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Zebra escape puts lens on keepers

- Most animal handlers at Alipore zoo don’t have formal training

The competence of keepers at Alipore zoo came under scrutiny after a zebra bolted from its enclosure through a door left open by mistake on May 28.

According to officials, an ill-trained posse of 150 keepers — nearly 100 short of the required strength — tends to more than 1,100 rare and exotic animals at the over-45acre zoo.

A senior forest department official associated with the zoo said he was shocked to find that most of the keepers lacked skills and training to look after animals. “They’ve zero knowledge of animal behaviour. When I spoke to some, I learnt that most of them have not received any formal training.”

The question raised is where did the keepers earn their stripes? Most of the keepers are second or third-generation staff, having learnt the basics by assisting their father or uncle. “When the elder relatives retired, the job went to the younger members of the family,” the official said.

The authorities pleaded helplessness when it came to holding staff members accountable for negligence. “They will resort to strike and vandalism if we try to take action,” said an official.

Officials said handlers — as zookeepers are called here — play the crucial role of “an agent between authorities and animals” other than performing their primary duty of tending to the species assigned to them.

Each animal or species has dedicated keepers. The keepers are duty-bound to stay near the animals, serve them food and keep tabs on their health and behaviour. “It’s a 24x7 responsibility. Apart from giving them food, the keepers give medicines prescribed by the zoo vet. They also ensure that enclosure gates always remained closed. But the rising incidence of negligence is a cause for worry,” the official said.

He said the 138-year-old zoo could do better with some new recruits — skilled and trained. “We are short of hands. No new keeper has been recruited over the past three years. Managing with the existing strength is risky… a touch-and-go situation.”

Besides incompetence and staff crunch, rising cases of dereliction of duty or negligence has besieged the zoo.

The May 28 escape that triggered a two-and-a-half-hour search for the “missing” zebra was not a one-off case.

A Sangai or brow-antlered deer endemic to Manipur had dashed out of its enclosure last year as its keeper left the door open while bringing fodder. Known as the dancing deer, the animal died hitting a wall as it lost direction outside its pen.

In August 2012, another deer had escaped through an open door. It was caught in a pond where it had jumped after a wild chase across the zoo.

At least one ailing animal had died over the past two years because timely treatment could not be provided in the absence of adequate feedback from the keeper.

Zoo officials said the death of a hippo in August last year could have been prevented if the keepers had alerted the authorities about the signs of distress the animal was showing, such as refusing food and confining itself to a corner of the moat. The hippo died of impaction because a solid substance was stuck in its intestine.

An official said slight negligence could put animals and visitors at the zoo in serious danger. “We shudder to think what would have happened if a tiger or an elephant had escaped instead of a zebra.”