My city, my muse Chennai

How to love a crocodile? Reptile expert Zai Whitaker gives insights

My favorite place in the city is my home: Madras Crocodile Bank. When we first moved here 40 years ago, it wasn’t the city at all but the boondocks, reached after more than an hour of bumping along from one pot-hole to the next in our Second World War Jonga.

A faster more dramatic morph from rural to urban is hard to imagine. We would hear jackals in the evenings, and watch sea turtles nest practically in our backyard. Our square brick house was witness to many adventures, including a bunch of baby scorpions that escaped from their cage, sea snakes that were stored in a bucket in the bathroom, and a half-tame mongoose family which visited us when they felt like having some human food, such as a boiled egg.

One of my best memories here is playing with the children on the beach right outside, climbing in and out of fishing boats and battling with the rough, boisterous pre-monsoon waves that could knock you over even in ankle-deep water. And the two sons of a snake-centric father, always “snake hunting”; digging holes in the sand and looking for snakes, ready with their own little hooks made from coat-hangers.

How to love a crocodile? Reptile expert Zai Whitaker gives insights

‘Well listen,’ say well-meaning friends, ‘You’re not getting any younger, and maybe it’s time to move into the city, to be near medical help...’ Yes, maybe. But then over here, I’m near other things which are perhaps even more important to someone like me.

There’s natural beauty, and one of my sons is within screaming distance. Even as I write, fascinating things are going on all around me. A bunch of Travancore tortoises are “racing” (tortoise style) towards their plate of food; Jaws III has come up to bask after a long time; the black-crowned night herons in the gharial enclosure are battling it out for nesting space.

Until recently, there was a pitta and a pair of forest wagtails outside my office, both on their winter holly to the Croc Bank. My cottage overlooks one of the large mugger enclosures, and the night is broken by the guttural growls and grunts of males announcing their machismo. Next door, at the snake venom centre, there is a young Irula man who talks to me about Irula culture. Where do medical facilities stand compared to this?

    (As told to Sweta Akundi)

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    Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 7:15:56 AM |

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