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Chapter 8
We commonly say in the trade that the most dangerousanimal in a zoo is Man. In a general way we mean how ourspecies' excessive predatoriness has made the entire planet ourprey. More specifically, we have in mind the people who feedfishhooks to the otters, razors to the bears, apples with smallnails in them to the elephants and hardware variations on thetheme: ballpoint pens, paper clips, safety pins, rubber bands,combs, coffee spoons, horseshoes, pieces of broken glass, rings,brooches and other jewellery (and not just cheap plasticbangles: gold wedding bands, too), drinking straws, plasticcutlery, ping-pong balls, tennis balls and so on. The obituary ofzoo animals that have died from being fed foreign bodies wouldinclude gorillas, bison, storks, rheas, ostriches, seals, sea lions,big cats, bears, camels, elephants, monkeys, and most everyvariety of deer, ruminant and songbird. Among zookeepers,Goliath's death is famous; he was a bull elephant seal, a greatbig venerable beast of two tons, star of his European zoo,loved by all visitors. He died of internal bleeding after someonefed him a broken beer bottle.
The cruelty is often more active and direct. The literaturecontains reports on the many torments inflicted upon zooanimals: a shoebill dying of shock after having its beaksmashed with a hammer; a moose stag losing its beard, alongwith a strip of flesh the size of an index finger, to a visitor'sknife (this same moose was poisoned six months later); amonkey's arm broken after reaching out for proffered nuts; adeer's antlers attacked with a hacksaw; a zebra stabbed with asword; and other assaults on other animals, with walking sticks,umbrellas, hairpins, knitting needles, scissors and whatnot, oftenwith an aim to taking an eye out or to injuring sexual parts.
Animals are also poisoned. And there are indecencies evenmore bizarre: onanists breaking a sweat on monkeys, ponies,birds; a religious freak who cut a snake's head off; a derangedman who took to urinating in an elk's mouth.
At Pondicherry we were relatively fortunate. We were sparedthe sadists who plied European and American zoos.
Nonetheless, our golden agouti vanished, stolen by someonewho ate it, Father suspected. Various birds – pheasants,peacocks, macaws – lost feathers to people greedy for theirbeauty. We caught a man with a knife climbing into the penfor mouse deer; he said he was going to punish evil Ravana(who in the Ramayana took the form of a deer when hekidnapped Sita, Rama's consort). Another man was nabbed inthe process of stealing a cobra. He was a snake charmerwhose own snake had died. Both were saved: the cobra froma life of servitude and bad music, and the man from apossible death bite. We had to deal on occasion with stonethrowers, who found the animals too placid and wanted areaction. And we had the lady whose sari was caught by alion. She spun like a yo-yo, choosing mortal embarrassmentover mortal end. The thing was, it wasn't even an accident.
She had leaned over, thrust her hand in the cage and wavedthe end of her sari in the lion's face, with what intent wenever figured out. She was not injured; there were manyfascinated men who came to her assistance. Her flusteredexplanation to Father was, "Whoever heard of a lion eating acotton sari? I thought lions were carnivores." Our worsttroublemakers were the visitors who gave food to the animals.
Despite our vigilance, Dr. Atal, the zoo veterinarian, could tellby the number of animals with digestive disturbances which hadbeen the busy days at the zoo. He called "tidbit-itis" the casesof enteritis or gastritis due to too many carbohydrates,especially sugar. Sometimes we wished people had stuck tosweets. People have a notion that animals can eat anythingwithout the least consequence to their health. Not so. One ofour sloth bears became seriously ill with severe hemorrhagicenteritis after being given fish that had gone putrid by , a manwho was convinced he was doing a good deed.
Just beyond the ticket booth Father had had painted on awall in bright red letters the question:
An arrow pointed to a small curtain. There were so manyeager, curious hands that pulled at the curtain that we had toreplace it regularly. Behind it was a mirror.
