World Wildlife Week starts on October 2, celebrate it by taking a walk in the park or having a picnic.
The tabby kitten was a quivering mass of fur and bones when my mother scooped her up from the roadside and brought her home. My sister, with her zoophobia, promptly locked herself inside the kitchen, making cooing noises from a safe distance. I was all of seven, and fascinated by the kitten’s round eyes and persistent mews. From the time I can remember, wayward kittens, injured rose-ringed parakeets, and heat-stressed munias found a foster home with my mother. Spiders weren’t whacked to death, instead they were gently carried out to the plants on our balcony. Lizards were pronounced cute, much to our collective horror. All cats as a rule were called Jinglu and Minglu, other animals got various names until they were well enough to go back into the big bad world of Delhi.
Years later, I picked up a copy of The Sense of Wonder by conservationist and author Rachel Carson and read this wonderful line – “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”
Those words made perfect sense to me. Growing up, one of my most treasured memories is of my mother reminiscing about her childhood. My mother’s family lived on the outskirts of Bhuj in Gujarat, close to a forested area. She told us about a brown owl who would knock on their front door thrice – tap, tap, tap. He (perhaps she?) would uncannily mimic the knock that was the agreed signal for my grandfather to announce that he was home. My mother would open the door ready to greet her father, only to have the tiny owl quickly dash into the house or retreat to his favourite perch on the tree outside, staring at them solemnly with his big eyes.
There were stories of a cobra cooling off in their bathroom, and another of a fighting pair of snakes who borrowed the living room as an arena. On such occasions, a local snake catcher caught the snakes and released them back in the wild.
My mother inherited this compassionate streak from her father. Their brown-and-white cow would only go to bed after my grandfather had petted and talked to her. When my grandfather was transferred to Mumbai, the most heartbreaking part of the move was leaving their cow behind. My mother still remembers the cow mooing sadly, while the siblings sulked, unable to understand why the cow couldn’t accompany them to the city. Surely people in Mumbai drank milk.
Fascinated, I took to reading about these animals in books. I was enchanted by Enid Blyton, with her stories about children taking long walks in the moors, climbing sturdy oak trees in the woods, and meeting animals in the wild. Richard Louv, in his book, Last Child in the Woods, writes that “environmental educators and activists repeatedly mention nature books as important childhood influences”. Indeed, stories such as AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh or Gerald Durrell’sMy Family and Other Animals, have inspired generations of wildlife lovers. I yearned to have owls knocking on the door at our Defence Colony house, and comforted myself with fiction badgers, elephants, and Pooh bears instead.
My father, while evading my constant demands for a dog, took us to city gardens on weekends, while holidays were spent in forests and hill stations. We climbed trees, picnicked at Lodhi Gardens, and were constantly gifted books about animals. All these fuelled my sense of wonder for nature. It didn’t matter that we didn’t always know the name of the brightly-coloured birds, majestic raptors, or creepy crawlies we saw. It was enough to be able to observe them.
World Wildlife Week starts on October 2, and there’s no better way to celebrate it than by passing on your love for nature to children. Take them for a nature ramble or a hike, let them observe and learn about animals and their habitat, and share a story or two about wildlife. As Carson reminds us, “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.” It’s up to us, the grown-ups, to keep it that way.
PS: No owls have come calling to my house, although I have helped rescue a few. Even now when I meet a tiny brown owl, such as the spotted owlet, in the wild, I wonder if it’s the same species as the one that used to knock on my mother’s door.