CHENNAI: I am a caretaker at the tiger enclosure. I handle their needs,” is definitely not the most common job description that is thrown around is in our social spheres. A select few, by choice or by chance end up taking this as a full time career. Michael is among the select few who landed the opportunity by chance. He believes that it is the choice he is blessed with.
Michael is the caretaker at the tiger enclosure in Vandalur Zoo. When a forest guard calls for Michael, a slender looking man with a vermilion streak on his forehead (a Hindu tradition) appears. “My real name is K Sivanandam,” Michael chuckles.
“There used to be a ranger here named Michael who used to address me by his name as he liked me very much. Since then, I have been Michael to the staff here,” he says.
He is 34 years old now, but his formative years have revolved around the zoo. “Only for the past three years, I have been an animal caretaker,” Michael said adding, “For seven years till then, I held the job of collecting the left over bones from animal enclosures and disposing of them.” He stays with his family — wife and two children at Kolapakkam village a few kilometres from Vandalur.
Over the years, seeing his interest and enthusiasm, forest officials recommended him for the job and he ended up being an animal caretaker. “Inga va ma, va, nalla ponnu la, inga va,” (Come here, that’s a good girl), Michael requests from outside the enclosure. The white tigress Narmada pounces on the barbed iron fence.
“She is curious about the strangers with me, I guess,” Michael says. He was never afraid of the animals, he says. “Probably this is because I have been seeing them from close quarters for more than a decade now. These are more or less like pets now,” he tells us.
Michael calls the white tigress Narmada, all the time spelling and pronouncing her name wrong. But, does that matter when your CV reads, “I feed the tigers and decide when they get fresh air”?
As an assistant to a head caretaker, Michael says that he has been learning on the job and it has brought him only joyous moments so far. “The first thing in the morning, we check the enclosures and the animals,” he says.
“We see whether they are active or dull and decide whether they need to be let out. For instance, the cubs get to be out from 9 am until 3 in the afternoon. The big animals come after that,” he says.
“We might have problems in our household or other personal stress. Those should never come in the way of our work,” he says, adding that this is the first thing they are taught and the only thing they ought to remember as a caretaker.
A class 9 drop-out when he started collecting bones, he never imagined that he would end up being an animal caretaker. “Never in my dreams,” he says. But, there was always a possibility as his father, Kuppusamy, is also a staff member at a zoo. “He works in the lion safari and is due for retirement in three years,” Michael says.
None of Michael’s four siblings are even remotely associated with the zoo inspite of the family hailing from Kolapakkam. According to the zoo staff, most of the zoo workers and caretakers are from the nearby Kolapakkam and Nedukundram villages.
Now, at Michael’s commands, the animals move into the enclosures and move closer to him. “A cub remains in the enclosure for the first three months.
When it is let out, it follows the mother. Since we are already friendly with the mother, the mother indirectly helps us in training the cubs.”
In the past three years, tigers have been shifted out of his enclosures at least four times. “Luckily, they remain in the zoo. So, whenever we feel emotional we go and have a look at them,” Michael grins. There were instances when the animals had to be shifted out of the zoo for good. “Yes, that was before I became a caretaker. I can only imagine how hard it would be on people like us,” says Michael with a thoughtful nod.
Even the ‘animal lovers’ who get featured every now and then in these spaces would have reasons to envy the animal caretakers at Arignar Anna Zoological Park,Vandalur. After all, it is a matter of vanity that the animals you pet are Royal Bengal tigers and white tigers.