But I learned at my expense that Father believed there wasanother animal even more dangerous than us, and one thatwas extremely common, too, found on every continent, in everyhabitat: the redoubtable species Animalus anthropomorphicus,the animal as seen through human eyes. We've all met one,perhaps even owned one. It is an animal that is "cute","friendly", "loving", "devoted", "merry", "under-standing". Theseanimals lie in ambush in every toy store and children's zoo.
Countless stories are told of them. They are the pendants ofthose "vicious", "bloodthirsty", "depraved" animals that inflamethe ire of the maniacs I have just mentioned, who vent theirspite on them with walking sticks and umbrellas. In both caseswe look at an animal and see a mirror. The obsession withputting ourselves at the centre of everything is the bane notonly of theologians but also of zoologists.
I learned the lesson that an animal is an animal, essentiallyand practically removed from us, twice: once with Father andonce with Richard Parker.
It was on a Sunday morning. I was quietly playing on myown. Father called out.
"Children, come here."Something was wrong. His tone of voice set off a smallalarm bell in my head. I quickly reviewed my conscience. Itwas clear. Ravi must be in trouble again. I wondered what hehad done this time. I walked into the living room. Mother wasthere. That was unusual. The disciplining of children, like thetending of animals, was generally left to Father. Ravi walked inlast, guilt written all over his criminal face.
"Ravi, Piscine, I have a very important lesson for you today.""Oh really, is this necessary?" interrupted Mother. Her facewas flushed.
I swallowed. If Mother, normally so unruffled, so calm, wasworried, even upset, it meant we were in serious trouble. Iexchanged glances with Ravi.
"Yes, it is," said Father, annoyed. "It may very well savetheir lives."Save our lives! It was no longer a small alarm bell thatwas ringing in my head – they were big bells now, like theones we heard from Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, not farfrom the zoo.
"But Piscine? He's only eight," Mother insisted.
"He's the one who worries me the most.""I'm innocent!" I burst out. "It's Ravi's fault, whatever it is.
He did it!""What?" said Ravi. "I haven't done anything wrong." Hegave me the evil eye.
"Shush!" said Father, raising his hand. He was looking atMother. "Gita, you've seen Piscine. He's at that age when boysrun around and poke their noses everywhere."Me? A run-arounder? An everywhere-nose-poker? Not so,not so! Defend me, Mother, defend me, I implored in myheart. But she only sighed and nodded, a signal that theterrible business could proceed.
"Come with me," said Father.
We set out like prisoners off to their execution.
We left the house, went through the gate, entered the zoo.
It was early and the zoo hadn't opened yet to the public.
Animal keepers and groundskeepers were going about theirwork. I noticed Sitaram, who oversaw the orang-utans, myfavourite keeper. He paused to watch us go by. We passedbirds, bears, apes, monkeys, ungulates, the terrarium house, therhinos, the elephants, the giraffes.
We came to the big cats, our tigers, lions and leopards.
Babu, their keeper, was waiting for us. We went round anddown the path, and he unlocked the door to the cat house,which was at the centre of a moated island. We entered. Itwas a vast and dim cement cavern, circular in shape, warmand humid, and smelling of cat urine. All around were greatbig cages divided up. by thick, green, iron bars. A yellowishlight filtered down from the skylights. Through the cage exitswe could see the vegetation of the surrounding island, floodedwith sunlight. The cages were empty – save one: Mahisha, ourBengal tiger patriarch, a lanky, hulking beast of 550 pounds,had been detained. As soon as we stepped in, he loped up tothe bars of his cage and set off a full-throated snarl, ears flatagainst his skull and round eyes fixed on Babu. The soundwas so loud and fierce it seemed to shake the whole cathouse. My knees started quaking. I got close to Mother. Shewas trembling, too. Even Father seemed to pause and steadyhimself. Only Babu was indifferent to the outburst and to thesearing stare that bored into him like a drill. He had a testedtrust in iron bars. Mahisha started pacing to and fro againstthe limits of his cage.
Father turned to us. "What animal is this?" he bellowedabove Mahisha's snarling.
