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Chapter 4
Our good old nation was just seven years old as a republicwhen it became bigger by a small territory. Pondicherry enteredthe union of India on November 1,1954. One civic achievementcalled for another. A portion of the grounds of the PondicherryBotanical Garden was made available rent-free for an excitingbusiness opportunity and – lo and behold – India had a brandnew zoo, designed and run according to the most modern,biologically sound principles. It was a huge zoo, spread overnumberless acres, big enough to require a train to explore it,though it seemed to get smaller as I grew older, train included.
Now it's so small it fits in my head. You must imagine a hotand humid place, bathed in sunshine and bright colours. Theriot of flowers is incessant. There are trees, shrubs andclimbing plants in profusion – peepuls, gulmohurs, flames of theforest, red silk cottons, jacarandas, mangoes, jackfruits andmany others that would remain unknown to you if they didn'thave neat labels at their feet. There are benches. On thesebenches you see men sleeping, stretched out, or couples sitting,young couples, who steal glances at each other shyly andwhose hands flutter in the air, happening to touch. Suddenly,amidst the tall and slim trees up ahead, you notice two giraffesquietly observing you. The sight is not the last of yoursurprises. The next moment you are startled by a furiousoutburst coming from a great troupe of monkeys, only outdonein volume by the shrill cries of strange birds. You come to aturnstile. You distractedly pay a small sum of money. Youmove on. You see a low wall. What can you expect beyond alow wall? Certainly not a shallow pit with two mighty Indianrhinoceros. But that is what you find. And when you turn yourhead you see the elephant that was there all along, so big youdidn't notice it. And in the pond you realize those arehippopotamuses floating in the water. The more you look, themore you see. You are in Zootown!
Before moving to Pondicherry, Father ran a large hotel inMadras. An abiding interest in animals led him to the zoobusiness. A natural transition, you might think, fromhotelkeeping to zookeeping. Not so. In many ways, running azoo is a hotelkeeper's worst nightmare. Consider: the guestsnever leave their rooms; they expect not only lodging but fullboard; they receive a constant flow of visitors, some of whomare noisy and unruly. One has to wait until they saunter totheir balconies, so to speak, before one can clean their rooms,and then one has to wait until they tire of the view and returnto their rooms before one can clean their balconies; and thereis much cleaning to do, for the guests are as unhygienic asalcoholics. Each guest is very particular about his or her diet,constantly complains about the slowness of the service, andnever, ever tips. To speak frankly, many are sexual deviants,either terribly repressed and subject to explosions of frenziedlasciviousness or openly depraved, in either case regularlyaffronting management with gross outrages of free sex andincest. Are these the sorts of guests you would want towelcome to your inn? The Pondicherry Zoo was the source ofsome pleasure and many headaches for Mr. San tosh Patel,founder, owner, director, head of a staff of fifty-three, and myfather.
To me, it was paradise on earth. I have nothing but thefondest memories of growing up in a zoo. I lived the life of aprince. What maharaja's son had such vast, luxuriant groundsto play about? What palace had such a menagerie? My alarmclock during my childhood was a pride of lions. They were noSwiss clocks, but the lions could be counted upon to roar theirheads off between five-thirty and six every morning. Breakfastwas punctuated by the shrieks and cries of howler monkeys,hill mynahs and Moluccan cockatoos. I left for school under thebenevolent gaze not only of Mother but also of bright-eyedotters and burly American bison and stretching and yawningorang-utans. I looked up as I ran under some trees, otherwisepeafowl might excrete on me. Better to go by the trees thatsheltered the large colonies of fruit bats; the only assault thereat that early hour was the bats' discordant concerts ofsqueaking and chattering. On my way out I might stop by theterraria to look at some shiny frogs glazed bright, bright green,or yellow and deep blue, or brown and pale green. Or it mightbe birds that caught my attention: pink flamingoes or blackswans or one-wattled cassowaries, or something smaller, silverdiamond doves, Cape glossy starlings, peach-faced lovebirds,Nanday conures, orange-fronted parakeets. Not likely that theelephants, the seals, the big cats or the bears would be up anddoing, but the baboons, the macaques, the mangabeys, thegibbons, the deer, the tapirs, the llamas, the giraffes, themongooses were early risers. Every morning before I was outthe main gate I had one last impression that was bothordinary and unforgettable: a pyramid of turtles; the iridescentsnout of a mandrill; the stately silence of a giraffe; the obese,yellow open mouth of a hippo; the beak-and-claw climbing of amacaw parrot up a wire fence; the greeting claps of a shoebill'sbill; the senile, lecherous expression of a camel. And all theseriches were had quickly, as I hurried to school. It was afterschool that I discovered in a leisurely way what it's like to havean elephant search your clothes in the friendly hope of findinga hidden nut, or an orang-utan pick through your hair for ticksnacks, its wheeze of disappointment at what an empty pantryyour head is. I wish I could convey the perfection of a sealslipping into water or a spider monkey swinging from point topoint or a lion merely turning its head. But language foundersin such seas. Better to picture it in your head if you want tofeel it.
