Stories and snippets from Bannerghatta Zoo keepers' diaries

It is a pain to watch over the visitors than the animals, say zoo keepers
Stories and snippets from Bannerghatta Zoo keepers' diaries
Stories and snippets from Bannerghatta Zoo keepers' diaries

The minute a yellow minivan is seen or heard driving past the enclosures in Bannerghatta zoo, the zoo comes to life with muffled yet celebratory sounds from the animals that get aroused from their restful state.

As the sound of the minivan fades, Ramanna, a guard at the zoo, claims there is no better time to be in the zoo than an hour and a half before the closing time. “You can quickly walk around the zoo and you can get to see almost all the animals,” Ramanna says with confidence.

And he was right, one could spot a jackal running around, a hyena that was in hiding promptly sitting outside its enclosure and a Himalayan sloth bear waiting in its cage with one hand on its hip. A sort of playfulness sets in among the big cats too.

“We will feed them in another hour at 5:00pm. The zoo closes at 5:30pm. So fifteen minutes to serve the food at the cages we are allotted and another fifteen minutes to lock them up in the enclosures before we leave,” says Devaraj, who is in charge of the wild-dog family.

If you consider any zookeeper’s schedule, you might think what a boring job it must be to watch over the animals for nine hours at a stretch. Even I was under that impression. But, Devaraj asserts that it is the visitors who keep him on his toes rather than the animals themselves.

Some visitors to the zoo are quite unmindful of alerts and warnings on how to deal with animals. 

“We are appalled at how people can lack basic common sense and discipline. Even after issuing multiple warnings, people continue to disturb the animals and dirty the zoo. It is that sadistic pleasure they get out of seeing a terrified animal,” Devaraj says.

“Ask any eateries inside the zoo to give you a bottle of water. They will give you a one litre bottle. Half-litre bottles are banned because they easily fit into the mesh wall of the cage. People like to squeeze them into the gaps and throw it into the side where the animals are. They even try to feed the animals even though it is prohibited,” said a worker, who did not want to be named.

Ramanna, a guard at the zoo says that though there is a system of fines, any adult or child who violates the rules, will be first pulled up by the zookeepers.

Pointing to an illustration showing animals attacking a caged human being, he says “This is what we want to do to violators.”

Another worker, who did not wish to be named, said that though most of his family members work at the zoo, the pay is not satisfactory.

Asked what his schedule is like, Somashekar, who is in charge of the Himalayan sloth bears, says that his day at the zoo starts at 8:30am. He goes around and watches the animals in the enclosure as he cleans the field.

“If there is something wrong, that is if one of the animals seem inactive, we inform the hospital inside the campus. If everything is fine, the zoo guard gives us the permission to let the animals out in the field- the open space in the cage. If he chooses not to let a particular animal into the field, it remains in its enclosure for the day. We stay around our cages while the visitors come. We leave after we serve them food in the evening,” he said.

Having taken care of bears rescued from circuses too, Somashekar says they are slightly safer to handle. Asked why, he says that it is because of their abused past. They come with wounds, skin diseases and broken teeth etc. “Most of them would be unwell and really in need for love. So it is the tone in which we call out to them which is very important,” he said.

Mallikarjuna, who has been in charge of crocodiles for the last three years, says

that he likes to take care of big cats though he has been attacked more than once by animals that are unwell. He grew up knowing them as his extended family.

“I get it from my father who took care of big-cats in the same zoo until he retired a couple of years ago. I have grown up seeing big cats. However, in my 17 years as a zookeeper, I have taken care of tigers, birds, wild-cats and now crocodiles. When attacked, the authorities take care of medical expenses, he says.

Asked how difficult it is to switch between animals every few years, he says that the authorities arrange for trainings. “They send us to other cities where veterinary doctors show us videos and explain to us behavioural patterns of animals. For instance, this hyena here is a little ferocious. So it has to be locked in its enclosure and then food has to be thrown in. However, in the case of monkeys, it is the reverse,” says Mallikarjuna.

Having heard stories from his father, Mallikarjuna says that ferocity in animals differs based on many aspects. “My father has taken care of animals rescued from circuses and animals rescued from forests. He would tell me that the ones that are brought up in the zoo are less ferocious than the ones rescued from the wild. They also get ferocious during the mating season. Having spent a lot of time with animals, we can sense why an animal is acting in a certain manner,” he said.

“That apart, I remember something that my father told me once when I was a child that though the animals are safe at zoos, they live a fuller life while in the wild, with more scope for exercise and places to explore. That really touched me and that makes me feel more cordial with my animals,” he said.

Somashekar asserts that even with 24 years of experience, one still has to be careful. “Over time, zookeepers tend to become overconfident that they share a good bond with the animals. They can turn ferocious when we expect it the least, especially bears. However, we have to be calm and talk lovingly to animals for them to reciprocate the same,” he says.

Somashekar, Ramanna and Mallikarjuna come from Sampigehalli village, which is about 5km from the zoo. In fact, most of the people of their generation in the village are orhave been associated with the zoo or the national park in some way or the other.

“Though they know what kind of a responsibly it is, I personally want my children to find better jobs because they are better educated,” Mallikarjuna says.

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