Menageries with messages

  • 27/02/1994

Menageries with messages A LITTLE girl gazes wide eyed at the elephant while her bored mother pulls her away: "You've seen an elephant on TV haven't you". "But ma," replies the little girl, "I didn't know it was so big."

Jeremy Chervais science writer and author of Zoo 2000 recounted this story recently to emphasise the important role a zoo plays today. The moot point was that zoos are being increasingly seen as a source of education rather than entertainment. "You can't protect someone you don't know," says Jeremy. And you protect someone not because he needs you but because you need him as well. That seems to be the message the world over.

Jeremy says, "Walt Disney's projection of animal behaviour is wrong." Disneyland is replete with plastic animals used to entertain humans; you can watch painted gorillas create havoc just to raise a few laughs. But gorillas can be good gorillas. One wonders why they should behave like human beings. Zoos bring people and real animals together and you learn much more from a good zoo than from an entertainment park.

Conservation of species
Zoos, feel experts, have certainly evolved from being menageries of powerful rulers to major centres of conservation. Earlier, zoos authorities would capture animals from the forest for display. Today, endangered species are reared scientifically and released into their natural habitat.

The Arabian Oryx is a fine example. This animal, once hunted by tribesmen in West Asia became virtually extinct. Successful breeding in Arizona increased its number and a herd of Oryx could be sent back home. The black footed ferret, the mountain lions and the sea otter are all examples of successful conservation.

In fact, zoos have become specialised areas for research into gene diversity and animal behaviour. The Gerald Durrel Zoo in New Jersey maintains only rare species like the pink pigeon. A person like Jeremy predicts that this trend will continue and the futuristic zoo will consist of fewer species but more specimens.

Conservation also means propagation of the species but the mating game is a dicey one. The imperial lioness might turn up her nose at the handsome lion next door because his chemistry is just not right. Chervais cites numerous examples of foul-ups. Two beautiful parrots refused to mate. Subsequent research revealed they were both male! Flamingoes nurture their eggs only if they can lay them close together. If you want to protect animals, you have to observe their breeding habits patiently and closely.

Euthanasia recommended
Successful breeding can of course lead to overpopulation and experts recommend euthanasia as the only realistic option. Sterilisation is irreversible, contraception not always available and separation might lead to foolish behaviour.

Chervaits felt that the top billing in India should be given to the Vandalur zoo in Madras. Delhi's zoo has a water problem that needs to be solved. Services need to be professionalised and the role of the zookeeper needs to be upgraded.

Above all, children should look a gorilla in the eye -- but with respect.