CHENNAI: It is among the least fancied jobs, on account of occupational hazards involved. Yet, for many animal keepers, the zoo is another home and the animals they tend to, an extended family.
Ask animal keepers at the Arignar Anna Zoological Park, Vandalur, and they have lots of stories to share.
V. Buvaneswari, who has since retired, says one day nearly 20 years ago she was cleaning a lion enclosure when Sathya, a male lion, managed to come out of its cage. She sensed the breathing of the animal behind her. Without loosing her cool the woman called out the animal by its name and ordered it to get into the enclosure. The feline obeyed her orders.
But, more than the carnivores, the risks involved in handling herbivores are greater, adds her colleague B. Valli. A few years ago when an animal keeper went into a deer enclosure to clean the feed trough, an agitated male deer attacked him. The keeper died sometime later.
In another case, K. Sampath, an animal keeper, entered the giraffe enclosure. The animal, which was brought to the Vandalur zoo only a few days ago from Alipore Zoo, Kolkata, raised its front legs and attacked him on the chest.
The alert keeper, however, managed to escape with minor injuries.
The animal keepers need to stay alert all the time when they are inside the enclosure and at the same time take care of the animal, says Ms.Valli, a second generation animal-keeper. The zoo in Vandalur has more than 50 animal keepers, including a significant number of women. Their day begins at 9 a.m. “Our job does not end with cleaning the enclosure or ensuring that the cages are locked properly. It also involves checking the faecal matters, urine and condition of the animal, whether the animal is active, dull or has sustained any injury due to infighting. We act as a bridge between the animals and the veterinarians,” says P. Ratnakumar, an animal keeper.
Mr. Sampath, who takes care of lion and Blue Bull enclosures, says their first duty is to go around the enclosure and check whether the enclosures are locked properly, look for any damage or destruction to the building.
Those handling herbivores will avoid going closer to the carnivores and vice-versa.
“Even now if I go near Indian bison enclosure, the adult male will come charging. Over a period of time, the scent of animals we handle will settle on our body and the animals immediately react to this scent,” he says.
In order to educate the keepers, the authorities send them to different zoos in south India. The Central Zoo Authority of India allocates a sum of Rs.1 lakh for this purpose. Interaction with animal keepers of others zoological parks is an experience sharing and learning exercise, say the authorities. Women animal keepers are not posted for night duty. But, they have to forego all their holidays or festivals, says Ms.Valli. Weekends, government holidays and festival days are the important days on which crowds throng the zoo.