak to defend herself against people who can harm her: zoo visitors who throw plastic bottles and aluminum cans into her enclosures, disgruntled employees who might take their revenge, people who might poison her for their own greed in order to get Manila Zoo closed. I’m afraid organizations will just take advantage of her for publicity. I’m afraid I might lose her.

I have many dreams. I have made so many dreams come true. I dream that someday there’ll be a place for Maali. Not Manila Zoo, but stretches of open sugarcane fields. When I shoot on location in places like Pampanga or Batangas, I dream of Maali grazing among the sugarcane she loves. I often pay the workers to load sugarcane in my car so that I can bring the sugarcane to her. She loves them.

Our weather, the climate, the greenery, the hospitality of the people… This makes it the best place for Maali.

Have you seen how the children respond to Maali? I love each time I let the children help me feed Maali. Have you seen how Maali plays with my shoelaces? She can untie my shoelaces with her trunk. We play tug-of-war with it. I always lose, so I need to buy new shoelaces every time we play.

I never wanted publicity for Maali and myself. We enjoy life by ourselves. While I don’t own Maali and Manila Zoo provides most of the zoo, I do my share. I buy food for her. I provide a water spray machine for her showers, and other necessary things. I never complain. Even in the middle of a typhoon, I am always there for her to make sure she is okay. This one is for Maali.

An Elephant Love Story

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  • awwww thanks for sharing. my admiration for john chua has increased ten fold. drives the point on what PETA has missed out. it’s always not about the cause but about the subject. there may be elephants that need saving but as i see it, this one already is.

    • Exactly! There is no point in adding to a past mistake with another mistake that could quickly prove fatal for Maali.

      Do you think there’s any chance that Chris Crocker will make a “Leave Maali Alone!” video? He he.

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