Nagammal was just fourteen years old when she started working. Pushed by family circumstances, she joined the zoo as a teenager, which wasn't yet the Aringar Anna Zoological Park as we know it today. Nagammal’s first job was to plant trees and to keep the area clean for which she was paid Rs 6 per day.
“I had to tear my mother’s saree in half to wear it as a dhavani (half saree) to appear older. Children were not allowed to work,” she explains.
Nagammal outside the tiger enclosure
Aringar Anna Zoological Park was inaugurated at its present location in 1985 by the then Chief Minister MG Ramachandran. A portion of the Vandalur Reserve Forest was demarcated by the state’s Forest Department and later afforested by the authorities and the locals. Initially, just a scrub jungle, the zoo now has concrete pavements and plenty of shade.
Seated on a low stone bench inside a small thatched tent, fifty-year-old Nagammal recounts that all her life’s milestones - from getting married to having children - were all connected to her life in the zoo. “I worked all through my three pregnancies - through all the months that I was carrying. I’d finish sweeping and go home in the evening and people wouldn’t believe that I had a child that night. All of my three children were born in the night by god’s grace,” she laughs.
Dressed in a khakhi coloured saree and a matching blouse (their uniform), Nagammal leads us to the enclosure where the giant tigers are kept. The zoo has four tigers in total - two male, Adithya and Karna, and two female, Vidhya and Aarthi.
Behind the silver-painted bars, we see Adithya, the four-year-old male. “Today is his day in. Tomorrow he’ll be out. Tigers are very territorial, so we don't let them all out at once,” explains Nagammal as she rattles the bars to greet the giant cat.
For over 18 years, Nagammal has been religiously taking care of tigers - cleaning their cells every morning, hosing them down thrice a day if it's summer and feeding them daily at 5 pm.
Nagammal talks to Adithya, four-year-old-male tiger
“Animals are far better than humans. They're very loyal whereas humans forget. I like the animals better. They answer my call,” she says, while calling out to Adithya.
Prowling and growling inside his cage, Adithya calms down on hearing Nagammal’s familiar calls.
“All of them were named by Jayalalithaa amma when she came to visit the zoo,” she says.
Does she have a favourite?
“I can't choose. They’re all like my own children. Although, Vidhya is a bit feisty. If it’s a man calling out to her, then she’s nicer,” she adds, laughing.
A hundred feet south of the tigers' enclosure is the place where the King of the Jungle - well, naps. On a sweltering sunny afternoon, under the shade of a thatched roof, Veera, a giant male lion, naps while Jhansi, the lioness, sits alert.
Devaki, who has been taking care of them for about ten years, joined the zoo after her husband, who was previously employed here, lost his life to a mishap at the deer enclosure.
“A deer jabbed him in the stomach with its horn. I had a four-year-old son when my husband died. The authorities then gave me his job,” she says, adding, “When one door closes, another opens.”
As someone who was initially scared of wild animals, Devaki slowly overcame her fears. She went on to share a close bond with Jhansi, her favourite tigress.
“I practically raised her from a cub. Fed her, bathed her, took care of her when she was pregnant. That’s her son, Vish,” she says, with a fondness that comes with parenting. The lioness and her cub look up when Devaki calls out to them.
Devaki outside Jhansi's cage
Also named by Jayalalithaa, Devaki recalls the time when the former Chief Minister visited the zoo.
“Jhansi, who was just a cub back then, was the one who came forward and growled with her paws on the wall. The former Chief Minister smiled and took that as a greeting," she shares.
A couple of kilometres down the line lies the zoo’s Range One that houses the bears, the hyenas and other carnivorous animals.
“Oye Rani! Stop running around girl! She’s the haughty one, look? That’s why we named her Rani,” says Thanganila in between chuckles.
Inside the enclosure with its low walls is a 15-year-old female hyena with an eternal lopsided grin plastered to its face. Walking right into the enclosure, Thanganila calls out for Rani to stop. The hyena has been going back and forth incessantly.
The enclosure has three hyenas - Venkat, Vani and Rani, all named by Thanganila herself.
“The senior doctor here used to make fun of their names. He made me name the wolves as well - Varadhan, Aarthi, Keerthi,” she says.
Thanganila outside the hyena enclosure
Now in her sixties, Thanganila comes in every day on a scooty with her husband who works at the crocodile enclosure.
“My service here ends in a year. I joined when I was 23,” she says.
Was she scared at all of these scavengers?
“I have no fear. In fact I like it when they call. It sounds like they’re laughing. And they know it when they’ve made me angry," she says.
Emerging from the cool, dark chambers where the Himalayan black bears are kept is Radha who has just finished mixing porridge, milk, jaggery and small pieces of fruits in a huge bowl for Janakiraman (black bear).
“It’s his afternoon meal. In the mornings, they eat coconuts and in the evenings, before we leave we give them vegetables,” says Radha who has been tending to three bears - Janakiraman, Kalbai, Shilbai, in the zoo.
Radha outside Janakiraman's cage
Radha was taking care of zebras and the leopards before she came here to take care of the bears.
Taking us to Kalbai’s cage, she fondly calls out to the shiny black bear, offering honey in a small plate. The beast sniffs before licking it off the plate. “You come closer, a few of them spit, she doesn’t. See?” laughs Radha.
Apart from being fearless, the one thing that these women have in common is their love for the animals. All of them have raised the animals like their own, with motherly care. And it is a beautiful sight to watch these wild animals look friendly and tame when they’re around.
For the four women, the zoo is another home. They've always come in for work, irrespective of weather, sometimes even during festivals.
Watch Devaki tousle the lion's mane and Thanganila chase after the hyena: