What’s up with our zoo? Will there be a happy ending?
‘It’s been so long,’ said a friend, ‘since I went to the zoo. And my children have never been there.’ ‘Having waited so long, why you don’t wait a little longer,’ I suggested, ‘before introducing them to their close relatives?’ I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t help bringing in that bit about our Simian cousins. ‘Animals are dying like flies out there.’
‘What! Where? At the zoo?’ She sounded concerned as she stated the obvious and went on, ‘but why? How? When?’ I resisted the temptation to say she had left out a key ‘wh’ word, ‘who’, from her list of interrogatives, and explained, ‘Yes, Asha and Sarishma are dead. So is Toto. But Sarang may live. And the good news is that Bindu has given birth…’ The baffled look on her face made me stop and clarify, ‘…er, these are the names of some of the animals that died. Asha, Sarishma and Sarang are leopards, Toto and Bindu are hippos. Also dead are a Malabar squirrel, four spotted deer, two Sambar deer and two pig deer.’
‘Oh dear!’ she sighed. ‘Whodunit?’ She was a crime thriller aficionado and yes! At last she used ‘who’, though ‘what’ would have been more appropriate. ‘Disease,’ was my succinct response. ‘Haven’t you heard of FPV?’ Blank look. ‘Feline panleukopenia virus?’ Blanker look.
‘Or FMD?’ No change of expression. ‘Surely you’ve heard of FMD?’ I asked desperately. Her GK had never set anyone’s pulse racing. ‘Foot and mouth disease?’ I elaborated. ‘Ah!’ she brightened. ‘Foot in mouth disease? Isn’t that what you sometimes have?’ She giggled at her own wit. Oh, yes, I do drop the occasional brick, but her remark was in poor taste, I thought, when I was telling her something very serious. Ignoring the jest I continued, ‘Foot and mouth disease is an infectious viral illness that affects animals with cloven hoofs and causes blisters inside the mouth and on the feet. Don’t you remember the 2001 outbreak of FMD in England? That’s when we first learnt about it…’
‘Forget England,’ she interrupted. ‘What’s up with our zoo?’ What’s up with our beautiful Thiruvananthapuram zoo, set up in 1857 during the reign of Uthram Thirunal, is the sorry tale that I hope has a happy ending. Officially India’s fifth zoo, it is the oldest one to continue at the site of the original establishment. All of us take great pride in its sprawling and lush 55 acre grounds, its lake and its impressive collection of indigenous and exotic animals and birds, not to mention the open spaces for most animals to roam freely in.
Why, Yann Martel’s 2002 Booker winning novel, The Life of Pi, was inspired by our very own zoo, or rather, some of its animals. The zoo always had its problems - sadistic visitors who teased and sometimes tortured animals, accidents that took place, animals that died – and the authorities tried to solve them as best as they could. But now too many animals were dying, I told her, from FPV, which, I hastened to add, is cat plague or feline distemper. Some were victims of pneumonia and others of FMD, though the zoo authorities contend old age to be one of the reasons. The baby hippo Bindu had birthed was also dead, trampled to death by its mother. Oops, some motherly love!
‘And would you believe it,’ I remarked, ‘there’s only one vet?’ ‘One wet what?’ she asked. I groaned. ‘V-E-T. Veterinary doctor, one who treats animals.’ I ignored her ‘Got it, I’m not that dense,’ and went on, ‘Our zoo is being beautified but what is a zoo without healthy animals?’
‘Yes, we need more vets,’ she said, looking anxious. Finally the seriousness of the situation had begun to sink in. I decided it was time to reassure her. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘A second vet has been appointed. The cloven- hoofed animals are being vaccinated. If the zoo could overcome the FMD epizootic in 2007, it can do the same in 2013. And I heard that a star tortoise, seized from a gang trying to smuggle it out, might take up residence there.’
‘Star tortoises bring luck,’ she perked up and beamed. She was well up on superstitions. Our zoo could do with a huge chunk of luck all right. Long live the Thiruvananthapuram zoo! And long live the fauna in it!