In our younger days, my cousin and I would oft discuss what we wanted to be when we grew up. I recall her wanting to be a doctor; she never truly wavered in this (admittedly her charges are not the homo sapient kind), and has become one of the most respected vets in Goa. Veterinarians and ecologists get along like wildfire and, thusly, I cannot emphasise enough how happy (and proud) I am of this turn of events. On the other hand, I cannot emphasise enough, with equal unhappiness, how unfortunately challenging I find it to spell the word veterinarian. One of Dr. Loveleen Vaz’s responsibilities is to the Bondla Zoo and its denizens (let us take a moment here to appreciate what an odd word Zoo is; it stands for Zoological Park). Recently, I imposed on her good nature and spent 3 glorious days in the Zoo and adjoining Sanctuary.
Keepers, in a manner of speaking, become staff members to the animals they handle. They must take care of the physical health and spirits of their charges, and as such strong bonds of understanding between handler and animal grow. Keepers, by very nature of their trade, are a special sort, distinguished by their passion, and a peculiar kind of resourcefulness difficult to define, except in terms of deeds. This is a particularly important trait because zoos are resource-heavy consumers, and zoos in India, by in large, do not receive adequate funding to meet needs. Nor is there sufficient technical expertise available to advise effective running of the zoo. One of the inevitable aspects associated with working with animals, is addressing their humans. In the case of zoos this can range from the Public to the State Governments, and is a far more challenging job then anyone can imagine.
I shall get back on track here to give you an account of how we travelled the 52 kms to and from Mapusa (North Goa) to Bondla (middle of nowhere). It involved a ride with the Zoos’ Vegetable provider (supplier of essential minerals, vitamins and roughage for the past 26 years), and Butcher (Savior of carnivores for the past 20 years), the official Zoo driver (who picked up several live chickens as a treat for the leopards, along the way; fowl company), local buses (rattlers of bones since the dawn of public transportation), a rickshaw ride (questionable drivers since the invention of three wheelers), and some bi-pedalism at unearthly hours of the morning.
As ‘Lady Doctor’ and I traipsed around the Zoo, the animals, with their distinctive personalities and odd quirks, responded endearingly to her voice (I say endearingly rather liberally here, more than one has been poked in the bottom by her; there was a definite air of apprehension). We spent a couple of hours at the leopard enclosure with Julie, a year old orphan cub rescued from a nearby sanctuary (had she been human she would have been diagnosed with ADD), and Jenny, a juvenile rescue leopard (with some weight issues). We kept Raju the Sloth Bear company; he sat proudly in his hibernation hole, we sat nearby watching him, and some wild Malabar Flying Squirrels watched us from the trees above (there was an universally accepted awkwardness in this arrangement). As the sun set and the creatures of darkness went about their business, we prowled around with no great stealth or grace to observe what the animal folk were up to. The Palm Civets were up and about, padding around their enclosure, occasionally stopping to nose each other affectionately. Rana, the Tiger was gently snoring, looking for all the world like Hobbes. The snakes were alertly following all sounds, heard and unheard by human ears. And, the ungulates were giant slumbering piles, an assortment of limbs poking out here and there.
We got down to the serious business of investigating the killing of a juvenile sambar by a wild leopard, and the mysterious sudden death of a pea hen, pondering over the bizarre violent dislike for women harbored by a (now caged) lemur and considering his fate, and ensuring that Krishna the elephant received his medication. In addition to playing Sherlock, we indulged in some avifaunal stalking. Bondla, being in the Western Ghats (a recognized biodiversity hotspot), hosts an extraordinary bird life, and during our dawn treks we identified over 20 species, and saw several more (to our consternation most of them were bemusedly staring at us before we ever spotted them)!
As the last day drew to a close, it was more than a little difficult leaving Bondla behind (and not just because we had no idea how to get back). Despite its remoteness, this is one job that is in no danger of ever getting boring!