January 19, 2020
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Who Will Mind The Keepers?

Attitude is the biggest problem, says vet Rita Goyle

Who Will Mind The Keepers?

I joined the Delhi zoo way back in 1986 because I loved wild animals and it was a chance to work with them. But once I joined, my dream job turned out to be quite frustrating. No one was willing to work-it was the chalta hai attitude typical of government employees that really used to annoy me. You ask the keepers to clean the cages and they would come up with a thousand excuses not to.

I remember we once had to put an injured neelgai into the covered enclosure because it had dislocated its shoulder in a fight with another male. So I asked the keeper in charge to sprinkle some hay or sawdust on the floor as neelgai slip on cement floors. But of course the keeper didn’t listen to me and two days later came rushing to the hospital. "Come quick, the neelgai is bleeding to death," he said. I was so cross. "Why should I rush now?" I asked him. "I warned you this would happen and you did nothing." The neelgai had slipped and torn an artery. It survived but all that trouble of tranquilising it, surgery, stitches, could have been avoided if only one could get things done.

The greatest pleasure I got was watching the food going out to the animals from the zoo store. There was plenty of it and such good food too-the hippos and rhinos got khichdi made of rice, dal and jaggery, the birds got expensive fruit like chikus and pears, the cats got tender calf meat. Plenty of milk, too. But the choice bits would invariably be filched by the animal attendants. It’s not that the attendants would starve the animals but certainly the best bits they kept aside to send to their own families. Even fodder would get filched. The attendant in charge of the elephants would regularly separate the sugarcane and green fodder from the elephant’s feed and give only the dry fodder. Perhaps the elephant sensed this theft, because one day it suddenly picked the attendant with its trunk and dashed him against the wall. He was not grievously hurt but he was more than a bit shaken. That’s why I was a little wary when I had to treat the same elephant a few days later for a cut ear. I had to stand in front of it and dab its ear with disinfectant. I was afraid of receiving the same treatment as the attendant, but it was so docile, as if it knew I was trying to help.

But the attendants are invaluable, despite everything. We are totally dependent on them to tell us when an animal is off-colour, goes off its food or gets injured. They make a daily report on the animals in their beat to the keeper, who then compiles a report on all the animals in the zoo for the vet.

Very often, animal rights activists end up doing more harm to animals than good. A few years ago, for instance, Munna the bear "rescued" from his madari was handed over to the Delhi zoo. The zoo didn’t know what to do with him-he couldn’t be put into the bears’ enclosure because the other bears would kill him. So a tiny enclosure was set up for him next to the canteen. He was miserable, so was his madari. All the time, Munna stuck her snout out of the wire mesh, refusing to eat. She died very soon. The moral is pretty clear: I think it’s a mistake to relocate animals in zoos without proper planning and patience.

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