Every Sunday, volunteers from the local Roots and Shoots chapter visit the Nehru Zoological Park and station themselves near the cages. They talk to visitors, keeping them from feeding or troubling the animals. Since the park receives (roughly) ten times the number of visitors on Sundays as all the rest of the days put together, this action is very impactful.
Today, as part of an initiative at work, a few colleagues and I joined the R&S volunteers for a day at the zoo.
But before we kick off, a word on the zoo itself. Known locally as the Joo Park, Hyderabad’s zoo is to it what the Marina beach is to Chennai – the one place where every local family and their non-local extensions heads for some R&R. Hyderabad empties itself into the Joo Park on Sundays (similar to how Cyberabad empties itself into Shilparamam on Saturdays and Sundays). The Zoo is by no means small – it is indeed one of India’s largest – but on Sundays, it quickly starts resembling the Black Hole of Calcutta. Given that there are thousands of children and only two medium sized slides, the lines for each is roughly about 2600 long and full of angry parents yelling, “My son was here before your son” at each other. Of course, someone has to back down, and all of them storm away into the zoo to take out their frustrations on the poor animals. Which is where we come in – we try and stop them from behaving inappropriately with the inmates.
The day began at a leisurely pace – even though we met up at 7 in the morning, we didn’t get into action till almost 10 A.M., when the zoo officially opens. We distributed ourselves amongst the cages – I got the emu cage. Apparently the emus come right up to the fences, where they are yelled at, poked or fed random stuff by visitors. As I took position, I realized the emus were not coming out – they were locked up in a part of the cage far away from the visitors as there was some construction work going on in their enclosure.
I decided to walk around and help out where it was needed, and headed to the bear enclosure.
I had been warned about the bear earlier. He was an ex-circus bear and loved people. He would stand up and dance on certain cues, like clapping hands or reaching out to him with both hands. After doing that, he would hold out his hand for a reward, upon which people would throw all sorts of stuff at him. I wandered to the enclosure, determined to keep Vijay from dancing. The crowd was not too much, and I just told a man not to yell at the bear and he sidled away looking sheepish. After that, two little boys came by, and one of the started yelling “Vijay! Vijay!” and clapping his hands. Vijay, already a bit dazed from the blistering heat, looked confusedly around him. I walked up to the yelling boy and told him not to disturb the bear. He turned to me excitedly and said, “If you clap your hands, the bear will dance.” I really had nothing to tell the boy, except that he really had no business getting the bear to dance in this heat. That seemed to resonate with him and he collected his friend and went off to find some other way to amuse himself. After that, there were no other interesting incidents with Vijay, and I went off to help out with the tiger enclosures – where everyone was congregating.
There is something about people entering the zoo that makes the first word out of their mouth to be “Tiger!” Everyone makes a beeline for the tiger enclosures, and are only slightly distracted by the magnificent Galapagos tortoises and primates on the way. This means that both tiger enclosures (there are two – one with two albinos and another with a regular-coloured Bengal tiger) are surrounded by a regular mob of people and children all the time.
There was lots of work – everyone who came to see the tiger wanted to roar, and was told firmly by one of us to behave. One of the first people I shushed was an oldish guy with a small boy. He had lifted the boy to his shoulder, and was telling him to roar. I cut the boy off mid-roar, and immediately the hypocrite under him started scolding him, asking him to behave. The boy looked used to it, and was looking bored as he was taken away.
The prize for non sequitur of the day goes to big fellow who ambled up to the tiger cage. He was a foot taller and a couple of feet wider than me. With a closely cropped pate and a matching beard, he looked like a wrestler, and definitely not someone to mess with. Unfortunately, he walked right up to the tiger enclosure and started yelling at the tiger in a language I did not understand. So it was left to me to take him to task, and for this, my weapon of choice was a deep voice. Doing my best imitation of Russell Peters’ rendition of !xobile’s “Please do not yell in the casino,” I tapped the man on his shoulder and said, “Please do not yell at the tiger!”
He turned around and said, “But I am not from here. I am from Dubai.”
This had me stumped for a moment, but thinking quickly, I came back with, “The tiger can still hear you.” This was where I lost him, and I also realized that a man who had come up with “I am from Dubai” as a response to “Don’t yell at the tiger” could not actually get the joke I was trying to make. But he was sporting about it and agreed with my suggestion that his shouting might actually not be pleasant for the tiger, and moved along.
After a while, a couple of old men – when I say old, I mean in their 60s – walked up, and one of them started roaring at the tiger. I told the man, very politely, not to disturb the tiger. At this point, his friend intervened, and told me that the tiger obviously could not hear us as it was not reacting. Not stopping to point out the obvious weakness of his argument, I assured him that the tiger had very good hearing and was very disturbed by his friend’s irresponsible roaring. At that, he lost interest in the tiger and asked me who I was to stop them. I told him that we were working with the Forest Department’s permission to stop people from annoying the animals, to which he replied, with a roguish twinkle in his eye, “Oh! Since you have no other work you’ve been posted to do this!” With that parting shot, he walked away with his friend, obviously enjoying his own quick wit and repartee. I’m sure his grandchildren are hearing about it right now.
After a while, I’d grown quite cocky, and was actually telling people off for making their children stand on the fence of the albino tiger enclosure. Michael Jackson was a model parent compared to some of these whackjobs. I think my unshaven look and the rather wild hair helped in frightening them into submission.
One of the last people I told off was another chap who was bigger than me, and who could easily have picked me up and chucked me into the bear enclosure if he’d wanted. Vikram, who had told him not to throw things at the Himalayan bear, turned away for a moment and quick as a flash, he’d chucked a stick at the bear. I was quite annoyed and asked him in my best Hindi what he was doing, and had he not heard what Vikram had said. He started talking in Telugu to a little boy with him and tried to ignore me. Even more riled, I asked him if he did not know Hindi, to which he said he knew Hindi. Then I asked him if he did not hear Vikram telling him not to throw anything into the enclosure. At this point, he looked everywhere but at my face and walked quickly away. If he had a tail, it would have been tucked firmly between his legs.
What was cool about this whole experience was the difference one person telling people not to harass the animals can make. Every time I told someone to stop doing something, I could see at least a couple of other visitors telling their children or companions not to do the same thing. Perhaps it had more to do with being embarrassed that they too might be called out, but our actions seemed to have a ripple effect.
In all, the day was spent satisfactorily, and we returned home to a well-deserved and restful dinner!