Chop vegetables, place water and observe birds and animals up-close. You too can be a keeper for a day at Vandalur Zoo like Akila Kannadasan

Apples, bananas, grapes, guavas, carrots, and beans, tossed with a handful of groundnuts and chickpeas — this is the parakeet’s lunch for the day. The macaws will also get boiled eggs; the peafowl will be fed a salad of greens, onions, cabbages and more. It’s a little over 11 a.m. and there’s a lot of work to do. The vegetables and fruits have just arrived and we have to get down to chopping them — the birds are probably hungry and fidgeting about their cages. My day as a zoo keeper at Arignar Anna Zoological Park at Vandalur, starts off with chopping beans along with experienced zoo keepers Devan, Arumugam, Senthamarai, and Vijaya.

Water has just been served; the cages have been swept. It is now time to prepare the feed for the birds. We are seated by a clump of trees behind the bird cages. Arumugam, a keeper with over 30 years of experience, places aluminium trays to serve the feed, in front of us as we chop away.

Adhu modhalla goss-a dhan kothum — it will first peck at the cabbage,” says Senthamarai, speaking of the peafowl she takes care of as she shreds cabbage. Arumugam adds that his parakeets like all kinds of fruits. I slice the apples that will soon be nibbled by a blood-red beak. This is the everyday routine of these people; they clearly know the birds’ behaviour, eating patterns, and mood swings. “When we enter the cages, they won’t make a ruckus. They are used to us,” explains Devan.

Arumugam recalls his experiences as a tiger keeper. “He could tell me from the others. I could see it in the way he looked at me,” he smiles. “ This is a look that most zoo keepers are privy to — the animals and birds they take care of have a special way of acknowledging their presence.

We are done in about an hour — the fruits, vegetables, greens, and grains, have been cut and sorted into their respective trays. I follow Arumugam into the parakeets’ cage, wondering how they would treat me. Will Will they be curious? Or worse, will they ignore me?

I step in and they scream. “You’re new to them, that’s why,” says Arumugam apologetically. He places the tray in its perch and we walk out — just then a parakeet swooshes past, inches from my head. His/her way of checking out the new keeper, perhaps?

In another cage of parakeets, Devan places the tray down and clicks his tongue to call them to eat — one of them flies down from its perch and inches towards his hand. Devan is delighted. “This one always comes close to me,” he grins. The peafowl are hearty-eaters. “Ba ba ba….” calls out Senthamarai and they amble forward, flicking their necks this way and that.

It’s almost 1.30 p.m. when all the birds have been fed. Arumugam and team sit down for their lunch. I decide to check how the other animals are doing — the turtles and tortoises especially. Govindhan has placed a tray full of cut vegetables for the star tortoises. Taking care of tortoises is easier than the birds — for the most part; I sit by the animal and observe the beautiful star patterns on its shell.

Among the three in the enclosure, only one is interested in the food. This one seems quite hungry. He nibbles away at a piece of bean diligently. Nothing can distract him; not even the noisy visitors. He suddenly drops off the piece he was munching and moves on to another. I peer into his plate to see how much he has eaten — apart from a tiny scrape the size of a rice grain, the bean looks untouched. Now this guy is one slow eater!

First-hand experience

Anyone with love for wildlife can be a zoo keeper for a day at Arignar Anna Zoological Park. The animals and birds in the programme include terrestrial, marshland, and aquatic birds, raptors, turtles and tortoises. Sign up in advance for a session that will be on from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To participate, those interested are expected to contribute towards the zoo’s ‘Animal Adoption’ programme. “For one day, participants can do everything a zoo keeper does. They can sweep the cages, feed the birds and animals, and participate in enrichment activities,” says biologist Manimozhi.

For details, call 9445427043, 9445228332.