For animal caretakers at the Arignar Anna Zoological Park in Vandalur, being licked by a deer is routine. So is drinking water from a tank that elephants have used to drink from, or eating near a tiger enclosure.
But what may seem like harmless pursuits, have left several of these employees vulnerable to a number of diseases. On Thursday, a day-long medical camp for caretakers of wild species found that a number of them had tuberculosis in the initial stages.
A range of other checks too was conducted, including for blood pressure, diabetes, eye infections and skin diseases. Sputum and blood tests were also conducted, x-rays were taken and body weight measured.
“We have identified a group of caretakers who have TB. They will be tested further and treated at the district headquarters’ hospital in Kancheepuram,” said a doctor who was part of the 16-member team who screened the employees.
A large number of those who tested positive for TB were caretakers who dealt with primates, including chimps, lion-tailed macaques and Nilgiri langurs.
The second-most common condition found was asthma – over 30 of the caretakers had it, doctors said. While the condition may not have originated at the zoo, doctors said it was probably exacerbated by conditions at the zoo and proximity to animals.
Other ailments found among the caretakers included fungal diseases and skin disorders brought on by repeated contact with wild animals.
Doctors said that not all the diseases could be blamed on the animals at the zoo – the general health of the caretakers was not great, and age contributed to their sicknesses.
A detailed report on the various ailments the zoo employees are afflicted with will be submitted to the zoo authorities in a week, by V. Vijayakumar, joint director (health services), Kancheepuram, who led the team of doctors. Based on the report, the caretakers will be sent for advanced treatment, official said.
The zoo employs over 250 animal caretakers and a support staff of 300. While a majority of the caretakers are men, most of the support staff members are women.
Each of the 80 ‘operating’ animal enclosures at the zoo has at least two animal caretakers. Their job includes cleaning the enclosures, removing animal waste, bathing the animals and checking them for illnesses.
They also assist the zoo vets when an animal is sick. The caretakers start work at 7.30 a.m. and end at 6.30 p.m. They work all year round.
Currently, the zoo hosts around 1,400 species of animals including mammals, birds, reptiles as well as a range of fish on its 600-hectar premises. The Vandalur zoo is the second-largest zoo in the country, after the zoo in Tirupati.