We need to talk about zoos. That’s right, the big compound in your city that you probably don’t pay attention to unless it’s wedding season and a huge hoard of relatives have descended upon you and you need to figure out how to entertain their squalling brats. Zoos. Short for zoological parks, places that should be full of awe and wonder and summon up images of the Sahara or the Australian outback or the deepest Antartica, and instead only remind you of depressed animals.
Most of India’s zoos are pretty pathetic. The Delhi zoo actually is housed in an absolutely gorgeous piece of land right inside the Old Fort, and is really good for a long winter walk, if you just stick to the trail by the migratory bird area, which isn’t caged in, and which most people find very boring. The further on you walk, the more your nose will tell you that you’re hitting the big animals—that and the sound of a hundred schoolchildren ruffling chips packets, and that one adult who is about to make a bad decision. Sometimes, these adults will poke at an apathetic bear or monkey with a stick. Other times, they’ll try to shout as loudly as they can, so the depressed big cat who is taking a break from pacing back and forth and back and forth will look up and roar back. The chimpanzee will stop poking the ground with its stick and look up briefly. There is a stench of animal and that animal’s toilet and that animal’s food all mixed up. You hold your breath, you gaze for a bit and you move on. But the lion is still there, his patchy mane speaking of malnutrition, his nose forever filled with the stink of his own scat, his whole life—a life meant to be lived wandered thorn forests, with a harem of his own—narrowed down to this enclosure, which has a few trees. With my three cats—panthers made miniature—I can guess that the lion, the tiger, the jaguar all have their own favourite tree worn low by scratching, but my cats have been bred to domesticity for their entire species and so don’t worry about favourites. They have no desire to go on, beating on through the forest, establishing new favourites, sniffing the wind for their next safe destination, they have no essential tiger-ness, which you’ll note the minute you see one in the wild, which makes them hold their heads high and tell you with one uplifted whisker: Lo, look it is I, it is Tiger.
I mean, it is sort of our fault as well. The only reason we’re all talking about the zoo now is because some poorunfortunate leaped over a low boundary wall and was subsequently cornered and killed by the white tiger. The papers and TV showed the man cowering in the corner while the tiger examined him, “What is this? A diversion?” the tiger asked himself, before he was distracted by security guards throwing stones at him, and then it was “Predator! Kill!” and before anyone could do anything—like, as an article in Quartz India suggests, remove the tranquilizingequipment placed only 350 feet away for just times such as there--a tragedy unfolded and the man was dead. The papers didn’t say that the tiger ate him, only that the man’s neck was snapped in two, to disable him from the stones, from the roaring outside, from the cries.
The same article mentions that in the year 2013 to 2014, 80 animals that were placed in the care of Delhi zoo have died. These include—so you can feel even worse, five Bengal tigers. The zoo is killing the tigers, whether by negligence or by design, the tigers are killing themselves, perhaps, just to be free of it.
Not all zoos are bad zoos. Conservationist Gerald Durrell spoke of his plans for his own private zoo on the Jersey island in England at great length in several of his books. Zoos for him were a place to help animals—to breed species that were dying out, to help people observe these species, and at the very last, to allow people to watch the animals in their natural habitat. He begged for land and funds to be able to ensure his animals were in places they considered safe and home—and fed them special treats. Gerald Durrell was involved in his zoo, and like a chef-run restaurant, a naturalist-run zoo is the best kind.
So don’t kill the Delhi zoo. What is going to happen to the animals if it is gone? What is going to happen to all the humans who don’t feed the animals chips packets or tease them or jump over ledges? Those humans exist. I was one of those humans. I watched the deer, I watched the tiger and I watched the bears, almost every week. It gave me great joy, mixed with great depression at how unhappy some of them were. Instead, hand over the zoo to new management, a naturalist or a private board interested in conservation and let them run the zoo like the place it is supposed to be: a private haven for lovers of animals. A safe home for animals in danger in the wild.
(Wrote this when the Delhi zoo incident happened for my column in mydigitalfc.com)