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Handler strike keeps zoo stars in cages

Nine-year-old Gunjan Kumari was pouting in annoyance on New Year’s Day. She had come all the way from Ramgarh for a big date with “bigger animals” at Ranchi zoo. She did not see a single one

Thirty-something Ashutosh Sinha, another visitor from Ramgarh, was equally disappointed at his zoo trip with family and friends being a dampener

Age no bar, revellers — who chose Bhagwan Birsa Biological Park in Ormanjhi as their January 1 hot spot — remained a dejected lot because a sudden strike by zoo workers laid a five-hour siege to the animal kingdom.

Around 30 daily-wage workers — many of them responsible for handling New Year stars like the tiger, the lion, the elephant and the cheetah — locked their wards in cages and staged a sit-in outside the zoo main gate over long-pending demands including regularisation of service.

The ceasework began at 9am and was withdrawn by 2pm, but not before dozens of visitors left the premises disappointed.

Veteran elephant handler Mahender Singh, who was among the protesters, rued the forest department’s “step-motherly attitude” towards daily wage-earners. “Despite orders from the cabinet, the department has taken no steps to regularise our services. Some of us have been here for more than two decades,” he said.

On why they were taking out their wrath on innocent animals by keeping them confined, big cat caretaker Kolha pleaded helplessness.

“Animals are taken inside cages every winter evening when it gets too cold. The cages are insulated to keep them warm. Again, in the mornings, they are allowed into their open enclosure for visitors. But, we are on strike and will not go back to work till we receive a written assurance from authorities concerned,” he stood his ground in the morning. Echoing Kolha, Singh stressed that people who throng the zoo to see animals also needed to know the plight of their handlers.

An extended strike can be bad news for both authorities and visitors. Apart from handlers, no one can coax animals to leave their cages, which may have a ripple effect on the zoo’s coffers.

For starters, little Gunjan has already promised herself not to return ever if she cannot see her animal friends. “I am so sad. I did not see a lion or a tiger or even an elephant. Why should I come?” she sulked.

A wiser Sinha said the forest department should immediately intervene in the matter. “A zoo is a place that makes your children feel happy. You don’t want them sad on New Year. Officials should make truce with workers for the sake of visitors,” he added.

Birsa zoo ranger Jai Prakash Bhagat said they convinced workers to resume work by afternoon.

“As many as 8,000 people are expected to visit the zoo during this time of the year. We are under a lot of pressure. People question us when they cannot sight animals in the enclosure,” he said, adding that they might have to use gardeners and sweepers as handlers if there was a strike rerun.