WHEN we visited Fort San Pedro during the recent edition of the “Gabii sa Kabilin,” I told my sons that the place once housed the Cebu City Zoo. I tried adding details to that claim but was stumped. I was too young to be sure about my recollection of something that happened decades ago. When I tried reaching out to my memory bank, I even ended up no longer certain if the Fort was once a zoo. But that was what I thought growing up.

I recalled that scene because of reports that Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña plans to close the Cebu City Zoo, now situated in Barangay Kalunasan (specifically near Beverly Hills) and turn it into an aviary instead. This following the discovery that after he took over as mayor, the zoo has been mismanaged to such an extent that some of the animals there have already died. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) 7 is checking this.

I haven't been to the zoo in Kalunasan in recent years, but I used to go there in the '80s not necessarily to observe the animals there but as a sanctuary and to meditate. Sometimes, I would be there with some companions to discuss the state of the nation and the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship. The place was conducive for such “secret” gatherings.

The zoo, if I remember it right, was set up there by the late Fr. Eleuterio Tropa, who headed the group called Lamplighter World Peace Mission. I don't know why he was called “Father” when I reckon he was not a priest. But he was a conservationist and his followers, who sported long hairs and walked barefoot, took good care of the zoo denizens, which once included some orangutans. I used to see Father Tropa during my visits and read his messages posted around the zoo.

The facility was carved on a slope of a hill filled with trees and shrubs. Visitors follow cemented walkways down the slope where the cages were built and rested or ate on tables and benches strategically placed there. I could not remember now the price of the tickets but these must have been cheap because I was able to go there often. The problem was transportation from the main road in Lahug going up to the Sudlon school area up to Beverly Hills and farther up.

By the way, I once saw those orangutans being brought by Father Tropa's people to the old TB Pavillon for x-ray sessions. Our place Sitio Kawayan was at the back of TB Pavillon, which has since closed and the building occupied by the psychiatric department of the Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center. Those orangutans were lumbering, their chains making a noise on the asphalt as they walked.

Father Tropa, who I reckon was from Negros Oriental, died in the early '90s and the management of the zoo was turned over to the Cebu City Government. That was when the neglect started to seep into the zoo. I don't know what happened to Father Tropa’s Lamplighter group but I remember seeing his long-haired and barefooted followers holding fort in a building at the corner of Osmeña Blvd. and Sanciangko St. They vanished there after Tropa died.

That the zoo has not been managed well by the Cebu City Government through the years only showed how dedicated as conservationists Father Tropa and his people were. Managing zoos need a certain level of dedication higher than one possessed by people hired because they campaigned for the mayor and his party. One needs to love those animals to acquire the joy of working in such an environment. No wonder the current mayor wants to close the zoo and make it an aviary instead.

But I think closing the zoo is not the best option. I think it would be better to turn over the facility to the private sector, or to conservationists in the likes of Father Tropa and his group, if there are still any.

(khanwens@gmail.com/ twitter: @khanwens)