Lack of animal-friendly enclosures, space crunch, and noise pollution all affect the behaviour of Thiruvananthapuram's zoo animals

Perhaps one of the ‘wildest’ dreams of captive animals could be that of them walking with their young ones around cages filled with humans of different ethnicities, of throwing half-baked eatables inside the cages and of clapping at them fighting each other for a piece of the pie. At the Orana Wildlife Park in New Zealand, part of that dream comes true with humans inside cages being transported around the vast expanse of the park and lions walking close to it, sometimes even walking on top of the cage.

For the space-starved Thiruvananthapuram zoo, caught in the middle of a ‘developing’ city, such scenes are very well unimaginable. Right from the time questions began to be raised on the element of human recreation regarding zoos, conversations have happened on the need for maintaining such a facility. Demands have ranged from releasing all the animals back into the forest to shifting the zoo to the outskirts of the district.

For rescued animals

One of the key arguments for the zoo has been that it is a place for rescued animals and that it is now a place for conservation.

“We only have animals which are rescued from the wild, the injured or old ones, which cannot survive in the forest anymore. The rest are their offspring. As part of our conservation efforts, we have a breeding centre for Lion Tailed Macaques,” says the zoo veterinarian Jacob Alexander.

But there are detractors who say that the macaques are no longer endangered creatures and “can be seen even on roadsides at some hill stations,” as one critic put it. The zoo here is no more a Noah’s ark, with animals of all kinds caged in. Over the past few decades, the numbers have been reduced with the aim of providing better facilities for the animals.

When it comes to providing natural enclosures to the animals, a key problem has been the shortage of architects with an idea of ‘zoo design,’ which considers the behaviour of specific animals in conceiving enclosures for them. “Now the contracts for the infrastructural works at the zoo are being awarded to the Public Works Department (PWD) or to other private contractors at PWD rates. The zoo does not have an engineer, who has the technical knowhow to assess the work,” said a zoo official.

“The topography of the city zoo has undergone a sea change in recent years. A concrete revolution has taken place at the cost of blades of grass. Also, the animal enclosures are designed without any vision. For example, the snake park is made up of long rooms. Snakes need ambience and a cool environment, rather than space. Similar is the case with the avian enclosure,” says V. Rama Kumar, Former Secretary of the Veterinary Council of India.

Design vital

The architecture of the enclosure itself can alter the behaviour of captive animals as is evident from this zoo administrative report of 1938 which talks about a lion that died during the year — “For a long time, the lion raja was getting debilitated due to senility in spite of the special attention given to the diet, exercise and general care. It has lived in captivity for 21 years.”

In recent times, the increasing noise pollution has also altered the behaviour of animals.

“Whenever some college festival or other event happens in Nishagandhi, the sound levels are so high that some animals react violently. Some animals pace inside their enclosures, while some others rub their body against the cage and tend to injure themselves. Birds like rhea are highly sensitive to sound,” says Mr. Jacob.

Animal behaviour becomes a tricky problem at this zoo, as there are no permanent handlers for any animal.

“A permanent handler will develop familiarity with the animal, which helps when it faces health issues and other complications,” says Mr. Rama Kumar.

Deaths

The zoo has lost 117 animals of different species over the past three years due to various reasons, including infighting and medical conditions. The scarcity of space inside the zoo, spread over an area of 55 acres, is one of the contributors to the infighting. As per the Zoo Authority of India regulations, enclosures can occupy only 30 per cent of the total area. Rest should be free space and walkways.

One of the oft-repeated solutions for the space crunch is to develop a sanctuary-like space near Neyyar or Palode and shift the high-breeding animals there.

“An animal which was born and brought up in the zoo cannot survive if released back to the forest. It can hardly do any hunting on its own, and is susceptible to attacks from its own tribe,” says Abhilash Arjunan, Veterinary Officer of People for Animals (PFA).

Another common suggestion is to shift the zoo out of the city, but the practical difficulties have almost ruled this out. “The zoo should continue to function from here, as it is the only remaining green lung for the city as well as a good place for rescued animals. Also, a lot of migratory birds come here every year,” says Mr. Abhilash.

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