The problem is not how animals are treated in Indian government zoos or aquaria. They are, in almost all cases, treated badly — the animals are mangy, ill-kept, under-fed and unhappy in ill-lit and ill-designed cages. The problem to be solved is the most basic one. Do we need zoos like this? Do they contribute to the health, knowledge and happiness of the world? Do they show respect to any species other than the human? I think not.
Children are taken to a zoo in the same way as they go to a circus. It is a habit, mythically pleasurable — seeing tigers and lions roar, monkeys swing from branch to branch and listen to brightly coloured parakeets’ chatter. In reality, the lions and the tigers huddle in a corner of their dank cells and peer listlessly at their audience. Monkeys sit disconsolately in a corner, avoiding the barrage of pebbles while parakeets rarely emerge from the holes built to nest them. The few animals that circle inside their cages restlessly have things thrown at them by urchins. One bird in the Delhi zoo had its eye poked out by an umbrella tip. She died in agony. Several animals that were found dead at the same zoo were found to have eaten food offered by visitors that had razor blades tucked inside them, which had torn all the animal insides.
All zoo animals are caught from the wild. And since they rarely breed in the conditions provided in a zoo, they have to be constantly replaced. In summer, water provided to them dries up and often animals die of heat and thirst. In winter, the cages do not provide enough sunlight. Life in a zoo, therefore, is a life sentence for the captured animals for crime of their own, living in conditions that are appallingly cruel and dirty. And for each animal caught and sold to a zoo by the professionals, do you know how many die in the process?
A programme on aquaria that stock whales showed the baited traps put out for whales. Dolphins and large fish that bit on the hooks were pulled out dead and thrown back into the sea. For each whale that was captured, three whales were found dead in the traps, drowned and exhausted by the struggle.
Zoo biology is a comparatively young science. Most zoos in the world — and certainly all zoos in India — are run without the knowledge that it even exists. No thought has been given to the question of what a zoo is, or what it should be. It is just a place where animals are imprisoned.
A zoo should not be merely a place of amusement. A zoological garden can offer unique facilities. At its best, according to Gerald Durrell who runs one of the best zoos in the world in Jersey, it should be a complex laboratory, educational establishment and conservation unit. Zoos can amass information which will help in the ultimate conservation of the animal in the wild. Things like gestation periods, the day to day growth of an animal, how it cares for its young, can be studied properly if a zoo is well run.
In the field of conservation, a good unit can breed as many of the animals in their care, thereby lessening the drain upon wild stock. More importantly, they can build up viable breeding groups of the wild species whose numbers have dropped to an alarmingly low level. In Banargatta zoo I found a tall cage of the most beautiful Golden Langurs from Assam. These had climbed to the top of the poles and huddled there in fright, surrounded by masses of screaming schoolchildren. They had no private area to retreat into.
The keeper informed the writer that they had short lives and had to be constantly replaced. And this is a species of which only a few hundreds are left alive. Nothing had been done to simulate their natural environment or provide privacy to this shy creature. If the zoo had any sense, they would have set up a controlled breeding programme as a conservation tool — a kind of zoo bank for the Langurs.
This bank should be the single main task of the zoos. Good zoos in the world — and there are very few — have saved, by captive breeding, such species as the Pere David deer, the European bison, the Bontebok and the Nene goose. The list of endangered species in India alone is over a thousand. The assistance that has been given to the lion and the tiger (though I have my reservations on that) should be extended to these animals via the zoos acting not only as a sanctuary but as a research and breeding centre.
For that, many people now working in the zoos would have to be sent for training, for education on how to handle delicate species. Maybe the government could bring in people from the Jersey Zoo Trust for programmes to teach our zoo wardens. Also, we need to retrain our architects who build zoos to focus less on the aesthetic pleasure of humans and more on the the comfort of the creature that is to languish there.