In zoos, as in nature, the best times to visit are sunrise andsunset. That is when most animals come to life. They stir andleave their shelter and tiptoe to the water's edge. They showtheir raiments. They sing their songs. They turn to each otherand perform their rites. The reward for the watching eye andthe listening ear is great. I spent more hours than I can counta quiet witness to the highly mannered, manifold expressions oflife that grace our planet. It is something so bright, loud, weirdand delicate as to stupefy the senses.
I have heard nearly as much nonsense about zoos as Ihave about God and religion. Well-meaning but misinformedpeople think animals in the wild are "happy" because they are"free". These people usually have a large, handsome predator inmind, a lion or a cheetah (the life of a gnu or of an aardvarkis rarely exalted). They imagine this wild animal roaming aboutthe savannah on digestive walks after eating a prey thataccepted its lot piously, or going for callis-thenic runs to stayslim after overindulging. They imagine this animal overseeing itsoffspring proudly and tenderly, the whole family watching thesetting of the sun from the limbs of trees with sighs ofpleasure. The life of the wild animal is simple, noble andmeaningful, they imagine. Then it is captured by wicked menand thrown into tiny jails. Its "happiness" is dashed. It yearnsmightily for "freedom" and does all it can to escape. Beingdenied its "freedom" for too long, the animal becomes ashadow of itself, its spirit broken. So some people imagine.
This is not the way it is.
Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessitywithin an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment wherethe supply of fear is high and the supply of food low andwhere territory must constantly be defended and parasitesforever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such acontext? Animals in the wild are, in practice, free neither inspace nor in time, nor in their personal relations. In theory –that is, as a simple physical possibility – an animal could pickup and go, flaunting all the social conventions and boundariesproper to its species. But such an event is less likely to happenthan for a member of our own species, say a shopkeeper withall the usual ties – to family, to friends, to society – to dropeverything and walk away from his life with only the sparechange in his pockets and the clothes on his frame. If a man,boldest and most intelligent of creatures, won't wander fromplace to place, a stranger to all, beholden to none, why wouldan animal, which is by temperament far more conservative? Forthat is what animals are, conservative, one might even sayreactionary. The smallest changes can upset them. They wantthings to be just so, day after day, month after month.
Surprises are highly disagreeable to them. You see this in theirspatial relations. An animal inhabits its space, whether in a zooor in the wild, in the same way chess pieces move about achessboard – significantly. There is no more happenstance, nomore "freedom", involved in the whereabouts of a lizard or abear or a deer than in the location of a knight on achessboard. Both speak of pattern and purpose. In the wild,animals stick to the same paths for the same pressing reasons,season after season. In a zoo, if an animal is not in its normalplace in its regular posture at the usual hour, it meanssomething. It may be the reflection of nothing more than aminor change in the environment. A coiled hose left out by akeeper has made a menacing impression. A puddle has formedthat bothers the animal. A ladder is making a shadow. But itcould mean something more. At its worst, it could be that mostdreaded thing to a zoo director: a symptom, a herald oftrouble to come, a reason to inspect the dung, tocross-examine the keeper, to summon the vet. All this becausea stork is not standing where it usually stands!
But let me pursue for a moment only one aspect of thequestion.
If you went to a home, kicked down the front door, chasedthe people who lived there out into the street and said, "Go!
