Vandalur’s big cats have ears for this man

Chellaiya began as a helper at the zoo in 1984 — Photo: R. Ragu   | Photo Credit: R_Ragu

Nine-year-old Anu, the oldest white tigress at Vandalur zoo, tenses and perks her ears when she hears approaching footsteps.

Nobody dares to cross the big cat’s path as it’s barely days since she delivered two female cubs at the zoo. But when caretaker K. Chelliah whispers her name and walks into the enclosure, Anu relaxes.

Chelliah carries her cubs to the adjacent enclosure so he can clean up Anu’s space. The tigress remains calm, even licks Chelliah’s hand when he pets her. She lies on the floor of the enclosure until Chelliah finishes his job and returns her cubs.

Handling big cats is no biggie for the 52-year-old caretaker who began doing the job in 1994. His first charge was a pair of Royal Bengal tigers at the zoo. Today, Chelliah is in charge of eleven white tigers including four newborn cubs.

“The tigers are my children. They have never hurt me even during my initial days of handling them. It is all about understanding them rather than using force,” said Chelliah.

A native of Tuticorin, Chelliah is one of five siblings but the only one to lose his left leg to polio. As a child, he cursed his fate and hoped for a better future.

Poverty forced his siblings to enter the workforce at an early age. After completing class X, Chelliah decided to help his elder brother and migrated to the city in 1981. He worked in a small shop run by his brother near Vandalur.

Three years later, in June 1984, he was employed as a helper in Arignar Anna Zoological Park, popularly known as Vandalur Zoo. He tended to enclosures housing leopards, bears, lions, chimps and peacocks.

“Each animal species should be handled differently. The carnivores, thanks to their sense of smell, are adept at identifying other beings from a distance,” said a zoo vet.

Like everybody else, Chelliah too was wary of handling big cats initially. The smell emanating from the enclosures made him sick. But a natural fondness for animals coupled with pride in rearing big cats helped him get over his fears.

“I never shout at them. I address them by name to ensure they react to my sound. It takes time but sooner or later, your patience will be rewarded,” Chelliah says.

The father of two, including an engineering graduate, Chelliah begins his day in the zoo around 6 a.m. and winds up only by 8 p.m. He feeds the animals, cleans their enclosures and also assists the zoo’s vets in treating the big cats. In facts, vets do not begin the regular check-up, unless Chelliah is with them as the tigers respond only to the latter.

The zoo has 2,553 varieties of flora and fauna. Its enclosures house around 50 endangered species including Nilgiri macaques, monitor lizards, chimpanzees, European brown bear, Muscovy duck, giraffe, Bengal tiger, lemur, vulture and star tortoises.

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 10:32:49 PM |

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