It’s been a bad month for wildlife around the world. If the animal kingdom had a newspaper, the top stories of the last month would doubtless have been those about the death in two different cases of members of the community caused by the carelessness, stupidity and insensitivity of humans. On May 22, a man stripped naked and jumped into the lion enclosure at a Santiago zoo in Chile. As two lions attacked the man, who was reportedly suicidal, zoo authorities had to kill the lions, to protect him. The same day, closer home, a drunk man jumped into the lion enclosure at the Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad, but was saved by an alert keeper who managed to divert the attention of the animal. Roughly a week later, Harambe, a gorilla at a zoo in Cincinnati, USA, was shot and killed by authorities to save a toddler who had slipped into his enclosure.
What these incidents highlight probably is the constant threat from humans that animals in zoos have to live with. As if life in captivity wasn’t enough. “I think the various incidents demonstrate that, at times, zoos can be dangerous places for visitors. Perhaps more importantly, however, they show how dangerous zoos can be for animals,” says Rob Laidlaw, director Zoocheck, an international wildlife protection charity based in Canada. “Whenever their space is violated, purposefully or accidentally, the animals are the ones who suffer the consequences. And there are too many of these kind of incidents to write them off as freak accidents.”
In India alone, there were seven reported incidents of humans entering animal enclosures in zoos between 1996 and 2016. In September 2014 a white tiger attacked and killed a young man who appeared to have jumped over a barricade into the animal’s enclosure at the Delhi zoo. In January 1996, two drunk men tried to garland a tiger after entering its enclosure at the Alipore Zoo in Kolkata. The animal killed one of them and injured the other. Incidents of visitors trying to feed animals, climbing on barricades to get a good photo and making noises to draw the attention of the animals are, sadly, too routine to be reported. “Standard safety measures will never be sufficient to prevent inevitable human error, or human determination to break the rules and get closer to the animals,” says Chris Draper of the UK-based Born Free Foundation. “Zoos the world over seem to operate on the assumption that the ubiquitous ‘stand off’ barrier is sufficient to prevent visitors from accessing enclosure fences or entering enclosures. I have lost count of the times I have witnessed people in zoos across the globe duck under or climb over safety barriers to get a better look at animals.” Often zoo authorities themselves fall short of creating an effective barrier, in their desire to offer visitors an unrestricted view of the animals, or in an attempt to create as natural a forest ambience as possible, points Laidlaw.
Some incidents of humans entering animal enclosures in zoos in India
22 MAY 2016: A drunk man jumped into a lion enclosure at Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad was rescued unhurt by an alert animal keeper who diverted the lion’s attention.
23 SEPTEMBER 2014: A white tiger attacked and killed a young man who appeared to have jumped over a barricade into an enclosure at the Delhi zoo.
JULY 2012:A 32-year-old man mauled and seriously injured by a tiger after he sneaked into its enclosure at the Tata Steel Zoological Park in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand.
AUGUST 2009:An inebriated visitor at Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad tried to feed grass to a white tiger. He ended up at Osmania General Hospital with a severely mauled arm.
DECEMBER 2007:Two tigers at the Guwahati Zoo mauled a visitor who put his hand into the enclosure to get a close-up photograph. The man lost his left arm and died later.
DECEMBER 2000: A tiger killed a youth who ventured into the open-air enclosure by scaling the high wall surrounding it at the Alipore Zoo of Kolkata.
JANUARY 1996: Two drunk men tried to garland a tiger after entering its enclosure at the Alipore Zoo of Kolkata. The animal killed one of them and injured the other.
Constant vigilance by the zoo staff can be one way to prevent visitors from posing a threat to the animals, and to themselves. Educating visitors is another. “Just a list of dos and don’ts pasted at the entrance don’t work. After one has purchased a ticket, and before he or she enters the zoo, there should be a process to educate them about accepted behaviour and what can cause disturbance to the animals,” suggests Shubhobroto Ghosh, who co-authored the Indian Zoo Inquiry, a report on the condition of Indian zoos in 2004.
In India, the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 has a section on National Zoo Legislation and zoo rules. The Central Zoo Authority was constituted in 1992 with the proclaimed aim to assist the country’s efforts to conserve wildlife. “Every zoo is required to hire a curator, a biologist and an education officer under the Registration of Zoo Rules 2009. Not a single zoo has these. No zoo has been derecognised till date for not following the statutory staffing policy,” says animal rights activist Gauri Maulekhi. There is also provision under the Act to impose fine on visitors found teasing, molesting, injuring or feeding animals or disturbing them in any other way. This too is rarely imposed.
In the week following Harambe’s death on May 29, much of the conversation around him has questioned the very existence of zoos. While Brij Kishor Gupta, evaluation and monitoring officer, Central Zoo Authority, feels, “today zoos have been working to save populations of endangered species most in need of genetic and demographic support for their continued existence in the wild,” the role of zoos in the conservation process has been written off by many. “In my opinion, zoos have struggled to evolve from their earliest incarnation, and they remain first and foremost places to display animals to visitors for entertainment,” says Draper. “They have tried many new identities, most recently as centres of conservation, but the fact is that they lack the mandate, resources and focus to be genuine players in the field of conservation.”
The challenge with closing down zoos, however, is the future of existing animals, points out NVK Ashraf of the Wildlife Trust of India. Unless zoos serve the purpose of education, the solution, he feels, might lie in discontinuing the practice of putting animals on display, thus protecting them from the whims of visitors.