You are free! Free as a bird! Go! Go!" – do you think theywould shout and dance for joy? They wouldn't. Birds are notfree. The people you've just evicted would sputter, "With whatright do you throw us out? This is our home. We own it. Wehave lived here for years. We're calling the police, youscoundrel."Don't we say, "There's no place like home"? That's certainlywhat animals feel. Animals are territorial. That is the key totheir minds. Only a familiar territory will allow them to fulfill thetwo relentless imperatives of the wild: the avoidance of enemiesand the getting of food and water. A biologically sound zooenclosure – whether cage, pit, moated island, corral, terrarium,aviary or aquarium – is just another territory, peculiar only inits size and in its proximity to human territory. That it is somuch smaller than what it would be in nature stands toreason. Territories in the wild are large not as a matter of tastebut of necessity. In a zoo, we do for animals what we havedone for ourselves with houses: we bring together in a smallspace what in the wild is spread out. Whereas before for usthe cave was here, the river over there, the hunting grounds amile that way, the lookout next to it, the berries somewhereelse – all of them infested with lions, snakes, ants, leeches andpoison ivy – now the river flows through taps at hand's reachand we can wash next to where we sleep, we can eat wherewe have cooked, and we can surround the whole with aprotective wall and keep it clean and warm. A house is acompressed territory where our basic needs can be fulfilledclose by and safely. A sound zoo enclosure is the equivalentfor an animal (with the noteworthy absence of a fireplace orthe like, present in every human habitation). Finding within itall the places it needs – a lookout, a place for resting, foreating and drinking, for bathing, for grooming, etc. – andfinding that there is no need to go hunting, food appearing sixdays a week, an animal will take possession of its zoo space inthe same way it would lay claim to a new space in the wild,exploring it and marking it out in the normal ways of itsspecies, with sprays of urine perhaps. Once this moving-in ritualis done and the animal has settled, it will not feel like anervous tenant, and even less like a prisoner, but rather like alandholder, and it will behave in the same way within itsenclosure as it would in its territory in the wild, includingdefending it tooth and nail should it be invaded. Such anenclosure is subjectively neither better nor worse for an animalthan its condition in the wild; so long as it fulfills the animal'sneeds, a territory, natural or constructed, simply is, withoutjudgment, a given, like the spots on a leopard. One might evenargue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it wouldopt for living in a zoo, since the major difference between azoo and the wild is the absence of parasites and enemies andthe abundance of food in the first, and their respectiveabundance and scarcity in the second. Think about it yourself.
Would you rather be put up at the Ritz with free room serviceand unlimited access to a doctor or be homeless without a soulto care for you? But animals are incapable of suchdiscernment. Within the limits of their nature, they make dowith what they have.
A good zoo is a place of carefully worked-out coincidence:
exactly where an animal says to us, "Stay out!" with its urineor other secretion, we say to it, "Stay in!" with our barriers.
Under such conditions of diplomatic peace, all animals arecontent and we can relax and have a look at each other.
In the literature can be found legions of examples of animalsthat could escape but did not, or did and returned. There isthe case of the chimpanzee whose cage door was left unlockedand had swung open. Increasingly anxious, the chimp began toshriek and to slam the door shut repeatedly – with a deafeningclang each time – until the keeper, notified by a visitor, hurriedover to remedy the situation. A herd of roe-deer in aEuropean zoo stepped out of their corral when the gate wasleft open. Frightened by visitors, the deer bolted for the nearbyforest, which had its own herd of wild roe-deer and couldsupport more. Nonetheless, the zoo roe-deer quickly returned totheir corral. In another zoo a worker was walking to his worksite at an early hour, carrying planks of wood, when, to hishorror, a bear emerged from the morning mist, headingstraight for him at a confident pace. The man dropped theplanks and ran for his life. The zoo staff immediately startedsearching for the escaped bear. They found it back in itsenclosure, having climbed down into its pit the way it hadclimbed out, by way of a tree that had fallen over. It wasthought that the noise of the planks of wood falling to theground had frightened it.
But I don't insist. I don't mean to defend zoos. Close themall down if you want (and let us hope that what wildliferemains can survive in what is left of the natural world). Iknow zoos are no longer in people's good graces. Religion facesthe same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague themboth.
The Pondicherry Zoo doesn't exist any more. Its pits arefilled in, the cages torn down. I explore it now in the onlyplace left for it, my memory.


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