Of Men and Beasts and Man as Beast

Sometimes I wonder if there is any hope for India. That kind of despair and hopelessness strikes me whenever I read news items that describe some gory accident or some egregious act of violence or negligence, or some tragedy caused by sheer stupidity and thoughtlessness. I also despair when I read about the politicians and bureaucrats mucking around with the superfluous, with pursuits of individual aggrandisement and with the narrow, the myopic and the wasteful. I hate to read these men proclaiming that they are going to do something about the problem or crisis that have been brought to their attention and then find two days later that nothing has been done and there is no follow up in the press about such claims. That is what happened about the gory deaths of tigers in Nandankanan zoo in Orissa and the vile skinning of a baby tiger in Hyderabad zoo in October this year. How many of you know what happened after the initial cries of outrage about these acts of desecration of the “beautiful and the wild”? Any one suspended for dereliction of duty? Any one held accountable for the abysmal conditions in Indian zoos? Any one bringing about sweeping changes in the management and care of the wild animals in the horror shops that we call zoos? No, no, no. Everything is temporary in India, the land that we have mockingly reduced to some vulgar concept of maya.

Nikhil, brother of the tigress that was slain and skinned by poachers inside Hyderabad zoo, has refused to eat since his sister was killed.

In an article titled Animal Farm (India Currents, October 2000), Bittu Sahgal says that it was a combination of greed, avarice, ignorance, criminality and stupidity that led to the deaths of ten tigers in the Nandankanan zoo. He says that the zoo keepers, playing into the hands of the pesticide industry, sprayed “A combination of the world’s most lethal organochlorines and organophosphates in and around cages, on plants visited by birds and insects in zoos and even on the grains and other food items the animals eat”! Why did they do this? Oh, because they believed that it would help prevent disease-spreading flies from infecting the animals. Didn’t they know what such acts of ignorance and stupidity would lead to? No. Why? Because those whom we let manage the zoos are untrained, uneducated and uncaring.

When there was some media protest about the horrific conditions in zoos and the negligence and carelessness, if not the complicity of the zoo-keepers, P. R. Sinha of the Central Zoo Authority, in classic “babu-speak” told the press that “the expert committee is not here to conduct any probe but to ensure that measures be taken for better management of the zoo in future”. No probe, no apportioning of blame, no one held responsible, no one made to pay, no one willing to look at the problem seriously. When we have a billion people in the country and more than forty percent below the poverty level, who cares for the plight of some dumb animals, huh?

What happens when someone is taken to task for negligence? Here is a report from "The Times of India" three days after a young tiger was drugged, killed and skinned in the Hyderabad zoo. The report says that zoo employees at the Nehru Zoological Park went on an indefinite strike to protest the suspension of four employees after the killing of the tigress by poachers. The animal keepers, junior forest officers and other staff, the report said, “did not attend to their normal duties”! The four suspended employees were among some of the staff being questioned by the police. What is tragic and farcical about this is that it doesn’t seem to matter what these people in charge of zoos do or don’t do. If only they had attended to their “normal duties” could the tigress be drugged, removed and skinned by poachers? I shudder when I think of the apathy, the negligence, the cruelty and the arrogance of Indians that lead to these tragedies.

One of the major problems in Indian zoos is the over-population of animals. Strange as it may seem, that is indeed the case in some respects. The “director” of a zoo takes pride in claiming that some animal was bred in captivity. That makes the news and the director is interviewed and has his photo taken with a baby elephant, a tiger cub, or the fawn of some rare deer species. After the photo session, the director goes to his office for some pen-pushing and leaves the adorable little “baby” that he has just been photographed with to the care of the careless -- the animal keepers, the watchmen, the “junior forest officers” to muck around trying to get the poor animals to mate. The animals bred in captivity live neglected and diseased lives and are put in cages to be ogled at by rowdy school children and boorish “visitors” to the zoos. Sahgal says that Indian zoos are “overcrowded, understaffed and under funded” and that it is time to “stop exhibiting large and endangered animals such as lions, tigers, elephants and primates behind bars altogether”.

So, would this mean the shutting down of zoos? Neither Sahgal, nor India’s best known animal advocate and may be one of the best known world-wide, Maneka Gandhi say so. Maneka Gandhi, the only other “intelligent” Gandhi/Nehru family member (after Nehru!) and the feisty, controversial and caring woman has done more for animal care and awareness than anyone else in modern India. She suggests that Indian zoos should, like many of the world’s top, modern zoos become nature orientation centres and botanical parks where the animals would be taken care of by trained specialists who will study their behaviours and habitats, their health and their future. They would do so in modern facilities and they would help not only the animals revive and recuperate from the human onslaught but would help humans understand the beauty and the purpose of the “beasts”.

