The Loneliest Animals in the World

More than a decade ago, I got into an argument with a cousin-in-law because she was incredulous that I had issues with Rani Bagh (the old name for our city zoo now known as Jijamata Udyaan). I argued back, talking about the dingy cages, the lack of stimulation for the animals, and the general despair I felt every time I went there. All that’s fine, she said, brushing my complaints aside by asking how she would show her children what animals look like without the zoo.

That was a statement I was completely gobsmacked by. And it’s one that I have been returning to over the last few weeks as the Jijamata Udyan gears up to display eight Humboldt penguins by November. While these penguins have been bred in captivity and come from South Korea, that doesn’t take away from the fact that these birds have a rich natural history.

According to the Centre for Biological Diversity, Humboldt penguins in the wild live along the coasts of Chile and Peru and are “known to travel long distances at sea to find food”. Their “habitat is highly influenced by the cold, nutrient-rich Humboldt Current flowing northward from Antarctica, which is vital to the productivity of plankton and krill and fosters fish abundance”. And they live for almost 20 years.

Twenty years! That is a long time to stay in a glass air-controlled enclosure. With people knocking at your enclosure, pulling faces at you, and the barrier, a final difference between freedom and captivity.

As John Berger wrote in About Looking , “The zoo cannot but disappoint. The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically. They have been immunised to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention. Therein lies the ultimate consequence of their marginalisation… This historic loss, to which zoos are a monument, is now irredeemable for the culture of capitalism.” We, as a species, have always been fascinated by our fellow animals, constantly attempting to observe, tame, cage in a bid to understand our sameness and our difference. And reducing animals to a commodity.

British naturalist Gerald Durrell once said that “Zoos should concentrate more on the preservation side of things”. Zoos, when managed well, could potentially have a role to play in species conservation. But Mumbai’s zoo doesn’t serve that purpose. It has a history rife with problems, but that hasn’t stopped it from drawing up plans of grandeur, of being a “world class” zoo with polar bears and penguins.

A petition on the Sanctuary Asia website expands, “While Jijamata Udyan (Rani Bagh) has immense architectural and botanical heritage value, the zoo serves no meaningful conservation or scientific purpose. The death and unspeakable suffering of scores of incarcerated animals has brought great ill-repute to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Yet it is considering spending over Rs. 20 crore on yet another misadventure while the city claims to have no funds to properly maintain the existing animal facilities in their current situation.” You can log on to their website to support their Unhappy Feet campaign.

One of the things that children take away from zoos is that it’s okay to confine animals for purported educational and entertainment reasons. It also tells them that it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a colossal amount of money on imprisoning animals that are not even suited to this climate. All this, when we should be looking at fortifying Mumbai with some serious climate adaptation methods.

I don’t know why anyone has to see animals in captivity to understand what they “look” like. In the forest, you are not likely to see an elephant swaying its trunk incessantly or a fox pacing its cage up and down because of zoochosis, a form of abnormal and stereotypical behaviour displayed by animals in captivity. Nor are you going to understand animal behaviour if they are languishing in constricted spaces with little environmental enrichment, when in the wild they are accustomed to realms of land or water.

Mumbai, for instance, has no excuse with Sanjay Gandhi National Park in its backyard. The city forest is teeming with a glorious abundance of trees and plants, expansive moths, elusive leopards, spiders spinning silken webs, shrieking parakeets. They are all there, we just need to look. Rani Bagh itself is a botanical garden, with some truly spectacular trees which are home to birds and bats. Why then import misery into its grounds? Definitely not in the name of children, who are way more sensitive to cruelty and have a natural affinity towards animals.

The excruciating misery and tedium of captivity is not hard to understand. And children get it. Take a look at The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. In the book, a silverback gorilla, Ivan, lives in a glass cage in a mall. He describes his life in an unforgettable manner: “Not long ago, a little boy stood before my glass, tears streaming down his smooth red cheeks. ‘He must be the loneliest gorilla in the world,’ he said, clutching his mother’s hand. At times like that, I wish humans could understand me the way I can understand them. It’s not so bad, I wanted to tell the little boy. With enough time, you can get used to almost anything.”

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