There are few beasts in the world that fascinate and frighten us as much as the tiger. Even when we watch the majestic animal when it is within the confines of a cage, a shiver runs down the spine as it growls and fixes its fierce eyes on us.
But for 48-year-old Raman, one of the zookeepers at the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo, the tiger is an animal who can be a friend.
Around 9.30 am, Raman reaches the first cage and calls out, "George!". The response from his friend is immediate. "Grrrr!" growls George, as he puts his massive head out of the inner enclosure and strides out to the outer cage. On seeing Raman holding the water hose, George cannot contain his joy. He runs towards him with a huge roar, as if he's forgotten that there are iron bars between the two of them."Were you sleeping?" Raman asks George lovingly. "Come, let's take a bath!"
The great cat obediently sits, ready for a good splash.
Sprinkling water on George's head, Raman says, "Tigers love to take a bath. They come close towards me around this time and they feel affectionate."
George taking a bath
Next on Raman's list is Shravan, the white tiger who was brought from the National Zoological Gardens, New Delhi, last year.
"He is generally calm, but last July, he attacked his partner Malar, another 8-year-old white tiger who was also brought from Delhi along with him. They were both in adjoining enclosures. Shravan chewed Malar's tail and she had to undergo treatment for the injury. She is fine now," says Raman.
Raman with Malar, the white tiger.
The zookeeper's favourite, however, is Ponni.
It was Raman who named her and the tiger is quite playful when he is around.
"She is adorable and loving. She behaves like a (domestic) cat when I'm nearby. She also enjoys the gentle massages that I give when bathing her," shares Raman with a big smile.
Raman with Shravan, a white tiger.
When Raman calls out to Ponni, she turns her head towards him and this is something that has never failed to surprise the visitors to the zoo.
All the five tigers, in fact, know Raman's voice and respond to him when he communicates with them. Raman, too, understands his animals and knows their behaviour like a parent would.
"Zookeepers know when the animals fall sick or are wounded. We also know when they will get angry, feel hungry, or get irritated. We can understand all this by observing small signs that they give us," says Raman, even as he massages Shravan's forehead.
Raman has worked at the Thiruvananthapuram zoo for the last 13 years. The former lab assistant who left his job at the Government Medical College, out of sheer love for animals, is among the many keepers at the zoo - people who spend more time with animals than with human beings. People who understand an animal's expressions of pain and joy. Their stories of the wild are strange yet moving.
Raman and Shravan again
“The first thing we should know while taking care of them is to understand that they are wild animals. They can love and get close to you, but that doesn’t mean that they will not attack you. Once I kept my hands on the cage and was speaking to someone. Unexpectedly, Kiran (another tiger) bit my fingers. I tickled him with my other hand and he opened his mouth. My nails were gone and I had a big wound in my hand," says Raman.
However, the zookeeper adds that Kiran was only playing with him.
"He did not know that I would get hurt," he says fondly.
Focused on the work that he does, Raman never takes phone calls till his duty is over. Indeed, a distraction on the job can be fatal.
Another zookeeper who sought anonymity recalled the time when a tiger came out of its enclosure when the keeper was on a phone call.
"A young zookeeper was shifting the tiger from one enclosure to another. He was attending a phone call and forgot to close the second enclosure. When he turned back, he saw the tiger standing out of the cage, right next to him. That was a terrifying moment. But the animal was more responsible than the keeper - it went inside without attacking anyone!" he shares.
53-year-old Vimalan is in charge of the leopards and the lions. As he lugs around 20 kilos of meat towards the cages of the leopards, he says that each leopard has its own unique behaviour.
Pointing at Janu, who comes from Wayanad, he says, "She will never come out of her cage. She will lie down somewhere in a dark corner because she doesn't like light. Even when I give her food, she will wait until I leave to eat it. This is because she used to come out to the villages in stealth and hunt for prey at night. She has been following the same behaviour here."
Except the reticent Janu, all the other four leopards roam free inside a wide enclosure in the zoo. But as soon as Vimalan reaches them, the four who were striding across the open area, line up in their respective cages without any instructions from the zookeeper. They are ready for their meals.
Unlike the tigers who love a good bath, the leopards cannot stand it.
"They can recognise my voice and smell. They hate me only because I give them a bath - they just hate that! Leopards can be more dangerous than tigers because they can hurt the keepers by scratching them - they can put their paws out of the cage while we're giving them their feed. But they have never hurt me and being with them is a pleasure," Vimalan declares.
Vimalan's father was also a zookeeper and he has been a frequent visitor to the zoo since childhood.
“It was my childhood dream to become a zookeeper like my father. After two years, I will retire...I have no idea how I will live without listening to their roars," he says with a wistful smile.
The three lions at the zoo are also under Vimalan's care.
"They are a family - father, mother, and cub," he says, as he deposits huge chunks of meat inside their cages.
Unlike the leopards, the lions do not rush towards the food as soon as it is kept.
"I have to go to the other side and shout out to them. Only then will they enter the cages to eat," says Vimalan.
On a regular day, the zookeepers finish cleaning the cages, giving the animals a bath, and feeding the big cats by 2 pm. The other animals at the zoo are fed 2-3 times a day till 4.30 pm. The keepers are required to be around the animals all through the day as guards.
Radhakrishnan, who is the keeper for the four bears at the zoo, including two Himalayan black bears, says, "The bears are very loving and they get attached to us. But we should always remember that they are wild. We have to be very careful in dealing with them. They go for the neck when they are on attack mode."
All the keepers agree that respecting the wild was necessary to stay safe.
“We should be extremely careful while dealing with them. We cannot be arrogant or in a hurry when we are taking care of them or feeding them. Respecting them and the wilderness is necessary in this job,” Radhakrishnan adds.
Nobody has forgotten 40-year-old Vijayakuman Ganagan, an animal keeper at the zoo, who was attacked by a rhino in 2003.
“The incident took place in the evening. For the first time in the zoo’s history, a rhino called Ramu attacked Ganagan. By the time we all rushed towards him, he was barely conscious,” Vimalan recalls.
After that incident, no such major event has happened, he says.
"The animals sometimes harm us...sometimes we get bitten, injured, or scratched. But they do it out of love and we take it in our stride. Almost all the keepers at the zoo are here because of our love for animals," he smiles.
Saji with the hippos
Agreeing with Vimalan, Saji, the keeper for the zoo's hippopotamuses, says that he has stuck to his job even though it's on a contract basis only because of his love for the beasts.
“I don’t get any allowances other than the daily wage. But I have worked here for the last 10 years only because I love being with them. We can understand within seconds when they fall sick. You won’t expect a hippo or a rhino getting close to a human...but they do," he says.
All pics by Sreekesh Raveendran Nair. Do not reproduce without permission