Shantappa, an animal keeper with the Bannerghatta Biological Park, had a fortuitous escape when a bison at the herbivore safari charged at him on Monday. He sustained a head injury when he fell on a rock as he dodged the eight-year-old bison. But not all keepers at the biological park have been as fortunate. Seven months ago, 29-year-old forest watcher Mallige was trampled to death when the same bison, Bheema, attacked him.

Occupational hazards are a daily reality for the 220 staff at the biological park, considered one of the best of its kind in the country with 78 species of animals as exotic as lions and zebras. Overworked, underpaid and having to deal daily with the often temperamental wildlife, the workers “are not treated half as well as the animals here,” says Suresh I., leader of the Bannerghatta Biological Park Workers’ Union.

One of the long-standing problems has been that of wages. The park workers - animal keepers, sweepers, watchers and drivers and gatekeepers - earn Rs. 140 a day as they have been hired on contract. “We have protested and appealed several times for our services to be regularised, but there has been no response,” Mr. Suresh says.

Thimuraj, the keeper at the hippopotamus enclosure, says his wages barely meet his family’s needs. Even as the hippos wallow in the pool he has filled for them, he describes his rigorous schedule that includes feeding them and cleaning their pens. And always at the back of his mind, he says, is the fear that he might be attacked one day by these temperamental animals. Millo Tago, Director of Bannerghatta Biological Park, said that a proposal had been sent in 2008 to the State Government to absorb them as permanent staff, “but nothing has been done yet”.

As for Bheema, which, according to Mr. Suresh, has attempted to attack several of its keepers over the last two years, the park authorities are looking at options. Mr. Tago said he was discussing the possibility of either shifting it out of the herbivore safari into another enclosure or releasing it into the forest.

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