“Rahul!” calls out Purushothaman R. Immediately, Rahul the tiger, answers with a deafening roar. Purushothaman is a zookeeper at the city zoo and is one of Rahul’s two caretakers. “Rahul!” Again, the nine-year-old Royal Bengal tiger reposing in his indoor cage, roars, showing off his teeth, and eliciting a laugh from Purushothaman. “See how he responds to his name. He is playful and friendly; the friendliest of the lot, actually. If you love the animals, they will love you back,” says Purushothaman, a zookeeper for the past 11 years.
A native of Pachalloor, the 50-year-old became a zookeeper after trying his luck in the furniture business. “I enjoy being around animals and have always had a fascination for wild animals. I joined the zoo as a trainee zookeeper.” At present Purushothaman, along with Muralidharan, is in charge of the zoo’s seven tigers and leopards. “All of us keepers rotate between various sections of the zoo. Previously I looked after the giraffes. I have been with the big cats for over a year now. They are definitely my favourites and Rahul is my particular favourite,” says Purushothaman, as he prepares to give a bath (with a hose) to a rather dour American leopard named Salman. “This one’s a bit on the fearsome side,” warns the zookeeper.
Everyday (except Mondays when the zoo is closed to the public) the two zookeepers hose down the indoor and outdoor cages of the big cats and give each one a thorough bath, all prior to feeding time. Around 11 a.m., each of the big cats is fed eight kg of meat (usually beef).
“To keep them healthy, we have to constantly monitor their food intake, their discharges, their behaviour and activity… and report any undue changes to the zoo doctor. For example, if the tigers have digestive problems, they tend to nibble the grass in their outdoor cages. A few months ago, I noticed that Rahul was behaving rather strangely and not eating properly. I immediately brought it to the attention of the doctor. Later, Rahul was diagnosed with trypanosomiasis, a deadly disease spread by flies!” says Purushothaman. “Thankfully, it was detected early enough and he is now fully recovered. I take pride in the fact that all the big cats under my care are healthy. I don’t consider being a zookeeper as just a job. To me it’s more like a responsibility that I’m glad to take on. After all, the animals are part of our heritage. I think of it as doing my bit for preserving nature.”
(A weekly column on men and women who make Thiruvananthapuram what it is)