Naked never fails: Models and elephant Mali

Katherine Visconti

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Mali is at the center of a tug of war between activists and zoo workers. Both claim to want what's best for Mali but fundamentally disagree on what that is.

MANILA, Philippines – At a Tuesday, February 5 photo shoot, 9 Filipino models stripped down to raise awareness for a campaign to transfer the Manila Zoo’s only elephant to a sanctuary abroad.  

They tucked their most intimate body parts behind signs spelling out the message – Naked truth: Mali the elephant is suffering. 

“Naked never fails. And plain and simple, it draws attention to the issue,” said Ashley Fruno, a senior campaigner for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the animal rights group sponsoring the photo campaign, which was shot by ace photographer Niccolo Cosme. 

“Anything to get the message out there…. I’ve posed naked for magazines so it’s something I don’t really think twice about it, especially for this,” said 28 year-old fashion model Sanya Smith. 

She said she was extremely comfortable posing beside the 8 other models – Bianca Valerio, Amanda Griffin Jacob, Geneva Cruz, Daiana Menezes, Sheena Vera Cruz, Mia Ayesa, Julia Sniegowski and Ornusa Cadness. 

“We’re such a conservative country and the shock factor… you know it will draw some attention,” said Sanya.  

The fight over Mali

Since Mali was orphaned at the age of 3 in Sri Lanka she has spent the last 3 decades as one of the Manila Zoo’s main attractions. Thought by animal rights activists to be the only elephant in the Philippines, Mali is at the center of a tug of war between activists and zoo workers. Both claim to want what’s best for Mali but fundamentally disagree on what that is. 

Activists from PETA told Rappler that because female elephants are social animals who live in a herd she has been painfully lonely and now is the time to transfer her. The zoo veterinarian, however, is worried that it would be unwise to transport her given her old age. 

“The average lifespan of a captive Asian elephant is 42 so she is geriatric or what you may call a senior citizen. We believe it is not safe for her to be transported at this age,” said Manila Zoo veterinarian Donald Manalastas. He added that there is no way to be 100% sure she will make the trip.

But activists are worried that while Mali stays in her concrete enclosure within the zoo, her health is deteriorating. Dr Mel Richardson, a world renowned veterinarian who inspected Mali briefly at the request of PETA, wrote a letter saying Mali was “slightly  overweight” and had “abnormally smooth foot pads” from walking on “unyielding concrete.”

“Her obesity is compounding the severity of the arthritis and foot disease that she appears to be suffering from… I am more concerned than ever that Mali’s care, as well as the safety of the Manila Zoo personnel, is in very real jeopardy,” he wrote.

Zoo volunteers pointed out that since Richardson’s visit they had begun taking steps to improve the enclosure and appealed to activists who say they care about Mali to help the cash-strapped zoo improve her current situation. “Let’s all help make Mali’s life better now,” Mali’s long time handler John Chua told Rappler in an earlier interview. 

Nudity and public attention 

PETA has been trying to draw more attention to its fight to move Mali. The nude photo shoot comes on the heels of a petition it delivered to the Secretary of Agriculture with 60,000 signatures of support

In the past, PETA has asked a long line of celebrities – including Eva Mendes, Khloe Kardashian, Christy Turlington and Holly Madison – to pose nude in their “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign to get the public to stop buying animal fur. 

PETA activists know nudity attracts attention and they want to use that to their advantage. 

“PETA has been using these tactics as long as we’ve been in existence. And the reason that we use them is simple. It’s a fun and provocative way to draw people’s attention to a very serious message about animal suffering,” said Fruno. 

Earlier this month, as Chua helped laughing and squirming children feed bananas to Mali, the zoo volunteer made a similar point. He hoped the children who had grown up visiting Mali would support her staying in the Philippines. 

Both sides want Filipinos to mobilize behind them and are waiting to see which side people choose.

“Essential to every campaign is public support. And with this campaign we are obviously generating a lot of public awareness,” said Fruno. –

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