But can this dream of Maneka be made into a reality? I doubt that, at least in the very near future. Why? Just look at the “real” India: Government of India statistics indicate that 60 million Indians survive on less than 15 rupees a day while the World Bank reports that an equal number survive on less than seven rupees; India has the highest number of adult illiterates; there are only four countries in the world that exceed the population of one Indian state, Uttar Pradesh; 53% of the 338 million children are undernourished; though the right to education is a fundamental right according to the Indian constitution, India fails to provide universal primary education; 30% of all children aged six to fourteen (59 million) are out of school; 12% of primary schools have only one teacher; 58% of schools have just two rooms; and 75% of the teachers remain absent from school and engage in other business while on school payrolls! How can we protect anything, least of all our nature and our wild animals when we are turning the country into a cauldron of ignorance, crime and neglect?

Domestic animals: Recently, Arun Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma, wrote a letter to the prime minister, Mr. Vajpayee, asking that cows be protected in India. Following his grandfather’s teachings of non-violence and compassion, Arun Gandhi expressed serious concern over India’s failure to enforce existing laws that would protect cows from severe abuse and slaughter for their skins. Although India has strict laws (aren’t we good at making laws?!) prohibiting the inhumane treatment of cows, corrupt skin-traders with the help of conniving politicians and police smuggle the cows across state borders at night. The cows and calves, which are bought under the false pretence that they’ll be cared for on rural farms, are taken to slaughter crammed into trucks; and during such horrific journeys many suffocate and die and those that survive are slaughtered in the most cruel way in unhealthy, unsupervised abattoirs.

Why governments don’t do anything about such horrific and illegal activities? Because there are such wonderful Christian writers and Muslim advocates who say that cows are meant to be eaten and if only the traffickers could transport these cows in some comfort and if only they get slaughtered in “clean”, modern facilities, there would be no problem. For every Maneka Gandhi there is an Abu Abraham writing mockingly about the Hindu love for cows and for every Arun Gandhi there is an Arthur Pais who writes constantly about beef-biryani and there are those whose appetite for “halal” meat is such that governments dare not enter abattoirs or “ritual killing fields” for fear of hurting “minority sentiments”. Moreover, those foreign and desi advocates who call upon the Indian government to take care of India’s cows don’t have the guts to point fingers at the real culprits who encourage the mass slaughter of animals for human consumption – those in the West! Just yesterday (December 15, 2000) there was a news item that said one of America’s big meat/animal products corporation had recalled 17 million pounds of turkey. Let us say that each turkey yields about eight to 10 pounds of meat. That means about 1.7 million to two million turkeys were slaughtered and that meat had gone to waste, contaminated as it was with some deadly bacteria. Millions of cows are slaughtered every year in assembly-line abattoirs in the US and western countries and while these may be “modern” slaughterhouses, don’t imagine it is all a wonderful trip to death that these animals have. It is still blood, gore, shit and fear and agony and the inflicting of pain in cosmic proportions.

I am not advocating that everyone should stop eating meat tomorrow. I don’t believe Maneka Gandhi’s or PETA’s call for vegetarianism will have a lot of takers. I confess to having eaten meat and if a “good Brahmin” can be so seduced, what to say about those who have been weaned on beef and pork and chicken! But what can be done and should be done is that each one of us resolve to lessen our consumption of meat, fish and poultry. Humans (the real beasts) have multiplied to such an extent (past the six billion mark now) that the only way we can sustain any kind of healthy life for ourselves and the world’s other denizens is to become acutely aware of what we are doing to ourselves and our fellow living beings. Environmental organisations have a slogan: reduce, reuse, recycle. For those who like to eat meat and fish and fowl, I say reduce, reduce, reduce. I am not saying give up, for that would be simply impractical (and I am pragmatic enough to know when to advocate what!); but what I am saying is that each one of you who reads this and who happens to be a non-vegetarian, to make a vow to reduce consumption of animal products. Next, tell another person, a good friend, a family member, a child, a spouse, to also reduce such consumption.

I will close this by pointing out that there are a number of organisations and people who care passionately about animal welfare, those in the wild and those domesticated. Help them fight their uphill battle. I have already mentioned the “People for Animals” organisation headed by Maneka Gandhi. Check out the website of the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (http://www.peta.com). Remember, we Indians have worshiped animals big and small, the majestic and the lowly, the poisonous and the passive. It is time that we went beyond our symbolic worship and take up the real worship of our fellow living beings. In the name of my two adorable cats, Subba and Thimma, I urge you to become a soldier in the cause of animals.

#Tigers #Zoo

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