Mumbai’s zoo is a sad place | mumbai news | Hindustan Times
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Mumbai’s zoo is a sad place

Last month, one of the Humboldt penguins at the Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan and Zoo, Byculla, died just three months after it was imported. The birds were scheduled to be on display from this month.

mumbai Updated: Nov 28, 2016 09:48 IST
Manoj R Nair
The Humboldt penguins at the Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan and Zoo, Byculla.
The Humboldt penguins at the Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan and Zoo, Byculla. (HT FILE PHOTO )

Last month, one of the Humboldt penguins at the Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan and Zoo, Byculla, died just three months after it was imported. The birds were scheduled to be on display from this month.

Animal rights activists have filed criminal complaints and there have been demands to inspect conditions at the zoo. On Tuesday, the Lokayukta is scheduled to hear a complaint by Plant and Animals Welfare Society (PAWS) that the zoo’s animals are kept in cruel conditions.

The 53-acre zoo is planning to get more species as part of its revamp plan, but environmentalists and animal welfare activists said that the zoo needs to drastically improve conditions before it brings new exhibits.

There are many problems with Mumbai’s zoo: it was laid out in 1861 as a botanical garden. Small animal enclosures, in the style of 19th century zoos, were added from 1873 onwards, but the zoo continued to receive botanical specimens from all over the tropical world, becoming a repository of exotic plant species. A report in 2010 by botanist Marselin Almeida counted 276 species of trees. Almeida’s team used GPS indicators to find out that there were 843 plant types, including tree species. The report said that central Mumbai’s green lung should be preserved and the Rs600-crore ‘international zoo’ plans should be junked. Though citizens’ groups opposed the expansion plans, the zoo decided to go ahead with the project but scaled down the grand plans.

Cities all over the world have discarded Victorian-era zoos where animals and birds were exhibited in small cages. Modern zoos create large enclosures that mimic the animal’s natural habitat. Sunish Subramaniam Kunju, secretary, PAWS, Mumbai, said that the tank that houses the penguins is too small and could easily get infected.

Animal lovers call Mumbai’s zoo a sad place. This correspondent has witnessed the torture its animals go through. On October 3, 2008, I was passing by with a colleague when we saw a large crowd besieging the zoo. It was a public holiday and the mob, as we found out, were visitors trying to buy tickets. That Friday, around 15,000 visitors, nearly six times the daily average, filled the place.

We bought tickets and went inside. What we saw was traumatic. A group of men had gathered near the leopard enclosure and were throwing pebbles at the animal, trying to make it move. The cage was littered with stones as the frightened animal sat frozen in the enclosure. Another group of men were screaming into the lion’s cage to get the resting cats to move around for their viewing pleasure. Children were tossing stones at the hippopotamus. One man was banging at the glass walls of the tiny enclosure which held snakes. The guards were not around and the animals were at the mercy of the cruel visitors. The zoo managers said that they fine visitors who harm the animals.

The cats and most of the reptiles are gone from the zoo, having died of disease or old age, but the zoo remains a sad place. Stalin Dayanand, project director of environment campaigner Vanshakti, was at the zoo eight months ago. “I was really saddened to see the animals. The people who manage the zoo should be prosecuted for cruelty,” said Dayanand who said the zoo – which is smaller as compared with international ones – cannot take more than 2,000 visitors in a day.

The boorish visitors are part of the problem. Dayanand contrasts their behaviour with that of visitors at the Kuala Lumpur zoo which he visited recently. “The panda enclosure was so quiet and people were whispering to each other so that the animals were not disturbed,” said Dayanand. “There should be a sensor to ensure not more than a particular number of visitors are inside at any time, and visitors should go through an orientation programme before they are allowed to see the animals.”