"It's a tiger," Ravi and I answered in unison, obedientlypointing out the blindingly obvious.
"Are tigers dangerous?""Yes, Father, tigers are dangerous.""Tigers are very dangerous," Father shouted. "I want you tounderstand that you are never – under any circumstances –to touch a tiger, to pet a tiger, to put your hands through thebars of a cage, even to get close to a cage. Is that clear?
Ravi?"Ravi nodded vigorously.
"Piscine?"I nodded even more vigorously.
He kept his eyes on me.
I nodded so hard I'm surprised my neck didn't snap andmy head fall to the floor.
I would like to say in my own defence that though I mayhave anthropomorphized the animals till they spoke fluentEnglish, the pheasants complaining in uppity British accents oftheir tea being cold and the baboons planning their bankrobbery getaway in the flat, menacing tones of Americangangsters, the fancy was always conscious. I quite deliberatelydressed wild animals in tame costumes of my imagination. But Inever deluded myself as to the real nature of my playmates.
My poking nose had more sense than that. I don't knowwhere Father got the idea that his youngest son was itching tostep into a cage with a ferocious carnivore. But wherever thestrange worry came from – and Father was a worrier – hewas clearly determined to rid himself of it that very morning.
"I'm going to show you how dangerous tigers are," hecontinued. "I want you to remember this lesson for the rest ofyour lives."He turned to Babu and nodded. Babu left. Mahisha's eyesfollowed him and did not move from the door he disappearedthrough. He returned a few seconds later carrying a goat withits legs tied. Mother gripped me from behind. Mahisha's snarlturned into a growl deep in the throat.
Babu unlocked, opened, entered, closed and locked a cagenext to the tiger's cage. Bars and a trapdoor separated thetwo. Immediately Mahisha was up against the dividing bars,pawing them. To his growling he now added explosive, arrestedwoofs. Babu placed the goat on the floor; its flanks wereheaving violently, its tongue hung from its mouth, and its eyeswere spinning orbs. He untied its legs. The goat got to its feet.
Babu exited the cage in the same careful way he had enteredit. The cage had two floors, one level with us, the other at theback, higher by about three feet, that led outside to the island.
The goat scrambled to this second level. Mahisha, nowunconcerned with Babu, paralleled the move in his cage in afluid, effortless motion. He crouched and lay still, his slowlymoving tail the only sign of tension.
Babu stepped up to the trapdoor between the cages andstarted pulling it open. In anticipation of satisfaction, Mahishafell silent. I heard two things at that moment: Father saying"Never forget this lesson" as he looked on grimly, and thebleating of the goat. It must have been bleating all along, onlywe couldn't hear it before.
I could feel Mother's hand pressed against my poundingheart.
The trapdoor resisted with sharp cries. Mahisha was besidehimself – he looked as if he were about to burst through thebars. He seemed to hesitate between staying where he was, atthe place where his prey was closest but most certainly out ofreach, and moving to the ground level, further away but wherethe trapdoor was located. He raised himself and started snarlingagain.
The goat started to jump. It jumped to amazing heights. Ihad no idea a goat could jump so high. But the back of thecage was a high and smooth cement wall.
With sudden ease the trapdoor slid open. Silence fell again,except for bleating and the click-click of the goat's hoovesagainst the floor.
A streak of black and orange flowed from one cage to thenext.
Normally the big cats were not given food one day a week,to simulate conditions in the wild. We found out later thatFather had ordered that Mahisha not be fed for three days.
I don't know if I saw blood before turning into Mother'sarms or if I daubed it on later, in my memory, with a bigbrush. But I heard. It was enough to scare the livingvegetarian daylights out of me. Mother bundled us out. Wewere in hysterics. She was incensed.
"How could you, Santosh? They're children! They'll bescarred for the rest of their lives."Her voice was hot and tremulous. I could see she had tearsin her eyes. I felt better.
