CHENNAI: Now, you too can be a zoo keeper, thanks to the opportunity given by Arignar Anna Zoological Park. For one day, participants can do everything a zoo keeper does — clean up outdoor and indoor enclosures, chop and feed vegetables, fruits, grains, boiled wheat, milk and water (according to the vet’s specifications) to birds and observe animals at close quarters. This apart, one can train animals and report health problems to higher authorities concerned if the animals show any sign of illness or injury. A zookeeper’s day involves all these activities, finds this reporter.
“Pappu!” calls out Vijaya, zookeeper at the Arignar Anna Zoological Park, Vandalur. Immediately, Pappu — the blue-and-yellow Macaw — answers with a deafening screech, sneaking his head out. “Pappu!” the caretaker calls out again, and the macaw playfully swings, flies down, rubbing his head and perching on Vijaya’s left shoulder, eliciting a smile from her. “See how Pappu responds to his name. He’s friendly and loves attention. Actually, he is the friendliest birds of all! I have never had any major accidents. Rather, human beings have been tougher,” says Vijaya, who has been working in the zoo for the past 35 years.
It was noon. Bananas, black grapes, tomatoes, guavas, pumpkin seeds, beans, corn, apples, groundnuts, cabbages, onions and oranges arrive in gunny bags as we settle down to cut them. “Medhuvaa paarthu pannungamma (Take care while cutting the veggies),” says Vijaya, as she places aluminum trays for shredding carrots to serve as feed.
We enter the cage, Pappu chirps and flocks. “Maybe you’re new to Pappu. He will get used to you if you visit often,” says Vijaya. Pappu picks a piece of tomato and drops off the piece, moving on to another. “Pappu is a slow-eater,” says Vijaya. Meanwhile Pappu messes the floor of the cage. “Pappu just did a doo-doo and that’s gonna take a bit to clean up,” says Vijaya. Outside the enclosure, onlookers watch us mingle with the delightful birds with some envy.
“My routine has been pretty much the same, except the kind of birds I take care, which change once in a while,” says Vijaya. She has an additional responsibility to help birds beat the scorching summer sun. “I water the cages, semi-covered with jute sacks, to keep them cool. We have also placed paddy straw and tarpaulin,” she says.
Vijaya’s day starts at 9 am and ends by 5 in the evening. “Birds and animals are unpredictable at times. There have been instances when we get hurt, but its fine. It’s my love for animals that keeps me going,” she says with a smile. “In fact, birds here are healthy as I care for them. I don’t consider this simply as a job. To me, it’s more like a responsibility. After all, I do my bit for preserving nature,” says Vijaya.
Vijaya has women colleagues at the zoo to chat while working. “We are more like a family here,” she says.
No zoo tour is complete without visiting the mighty big cats, right? We request A Manimozhi, biologist at the zoo, to take us to the tigers’ cage. “We feed them buffalo calf meat because it has more protein and less fat, and we have somebody to go to the abattoir daily to procure fresh meat,” he says, pointing at Nithya, a cub tigress who is all set to feed on the meat provided to her, resting her claws unsheathed on the metal below.
“Have you ever been hurt by Nithya?” we ask. “No, the cage has been doing its job,” says the tiger-keeper with a laugh.
Manimozhi says zookeeping is like babysitting. “Zookeeper is the nanny, parent, doctor, dietician, teacher and fitness instructor for the zoo inmates — from parrots to chimpanzees,” he says. “Of course, life of a zookeeper is tough. They work in all weather conditions at all hours. They are present for the beautiful moments and sad ones. Unfortunately, not all animals live long. When some species die, it really affects us,” he says. Wait… did the gorilla throw poo at you… so what? “After all, it’s all in the business,” Manimozhi says.
For details, call 9445427043, 9445228332.