As a kid, I remember visiting the Nandankanan Zoological Park at Bhubaneswar along with my father and his zoology students. It was winter and the Zoology department students had come for a picnic in Nandankanan zoo. I remember being told that it was the only zoo in India that had natural surroundings as it was on the side of the Chandaka forests. In the early seventies attracted by the mating call of a tigress a tiger had jumped into the moat and became captive till its death. I also remember the incident when dad scolded a group of students who were teasing a leopard. Today when I look back, I realise that the zoos have outlived their utilities.
Recreation & Awareness:
Zoos were created during the colonial times, when exotic species were brought to Europe to offer the public possibilities of viewing them. Today, we have the electronic media and we don’t need to go to the Zoos to know how a tiger looks like. A captive tiger is a far cry from the majestic king roaming in the forests.
The Central Zoo Authority, admits that “many zoos have evolved from menageries and private collections, and most zoos until the last two decades were set up mainly for entertainment and recreation”.
Most of the times the recreation aspect is redefined by tourists who get sadistic pleasure from routinely teasing and abusing animals. One incident always remains in my mind. A group of tourists were abusing a Hoolock gibbon in Delhi Zoo and the poor gibbon was screaming at the top of its voice. Ofcourse, the defenders of Zoos will say that the National Zoo Policy in the section 3.4.4 states "Zoos shall not allow any animal to be provoked for tortured for the the purpose of extracting any performance or tricks for the benefit of the visitors or for any other reason". However, in India rules are rarely enforced.
Reintroduction in the Wild:
In the preamble of National Zoo Policy “Today when wildlife habitats are under severe pressure and a large number of species of wild fauna have become endangered, the zoos have not only to sustain their own populations but also augment the depleting populations of endangered species in the wild.”
I haven’t seen a single successful case of reintroduction of a zoo bred animal in the wild. Let us understand why introducing a zoo bred animal in the wild is wishful thinking.
Take the example of a tiger. Assume that a Zoo has managed to breed a healthy tiger. A tiger needs lot of knowledge before it can become self sufficient in the wild. A tiger cub normally takes around 18-22 months to learn the secrets of nature, hunting techniques and other survival skills before it separates from its mother. Who will teach a zoo bred tiger hunting techniques? And how will you teach?
The hunting technique of a tiger is different than that of a leopard. It doesn't strangulate its prey. A tiger breaks the neck of animals and kills it. It is a difficult technique to master. At times the young adolescent tigers are unable to do that cleanly. A tiger will jump on the back of its prey, holds its neck and puts all its weight. The animal falls and in the process the weight of the prey and the tiger dislocates the neck cleanly. Of course, you don't see this technique used when the tiger is killing a small deer fawn, for obvious reasons.
Do you believe that anyone can impart this knowledge to the young Zoo bread tiger? Do you think this tiger would be able to survive in the wild?
Health and Fitness of Zoo animals:
If you look at a tiger in the Zoo and a wild one, you will immediately notice the difference in the coat. The coat of the wild tiger would be glistening, where as that of the captive one would be dull. There is a huge difference in fitness levels. The zoo bred tiger will be easily killed in a fight with a wild tiger.
The enclosures in a zoo are cramped. The animals don’t even have the minimum personal space. Tigers have huge territories. A tiger can easily cover 10 to 15kms in the night. They are also very good swimmers. They have been known to swim for long distances in the river. Such a powerful creature when confined to a small enclosure will have its adverse effects. You can often see the tiger pacing up and down its cage, getting irritable, growling or even banging its head in the cage. Nobody understands the psychological impact on the captive animals.
There have been many cases of animals dying in the zoo. Most of the times the Veterinarians are unable to understand the reason. The Section 3.5.1 of the National Zoo Policy says that “Zoos shall ensure availability of the highest standards of veterinary care to all the animals in their collection”. Unfortunately, the standards are not defined. To read more about the reasons for lack of world class veterinary care for our wild animals, you may click here.
The section 3.4.3 of the National Zoo Policy states that “With the objectives of avoiding human imprinting and domestication of animals. Zoos shall prevent physical handling of animals by the staff to the extent possible”.
I don’t see this being followed in any Zoo. For eg. in Nandankanan zoo, during the feeding time the zoo keepers ring a bell and then feed the tigers and lions. Now the tigers and lions are so used to the bell that whenever bell rings, they run towards the feeding area. They have been conditioned. It reminded me of the Pavlov’s Dog experiment where Pavlov had started feeding his dog after ringing a bell. After some days he realized that the dog started salivating at the mere sight of the bell. The same story is unfolding with our tigers and lions in the Zoo. Deeply regrettable, but who cares? Are they wild animals any more?
I understand the value of freedom and the demoralizing effect of captivity. Captivity breaks the spirit. I was told a story by a motivational expert – she had no knowledge of wildlife – but she told this real incident to me. She found a small elephant calf tied down by two thick iron chains, where as her mother was bound only by a rope. When she asked the mahout, the reply was that the female elephant has lost its spirit where as its small calf has still not accepted the life in captivity. We are mostly the product of Independent India. But the earlier generation would definitely appreciate the value of freedom.
I am sure our educated youth would raise their voice against this continuing drama of the absurd. Please raise your voice. Right to the Secretary, MoEF (email: firstname.lastname@example.org ) and write to the PMO as well.
I hope the voice of the people would force our decision makers to understand the fallacy of maintaining Zoos and would move to disband them.