"Gita, my bird, it's for their sake. What if Piscine had stuckhis hand through the bars of the cage one day to touch thepretty orange fur? Better a goat than him, no?"His voice was soft, nearly a whisper. He looked contrite. Henever called her "my bird" in front of us.
We were huddled around her. He joined us. But the lessonwas not over, though it was gentler after that.
Father led us to the lions and leopards.
"Once there was a madman in Australia who was a blackbelt in karate. He wanted to prove himself against the lions. Helost. Badly. The keepers found only half his body in themorning.""Yes, Father."The Himalayan bears and the sloth bears.
"One strike of the claws from these cuddly creatures andyour innards will be scooped out and splattered all over theground.""Yes, Father."The hippos.
"With those soft, flabby mouths of theirs they'll crush yourbody to a bloody pulp. On land they can outrun you.""Yes, Father."The hyenas.
"The strongest jaws in nature. Don't think that they'recowardly or that they only eat carrion. They're not and theydon't! They'll start eating you while you're still alive.""Yes, Father."The orang-utans.
"As strong as ten men. They'll break your bones as if theywere twigs. I know some of them were once pets and youplayed with them when they were small. But now they'regrown-up and wild and unpredictable.""Yes, Father."The ostrich.
"Looks flustered and silly, doesn't it? Listen up: it's one ofthe most dangerous animals in a zoo. Just one kick and yourback is broken or your torso is crushed.""Yes, Father."The spotted deer.
"So pretty, aren't they? If the male feels he has to, he'llcharge you and those short little antlers will pierce you likedaggers.""Yes, Father."The Arabian camel.
"One slobbering bite and you've lost a chunk of flesh.""Yes, Father."The black swans.
"With their beaks they'll crack your skull. With their wingsthey'll break your arms.""Yes, Father."The smaller birds.
"They'll cut through your fingers with their beaks as if theywere butter.""Yes, Father."The elephants.
"The most dangerous animal of all. More keepers andvisitors are killed by elephants than by any other animal in azoo. A young elephant will most likely dismember you andtrample your body parts flat. That's what happened to onepoor lost soul in a European zoo who got into the elephanthouse through a window. An older, more patient animal willsqueeze you against a wall or sit on you. Sounds funny – butthink about it!""Yes, Father.""There are animals we haven't stopped by. Don't thinkthey're harmless. Life will defend itself no matter how small itis. Every animal is ferocious and dangerous. It may not killyou, but it will certainly injure you. It will scratch you and biteyou, and you can look forward to a swollen, pus-filled infection,a high fever and a ten-day stay in the hospital.""Yes, Father."We came to the guinea pigs, the only other animals besidesMahisha to have been starved at Father's orders, having beendenied their previous evening's meal. Father unlocked the cage.
He brought out a bag of feed from his pocket and emptied iton the floor.
"You see these guinea pigs?""Yes, Father."The creatures were trembling with weakness as theyfrantically nibbled their kernels of corn.
"Well…" He leaned down and scooped one up. "They're notdangerous." The other guinea pigs scattered instantly.
Father laughed. He handed me the squealing guinea pig. Hemeant to end on a light note.
The guinea pig rested in my arms tensely. It was a youngone. I went to the cage and carefully lowered it to the floor. Itrushed to its mother's side. The only reason these guinea pigsweren't dangerous – didn't draw blood with their teeth andclaws – was that they were practically domesticated. Otherwise,to grab a wild guinea pig with your bare hands would be liketaking hold of a knife by the blade.
The lesson was over. Ravi and I sulked and gave Father thecold shoulder for a week. Mother ignored him too. When Iwent by the rhinoceros pit I fancied the rhinos' heads werehung low with sadness over the loss of one of their dearcompanions.
But what can you do when you love your father? Life goeson and you don't touch tigers. Except that now, for havingaccused Ravi of an unspecified crime he hadn't committed, Iwas as good as dead. In years subsequent, when he was inthe mood to terrorize me, he would whisper to me, "Just waittill we're alone. You're the next goat!"


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