As a former employee of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) India, I have done some bizarre things in the line of duty. I have walked with a giant chicken mascot on crutches on the roads of Bengaluru, wriggled my way out of awkward situations such as explaining to suspicious customs officials at the Delhi airport what I was doing with a bulbous cow head (protesting against animal abuse in the leather industry outside Connaught Place), and chased snake charmers across Mumbai.
In 2003, my former colleague Dilpreet Beasley and I found ourselves dashing across Bandra to find six performing sloth bears. We were acting on a tip that the bears were last spotted moving towards Carter Road. Performing bears used to be a common sight in India – cubs are nabbed from forests and through a method of punishment and pain made to learn silly acts such as dancing on two legs, saluting onlookers and smoking a cigarette. This is a far cry from the way these bears live in the jungle – where they can climb even 35-ft tall trees with their long hook-like claws to raid honeycombs, close their nostrils at will to protect their sensitive muzzles while feeding on termites and as cubs, suck their front paws while sleeping, much like human babies.
Luckily, bears are not a common sight in Bandra, and most fruit and vegetable sellers were happy to point us in the right direction. Dilpreet and I reached Carter Road and proceeded to bundle the kalandars and bears into a truck and hauled them to the police station. The six bears were taken to a temporary rescue space at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. As we made our way back, two of the kalandars blocked our path. In a scene straight out of a B-grade Bollywood film, we were warned, “It’s not a good idea for girls to do such dangerous work and it could lead to trouble.” Worst, they decided to make good the threat. The madaris traced down Peta’s Juhu office and camped outside it every morning. Dilpreet and I felt very James Bond-esque as we disguised ourselves with scarves and huge shades and ducked inside an autorickshaw to sneak past them. Happily, the story did have the quintessential fairy-tale ending: the six bears now live at Wildlife SOS’s bear sanctuary in Agra, where they have plenty of space to roam about in, forage for food and swing on hanging tyres. The kalandars have found alternative vocations with the help of the NGO.
Animal rescues are not simple affairs, especially as they raise questions of sustenance versus exploitation. When it comes to animal rights welfare, there aren’t easy answers, but some are simpler than the others. For instance, the successful stray dog sterilisation and vaccination programmes by organisations such as the Welfare of Stray Dogs, Plants and Animal Welfare Society, Ahimsa and In Defense of Animals has made a substantial difference to the way stray animals are viewed in the city.
Then there are ongoing campaigns, such as the one at the 150-year-old Rani Bagh zoo, or technically the Veermata Jijabai Bhonsle Udyan. The 53-acre garden is a vital green open space for Mumbai. But controversy often yaps at its heels, like the death of a large number of blackbucks in 2006 and the single status of Shiva the rhino for 35 years. According to the Central Zoo Authority Recognition of Zoo (Amendment), Rules, 2004, “No animal shall be kept without a mate for a period exceeding one year unless there is a valid reason for doing so or the animal has already passed its prime and is of no use for breeding purposes”. Then there was the grand master plan proposed by HK Consultants – picture a R400-crore plus makeover that would have impacted the fragile biodiversity of the green open space adversely. Several groups have intervened – in 2004, Peta filed a public interest litigation against the zoo, the Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Action Committee mobilised civic support for sustainable redevelopment and college volunteers patrolled the zoo to keep visitors from harassing the animals. Peta worked with experts and volunteers to environmentally enrich enclosures by replicating the animals’ natural surroundings – branches and rocks for the snake enclosure, resting logs for the leopards and a network of ropes and hammocks for the monkeys.
Over the years, the city’s activists have got a ban on animal joy rides on beaches, broached public-state partnerships for programmes such as sterilisation of stray dogs, and continue to work tirelessly to rescue animals and spearhead adoption campaigns. But then that’s what makes Mumbai special – an active civil society that rallies for animals.
By Bijal Vachharajani