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Wednesday, October 27, 2021


The ark is sinking...


TSI | Issue Dated: February 8, 2009
Tags : Gorgeous | neighbourhood | love | Pinky | dampener | Dilwale | corridor | and eternity | rhythms | joy | anticipation | fear | Pinky | bidi | zoo | Alice | Wonderland | enchanted | beasts | birds | terrible | crimes | institution | inmates | Delhi | Zoo | relic | country | animals | prisoners | creature | intelligent | sensitive | monkeys | macaws | African | mesh | cages | haunted | souls | Noah | Ark | for wildlife | public | entertainment | education | trustees | endangered | species | California | Condor | Nandankanan | Orissa | burial | Delhi | ostriches | black panthers | orangutans | chimpanzees | black rhinos | pumas | Wild Asses | environment | Supreme Court |
It had been a fair while. I wasn’t sure if she’d remember. But was she gorgeous… a flame haired beauty with the most soulful eyes in the world… though a child I was, I knew what I had felt then was something not far from the neighbourhood of love. Her name – Pinky, was the only dampener. Nothing against the name … just didn’t suit her. But I didn’t care… I remembered the first time we’d met… I remembered her touch… that gentle caress as she held my hand. No words, but we did have a moment there…

I burst through the gates and ran towards the doorway where I had last seen her… it had been a bit like that scene from “Dilwale…” She’d walked away into that dark corridor, and just before crossing into her cell, she had turned back… and looked… for a moment that had seemed like it would last an eternity, and it had… As I ran towards that same dark corridor, my heart beat to strange rhythms… there was joy, anticipation… and fear… it surprised me. It wasn’t an emotion I had expected… perhaps I was worried - would she still remember me? Would she still be there? Of course she would, I told myself… where could she go…?

Breathless and exhausted, and with my heart pounding away, I threw myself on the walls of the precinct and peered over the edge... she wasn’t there… I went around the back, towards the corridor… not there either. I walked up to the guard. He seemed bored… “Pinky?”, he pondered, and then, as he dragged the very last wisp of smoke from his bidi, he added “Woh toh gayi, sir… she’s gone.” Where to? I was shocked… was she… “Dead!” he said. “Ab to kaafi time hogaya…” I looked around at the empty cell in disbelief… my legs felt wobbly and I felt my eyes well over… the warm wet tears a strange comfort in the cold dry November winds… How could she die? She was only 15, young, even for an Orangutan… I trudged back through the zoo, back the way I’d come. I was sad and miserable. And the place seemed depressing… In that moment, I’d grown up and had begun to see the zoo for what it was…

I must have been 14 or so, but until that day, in a zoo, I’d been like Alice in Wonderland, enchanted by the proximity of beasts and birds, hitherto, unaware of the terrible crimes this institution had been committing on its inmates. And inmates they were, incarcerated for life and destined to die, well before their years, of illness and disease if lucky, or boredom if not. Pinky, I was told died of both…

The Delhi Zoo is a relic from the 1950s, and like various other zoos in the country, the animals in it, are living like condemned prisoners. Pinky, a near-human creature, intelligent and sensitive, would spend her afternoons on a small enclosed island with hardly a feature to stimulate her brawn or her brain. The rest of the time she was locked inside a tiny cell that had lime washed walls and grimy iron bars on all sides, a far cry from the sea of green that would have met her eye in her natural habitat… high up on the canopy in her forest home. She had become a neurotic, self-mutilating wreck even before she could outgrow her childhood.

She was at least lucky in that she had at least some time every day under the open sky. Most inmates in our zoos, both bird and beast, live out their lives in small concrete cages, so small that they can’t even turn around; monkeys and macaws and even African cranes stuffed in tiny wire mesh cages, screaming away like banshees till they scream out their last… What I had thought to be a fantasyland as a child, full of sights and sounds of nature, was actually a cemetery, where the ghosts of once-wonderful creatures remain trapped in their wire-mesh graves and the tortured screams of haunted souls echo within these tomb-like walls, until they are liberated by death. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think a zoo is a wonderful idea. And in a world were habitat destruction is called ‘developmental activity’, it is a veritable Noah’s Ark for the world’s wildlife. They began as centres of public entertainment, but around the world, even the third world, they have evolved into centres of education, trustees of endangered species and breeding centres for the world’s rarest creatures. Some, like the California Condor in fact owe their escape from extinction to zoos. But zoos like the ones in India, barring perhaps some like Nandankanan in Orissa, are like burial grounds where enclosures and cages, apparently borrowed from Nazi concentration camps and Chinese torture chambers still remain, unchanged for more than half a century.

Most species in our zoos (save few, like some species of deer, wild boar or parakeets, which can breed anywhere) refuse to breed. If an animal is comfortable enough in its environment to start breeding, a zoo can claim to have done its job. And here, the Delhi Zoo is a case in point where ostriches, black panthers, orangutans, chimpanzees, black rhinos, pumas, and a whole herd of Wild Asses just couldn’t breed. How could they, for if the environment wasn’t depressing enough, there are these hordes of visitors who given the opportunity, would poke out an animal’s eye if they could, to elicit a reaction from the bored beasts. I once asked a high ranking zoo official why we couldn’t have interactive programmes or feeding demonstrations in Indian zoos like we do in zoos around the world? Animal and visitors could interact in the presence of handlers and as it happens elsewhere, here too, visitors would have left with a greater understanding of, and a greater bond with the animal. “You have a point”, said the well meaning official, “ but we wouldn’t want to inconvenience the animal. That wouldn’t be right”, he intoned. Yeah well, seemed like he hadn’t been to a zoo in a while.

I don’t blame him though. The zoos of India are rotting from the ground up. The animal-keepers are the most important people in a zoo, and yet they’re lucky if they get treated as well as janitors. While in the best zoos, it is the keepers who interact with visitors, conduct researches and studies and can aspire to become directors someday, here they are stuck in low paying dead-end jobs. If they steal the animal’s rations or turn a blind eye when the animals are unwell or injured, I’m not surprised.

It’s our city folks. That our zoos are wretched is not my opinion alone but the Supreme Court’s too. It had declared that our present zoos are so poorly maintained that no new ones can be made unless the present ones get their house in order.

These zoos are ours, yours and mine, and it is our right to demand action from those who have been trusted with their upkeep. Signature campaigns, protest marches, student demonstrations, they could all help. Our city, our children and those ‘beautiful people’ in our zoos deserve better… much much better…
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017