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Many zoos still aren’t enriching enough

Wildlife documentary-maker Shekar Dattatri speaks about the relevance of zoos

Giraffes at the Mysuru Zoo. Photo: Rana and Sugandhi
Giraffes at the Mysuru Zoo. Photo: Rana and Sugandhi

At the annual conference of Indian zoos held in Mysuru in December, directors of zoological parks in various states met to discuss the road map for zoos in the country. The theme: “Vision 2030 for zoos in India".

Experts agreed that managing zoos was a difficult task today. A senior Central Zoo Authority official even suggested that zoo directors needed to step out of their offices—and treat the animals like they would their children.

Shekar Dattatri. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

In an email interview, wildlife documentary film-maker Shekar Dattatri, who recently shot a film to mark the 125th anniversary of the Mysuru Zoo, explains what is important for the physical and psychological well-being of zoo animals and why an understanding of wild animal care is important for vets, who tend to come from animal husbandry departments. Edited excerpts:

How important are zoos in today’s context, given human encroachment and urbanization?

Yes, human encroachment of wild spaces and relentless urbanization are having a massive negative impact on our flora and fauna, but zoos neither aggravate nor alleviate this situation. The idea of zoos began as a way to amuse people by displaying “curiosities" from nature collected from around the world. By and large, unfortunately, most zoos still only serve this function, even though most now aspire to educate their visitors through the use of elaborate signboards and spacious exhibits that mimic natural habitats. Only a small handful of zoos in the world actually use the funds and interest that their zoos garner to help conserve animals in the wild. And again, only a small handful actually breed endangered species in captivity with the aim of releasing their offspring back into their native habitats.

What was it like filming in the Mysuru Zoo? What do you think makes it different from other zoological parks in the country?

I was commissioned by the Mysuru Zoo to make a film to commemorate their 125th anniversary. I found it to be a well-run zoo, with good systems in place. The animals are very well looked after, and the quality of their housing and feed was generally very impressive. Most of the keepers seemed genuinely attached to the animals under their care and treated them as part of their own family. The grounds and gardens are maintained well, and the entire premises is kept litter-free. The entry of plastic bags is diligently curtailed, as it could be fatal for animals, and all enclosures are under the close watch of a number of security guards. The zoo also recycles all of its organic waste through vermicomposting and harvests rainwater. After filming there for several weeks, I came away with the feeling that it must be one of the best zoos in India, if not the best. I’m also sure that the balmy climate of Mysuru helps in ensuring the health of the animals, as it never gets too hot or too cold here.

Tiger at the Mysuru Zoo. Photo: Rana and Sugandhi

What do you feel needs to be improved across Indian zoos?

I think choosing a place with a moderate climate is vital for locating a zoo. It is also important to only keep animals that do well in the prevailing climate. For instance, it would be foolish to keep polar bears in a tropical country. Or animals adapted to humid climates in a place with extremely dry weather. While it is now understood that enclosures must be large and suitably landscaped, many zoos in India still lack enough enrichment—i.e., features that provide exercise and amusement to the animals to keep them fit and stave off boredom. This is extremely important for the physical and psychological well-being of animals in captivity, and cannot be emphasized enough.

A state-of-the-art animal hospital and vets trained in wild animal care are also absolute necessities. Vets in most zoos in India are deputed from animal husbandry departments. By the time they gain an understanding of wild animal care, their three-year tenure is over and they get replaced by a fresh set of vets without any zoo experience. This needs to change urgently.

A separate cadre of zoo vets must be specially trained and deployed in our zoos. Caring for wildlife species is a specialized task and it is imperative that all officers and staff are chosen based on their aptitude for this job.

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