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Zombies at Alipore zoo

- Adoption scheme success masks what animals need most

The jaguar at Alipore zoo who found an eager adoptive parent 10 days ago is barely able to pace up and down its cramped shelter, let alone show what a “classy, stylish and swift” specimen of the wild it is.

Some cages away stays Sundarkanta, the Royal Bengal Tiger whose growl would drown the chatter at the proposed party in his honour if only life in a 200sq ft enclosure didn’t turn him into a creature of boredom.

For the pair of peacocks who hit gold in the adoption race, hiding from visitors hooting for their attention is more a priority than preening about their new jewellery house connection.

Calcutta’s swish set may have turned up in strength at the launch of Alipore zoo’s adopt-an-animal scheme, but it remains a tough existence for those snapped up like paintings at a Sotheby’s auction.

“This is India’s oldest zoo and also among the worst maintained. Living conditions for most animals aren’t anywhere close to what is recommended for wildlife in captivity. The zoo keepers are mostly untrained and their handling of the animals is inept at best,” said a conservationist who did not wish to be named.

The Central Zoo Authority stipulates that enclosures should be designed to meet the full biological requirements of the animals housed in them. The prime requirement is adequate space for the animals to stretch themselves like they would in the jungle.

Wildlife researcher and animal rights activist Bikramaditya Guha Roy said extended periods of captivity and enforced idleness could lead to “stereotypic behaviour” in large animals, especially predators.

“You can tell that an animal in a zoo is suffering from stereotypic behaviour when you see it pacing up and down aimlessly inside its enclosure,” Bikramaditya, campaign manager for the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations, told Metro.

Experts say that one way of tackling such behaviour is to introduce “frills” such as swings and similar temporary structures inside enclosures to keep the animals mentally stimulated and help increase their capability to tolerate visitors.

At Alipore zoo, the night shelters are so small that they do not ensure privacy to the animals while eating or resting. Last week, Metro witnessed two groups of visitors trying to provoke animals at the zoo.

Teesta, the white tiger, was taking a nap inside its shelter when some visitors armed with cameras started yelling to draw the big cat’s attention. After a few minutes, the animal got so agitated that it stepped out and started pacing up and down the enclosure.

Another group of visitors was spotted surrounding the peacock’s cage and banging on it, forcing the bird to perch itself on a branch inside the cage.

“If the available space is small, an animal or bird in distress cannot even move away from the public gaze and that makes it worse for them,” said a member of the World Wildlife Fund’s Calcutta chapter.

Lack of expertise in understanding animal behaviour is blamed for the loneliness of the zoo’s lone chimpanzee, a male. The chimpanzee has been restive since his female companion died in 2011 but the zoo officials have allegedly done little to find him a companion.

Last year, an exchange programme with Odisha’s Nandankanan zoo fell through when officials of the forest department refused to give an animal of its choice in return for a mate for the chimpanzee.

A former employee recounted an incident when one of the inmates was wrongly administered antibiotics twice in an hour because there was no communication between two zoo keepers.

But experts acknowledge that there have been improvements in animal care over the past few years, especially by the veterinary team.