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Wildbuzz: Zoo’s matrimonial columns

Finding a suitable match for big cats in captivity may take months of phased execution. Managing big cats is not a simple matter of throwing meat and cleaning cages.

punjab Updated: Oct 11, 2015 12:35 IST
Vikram Jit Singh
Vikram Jit Singh
Hindustan Times
Sudhir Hamilton, Asiatic lion zookeeper at the Chhatbir zoo. (PHOTO: ABHISHEK HAMILTON)


Finding a suitable match for big cats in captivity may take months of phased execution. Managing big cats is not a simple matter of throwing meat and cleaning cages. The zookeeper for Asiatic lions at the Chhatbir zoo, Sudhir Hamilton, brings 43 years of experience in handling tigers and lions; the first four years at a circus, and after 1977, at the zoo. The catch is that if a male and female do not get along, the male can kill the female in a jiffy by going for the throat. “Zookeepers like Hamilton ascertain whether cats can be kept together and eventually mate and produce cubs. They are the best matchmakers,” says zoo director Manish Kumar.

Asiatic lions, Yuvraj and Heli, which were procured from Gujarat zoos, were to be paired. The lions were first placed in chambers separated by one empty chamber called the ‘one-house gap’. Hamilton determined that the lions seemed comfortable with each other at that distance. After that, the lions were placed in adjoining chambers. “If the male likes the female, he will raise his moustaches and make a purring sound. If the female likes the male, she will raise her tail and make comforting sounds,” explained Hamilton.

The zookeeper now felt the lions were ready for their first meeting, a very sensitive one. “The lions were put together in the animal gallery, which is a cramped space. This ensures that if they attack each other, they would not be able to fully manoeuvre and deploy their killing prowess. Zoo staff wait with high-pressure water hoses, rods and tranquilising guns to separate the two if a fight breaks out,” said block officer Harpal Singh.

Once that first date went off successfully, the grilled door between adjoining chambers of the lions was opened and the two interacted freely. Mating occurs several times a day and may extend to a week, with the female approaching the male when she goes into heat.

Hamilton has such a hold on the lions that he can be seen chatting with them, and can even command an obstinate lion to fall in line. “Yuvraj is a very calm lion. If you treat him with love, he allows you to scratch and pet him. Heli is more reserved but with affectionate handling, she turns calm. The love she had for her four cubs (from the late lion, Abhey) was so touching. If she felt for a moment that the zookeeper was taking away her cubs, she would catch the cub’s tail with her mouth and pull it back to her. She seemed so forlorn after the cubs were weaned off her,” said Hamilton.

Hamilton is nearing retirement. It may come as a cultural shock in this age of ‘selfies’ and ‘instant Google’ knowledge that Hamilton does not have a single picture of himself with his beloved lions. This repository of knowledge in managing big cats in captivity confesses he is an ignoramus when it comes to WhatsApp, Instagram, smartphones etc. But it is not his ignorance that really speaks but the humility of his knowledge and a quiet love for his animals. In the Indian official hierarchy, which is ever keen to cut technical personnel down to ‘manageable’ size, such men are career-tattooed as Class 4 employees. On the other hand, zookeepers in the West are revered and well paid.


Two Red sand boas, which were stolen from zoo. (PHOTO: MC ZOOLOGICAL PARK, CHHATBIR )

Even as the Chhatbir zoo management prepares to write to the highest levels of the Punjab government and police to assign priority to cracking the theft of two Indian Great Horned or Eagle owls on September 11, a disturbing link connects the owls’ theft to that of four adult Red sand boas in July 2013. That link is the zoo’s multi-purpose worker Surjit Singh, who has been suspended as part of the administrative crackdown initiated in the owls’ theft. Surjit was the main gatekeeper, who had the keys of cages with him the night the owls were stolen.

Boas are prized for tantrik and other rituals by businessmen and the like, and are smuggled by influential wildlife crime syndicates. Thieves used chemicals to dissolve the adhesives framing the 1.25-quintal glass wall and suction pumps to prise it open at the boas’ enclosure. Surjit was then the reptile house chowkidar.

An FIR was lodged, and the crime investigation agency (CIA), Kharar, was handed over the probe. “The CIA staff, after a thorough interrogation of Surjit, told us they had found the culprit. But surprisingly, the tune changed suddenly and no arrests were made. Soon after, on successive nights, Surjit claimed that he could see boas in the reptile enclosure, as if they had never been stolen. They were indeed two of the stolen ones. How they had got back into the enclosure, and how only Surjit had seen them, remains a mystery. The Zirakpur police approached us and said two of the remaining boas had also been recovered. We found the police had actually detained a ‘sapera’ with boa hatchlings. We told the police these were not the zoo’s stolen adult boas,’’ recounted block officer Harpal Singh.

Singh recounts that two of the stolen boas had been declared court case property following their seizure in Patiala in 2011. “When the then Patiala wildlife range officer, Jugraj Singh, was bringing boas to the zoo from Patiala in 2011, he received a call on his mobile. The caller had pleaded with Jugraj not to hand over boas to the zoo but strike a deal for `10 lakh. Jugraj had brought that mobile number to the notice of the police and it was traced to Sonepat, Haryana,” said Singh.

“It was an attempt by the police to close the case under controversial circumstances by claiming that all four boas had been recovered without any culprit being caught. However, from the zoo’s point of view, the case is not closed. We hope the current owl probe will help crack the boas’ theft case,” added zoo director Manish Kumar.

First Published: Oct 11, 2015 09:03 IST