It was an interesting weekend spent in the company of some wild people from the animal kingdom, partly as observer and partly as subject. My wife and I visited Horsley Hills en route to spend a day with the daughter at Rishi Valley School. And since our party included a friend’s family, with two young boys, we decided to visit the little zoo atop Horsley Hills.
I have written before of Horsley Hills in these pages, but I’ve rarely written about the zoo, and for good reason. With a few notable exceptions, I find most zoos to be deplorable sinks of pity and hopelessness. There’s always that sense of visiting doomed relatives on death row. It was no different this time — to stare into the vacant eyes of the incarcerated and the condemned, and to feel crushed by overwhelming shame and remorse for being a card-holding sponsor of cruelty in the Anthropocene.
Our first story is set in the zoo. Let’s see what you make of it.
Nearly all Indian zoos I’ve been to house Indian Star Tortoises. These beautiful terrestrial reptiles, which occur naturally in the dry scrub forests in South Asia, are among the most trafficked wildlife species. Just so you know, keeping a star tortoise as a pet is illegal in India. Newspapers frequently report seizures of star tortoises at airports, as the cute critters are fancied in the illegal pet trade. Some of the seized animals, I imagine, make it to small zoos like this one.
At Horsley Hills, the star tortoises were housed along with domestic rabbits. Nice touch, eh? Mildly educational, somewhat thought-provoking and mostly inexplicable, it was the veritable fairytale setting — hare and tortoise sharing apartments. The kids caught on very quickly.
The rabbits looked mangy and diseased, and the tortoises looked bored. They ambled all over the featureless sand flooring of the pen, sticking their heads and limbs into the chicken wire and kept themselves — and the onlookers — entertained as they struggled to free themselves. Their keepers had left bowls of water and chopped vegetables, which had wilted in the heat. Clearly, the zoo-keepers hoped that the refreshments would nourish both rabbits and tortoises.
In a corner of the pen lay a rabbit, stiff with rigor mortis. We were informed later that it suffered from a skin disease and was left to convalesce. Clearly, the treatment hadn’t worked. Unnoticed, the wretched creature had perished. One large tortoise, presumably a female (since females are larger than males), sank its teeth into this juicy opportunity. Quite literally.
A large portion of the rabbit’s shank had been chewed down to the bone, and the tortoise continued to munch away as we watched. The kids found it fascinating, as did we. We alerted the zoo staff, who arrived and took the dead rabbit away. End of snack time.
I learned from a naturalist friend that, in the wild, star tortoises are opportunistic feeders. They are often seen lurking near carcasses and scavenging on carrion. The zoo-keepers had no idea of this, clearly, or maybe they submitted to the illogical and fallacious assumption that all things cute and adorable are vegetarian.
So much for a fairytale ending.
Kindness is a foible — a fickle malady that ails us humans. It is born of guilt, not necessarily compassion as we fool ourselves into believing. Animals are untroubled by it for the most part. There’s no expectation to make nice, or show petty courtesy, or be enslaved by gratitude. Of course, there are observed behaviours like symbiosis and mutualism and commensalism and suchlike in the Animal Kingdom, but these are founded on opportunity and not altruism. They belong pretty much at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy, were you to apply it to animal behaviour.
Taking an evening walk and still mildly shaken after the aforesaid zoo incident, I spotted a young Rose-ringed Parakeet monkeying about on an iron fence, clasping the wire with its teeth and doing somersaults as children do in a jungle gym. It was adorable, and my heart melted. My dear wife and I watched, and in our heads we anthropomorphised what we saw. What a cute little baby, she gushed. I couldn’t help empathising. We were one day away from being reunited with our daughter, and being overcome by such feelings were par for the course.
Nearby, another parakeet watched on. It was a fully grown female, and we presumed it was this scamp’s mother. She screeched a single-note warning at our arrival, and the little parakeet perked up, suspended its antics, and regarded us with annoyed suspicion.
Cats were on the prowl nearby and so were semi-drunk tourists. I worried if this little bird would be a sitting duck for their undesirable attentions. So I tiptoed over and gently attempted to pick up the little bird. Cussing and shrieking invective, the parakeet opened its mouth in warning and made a few unsure sallies to get away from me. Then, mustering strength and egged on by the mother, it essayed a strong flight into the safety of a nearby tree. It was a re-enactment of the fabled Jonathan Livingston Seagull climax, with little redemption for me. Somehow, I had catalysed that moment of decision in a parakeet’s life.
I felt like a prop — used and discarded. I guess it was because I had expected gratitude. What I got instead was a mouthful of choice abuse in chaste parakeetese.
Batting a tear-filled eyelid
Parenting is a racket. In our modern world, it is not an organic function of child-rearing but a thriving enterprise of books and blogs and workshops aimed at making us perfect parents. Its debatable how effective they really are, but every now and then comes a moment when all our finite learning and experience is tested at a fundamental and visceral level.
My wife and I were visiting our daughter at Rishi Valley School when one of her housemates announced that their class teacher had in his custody a dead fruit bat. We went over to see what was up.
Nobody knew why the bat had died. There were no visible signs of injury.
The heat had been intolerable over the last few weeks. Rishi Valley had recorded temperatures up to 40.5 degrees Celsius. The dry, sapping heat crept upon you like an assassin, striking without warning. It was reported that birds were falling from trees, exhausted and dehydrated.
Joined by the children, we watched as the teacher brought out the dead bat. It was an Indian Flying Fox, of which there are large, noisy colonies on the school campus. The dead bat was stiff and motionless, and its teeth were bared in a silent snarl as if it had fought bitterly unto the end. The teacher lifted its wing to reveal a tiny baby suckling at its teat, still wrapped by the dead mother’s protective embrace.
It was heart-wrenching to watch. The baby clung on for comfort, swarmed over by spider-like ticks that were leaving the dead mother’s cold body. Gently, the schoolteacher tried to separate the baby away from the teat but it clasped on desperately. Finally, he succeeded. The little fellow protested with screeches. Then we noticed that its eyes were open, and that its mouth had a row of tiny white teeth.
The kids brought an orange, a piece of which the schoolteacher pulped in his fingers and held to the baby bat’s mouth. It lapped at it hungrily. A good sign.
He placed the baby, wrapped in an old t-shirt, in my wife’s outstretched arms. She held it as she would hold a human child. And, in a moment of mammalian kinship, their eyes met. Hers were filled with tears.
After giving the dead mother a decent burial, the schoolteacher returned his attention to the baby. He shook off the ticks and fed it another piece of orange. Here he was possessed by new love for life, and there was a good chance that the little bat would make it count.
Another weekend well spent in the Anthropocene, and another shy at humanity.
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