Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVI No. 04, June 1-15, 2016

Crowds birthed our Zoo

by Shobha Menon

The Zoo Story… Part I

April 20, 1963… an article in The Weekly Mail, reports,

the-entrance-to-the-zooThe entrance to the Zoo at People’s Park.

‘Out of the night, piercing the silence of the city it comes twice in succession – the deep throated roar of the lion, dwarfing the shrill love announcement of its country cousin, the cat roaming the roof tops…

A lengthy pause, and again the roar shatters the stillness. For over a hundred years, the menacing growl from the Park Town Jungle has thrilled the residents of the city living within the radius of a mile from the zoo, for the lions’ roar rolls that far in the night.

The quotation is from an article, that was referring to the Madras Zoo, perhaps the first zoo in India that was forced to begin due to visitor pressure! The crowds that made that happen were seen in Egmore in 1854, in the Government Museum campus.

It was Col. Edward Green Balfour, the Director of the two-year-old Government Museum who conceived the idea of showcasing a collection of living animals to attract more visitors to its premises. The first few exhibited – a leopard, a tiger and an orangutan – proved to be a tremendous draw. Finding that the number of visitors to the museum rose significantly when live animals were on display, he cross-verified his findings by controlling the variables. A talented researcher, he convinced the Government on the need of a zoological garden in Madras with possibly the first scientific study of zoo visitors in the whole world!

Balfour was also the political agent for the Nawab of the Carnatic, and in September 1855, a notification was issued to the Nawab of the Carnatic asking for the animals in his collection to be ‘gifted’ to the Museum Zoological Gardens. By the first half year of 1856, the Museum gardens housed 360 animals! And Edward Thurston, then Superintendent, is said to have been ‘plagued by complaints from neighbours thoroughly mortified by the roars of the wild beasts’.

In August 1861, this ‘Zoo’ was taken over by the Corporation of Madras and shifted to the site behind Ripon Building, at one end of the original 116-acre People’s Park. As the first public zoo to be formed in the country, it was soon considered in the league of the best zoos in the world, even the London Zoo!

In 1876, the Madras Zoo was formally referred as the Municipal Zoological Garden and existed on about 12 acres. Admission was free. Some of the animals that it exhibited at the time included a large, dark male orangutan, a female two-horned rhinoceros, a male Malayan tapir, and two great black-headed gulls. The zoo had two entrances: one on Sydenham’s Road (now Raja Muthiah Road) and the other on the Victoria Public Hall side.

Along with the Lily Pond, My Ladye’s Garden, Moore Market and Victoria Public Hall, the Madras Zoo helped to make Park Town a popular tourist spot. But in April 1942, with the imminent threat of the Japanese bombing the city during World War II, the zoo was faced with a major problem. Apart from managing the exodus of panic-stricken people, authorities were apprehensive ‘of wild animals roaming the streets of a bombarded and desolate city’. On the insistence of Mayor V. Chakkarai Chetti and Commissioner C. Pulla Reddi, the Railways were roped in to transport the animals in sealed cages on a priority basis. Mysore Zoo and Erode were a couple of the shelters willing to temporarily care for the animals. Sadly, despite the best efforts of authorities, many ‘dangerous species and poisonous reptiles’ had to be put down. The others were brought back from their care homes by 1944. Post-war, the Zoo had to invest heavily in fresh improvements. It also ‘began to get congested’.

Around the time of Independence, Governor Sir Archibald Nye offered around 100 acres of Government Estate, Guindy for the Zoo. For various reasons, while this eventually developed as the Guindy National Park, the Zoo stayed put! Nye’s successor, Krishnakumarsinhji Bhavsinhji, the Maharajah of Bhavnagar, was an animal lover and thanks to him the Zoo added several more specimens, including lions, tigers and macaws.

The centenary of the Zoo was celebrated in 1955 with a special souvenir for an all-India Conference and a new entrance in Art Deco style – the Darwin Gate! In this first All India Meeting, the topics of discussion included education, conservation and setting up of insect zoos. At the time, zoos were administered under the India Board for Wildlife. The Moscow Zoo presented a polar bear to the Madras Zoo on this occasion “but it could not survive for too long,” notes a record.

Marlin Perkins, Director of the Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, visiting in 1961 expressed surprise that with so little space for the animals, the authorities were able to keep them so healthy. But he also remarked, “The zoo does seem crowded into the 20 acres.”

The Zoo became a favourite cinema setting, from the 1940s through the 60s. An entire song in film Kakkum Karangal (1965) ‘Alli thandu kaal eduttu’ was set in the Zoo. A decade earlier, the American film director Ellis R. Dungan had made a documentary of the Zoo for the Corporation.

However, by 1963, The Mail reported troubled times: ‘But times have changed and the sounds from the factories and other noises are drowning out the rasp of the lion, and only those nearer can pick up that formidable roar. But even this will not be there for long, for the Zoo is to be shifted from its present position of well-bred isolation behind My Ladyes Park. Perhaps the animals should yield precedence to the need of rapid industrialisation and the growing population. But under the circumstances and in the interest of the animals themselves, it is well that the Zoo be placed in better and more spacious surroundings.’

The Mail adds, ‘The Buckingham Canal, which putrifies the air, and the smoke from the steam engines, prove harmful to the animals. Zoo veterinarians found that smoke deposits in lungs of animals cause anthracosis – a deposit of carbon particles, stated to be a prelude to tuberculosis. There are about 610 animals, birds and reptiles in the Zoo.

‘The Corporation proposes to shift the zoo to a 100-acre plot in Aminjikarai and it is the considered opinion of experts that the present veterinary dispensary should be upgraded into a hospital because there would be more animals, including costlier varieties. A polar bear from the USSR and sea lions could not be kept for long.

Exciting moments inside for visitors include watching animals at feeding time, the tigers and leopards pouncing on their rations with excited growls, the hyena crunching the bones. The elephants, rhino and hippo food bill comes to only Rs 200 a day. The Zoo requires 25 kg mutton, 120 kg beef and for vegetarians lots of carrots, potatoes, apples, bread, rice, dry grass and hill plantains. Some joints given to carnivores are partially cooked, most are raw. The majority of animals take food once a day, but pythons – five – only occasional feeding. When a rabbit or guinea pig dies, it is thrown into their cage.

‘Inside the Madras Zoo, lions are supposed to be well kept compared to the ones in other Indian zoos. A hippo, a tigress and a leopard have littered, an indication that they are happy.

‘The city has had haphazard growth, and the shifting of the Zoo is by way of penalty. Careful planning should go into the location of the new Zoo. It is being pointed out that there should be at least 200 cages and that the German zoo designer Mr Hagenbeck should be called for consultation.’

(To be continued)

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