Of all the surreal experiences I have had, going for a morning walk in a zoo must be right there on top. I had volunteered sometime ago to accompany a friend for morning walks. So every once in a while, I would find myself exploring the unknown frontiers of Mumbai (or atleast unknown to me. There is nothing like an undiscovered place in Mumbai). Yesterday, the chosen venue was the Byculla Zoo. I had read up on the place and most reports were quite discouraging. The Zoo’s animals apparently lead a sad existence, shackled in cages too small for them. Various Animal Rights groups were trying to get them transferred to a bigger place, somewhere in the outskirts. Builder groups were obviously happy with this suggestion since it meant land being freed in a prime area. However, as the gardens inside the Zoo are classified as botanical gardens, environmentalists were none too happy at closing the place down. In the midst of all this, the Zoo continues its existence.
Searching for the place took some time. Especially since we kept asking people directions to ‘Jija mata Udyan’ like good Sainiks. The local name was however, ‘Rani Baug’ from the time it used to be called the more anglicized ‘Victoria Gardens ’.
Neighbourhood uncles and aunties were already doing their stretches when we presented ourselves to the watchman at the gate. It turned out we needed passes to enter. Quickly spinning a story about being tourists on the last day of the Mumbai garden tour, we convinced the watchman to let us through.
The gardens were very well maintained. The lawns were mowed and someone definitely swept the place regularly. The statues were slightly rundown though, with bird droppings turning the black to a runny grey. Every now and then, we would turn a corner and come upon a bough or a small shelter or an ancient rambling bungalow in which the caretakers lived. The strange part was we had still not seen a single animal in any of the cages. They were fast asleep somewhere inside. Clearly, years of staying in Mumbai had had a bad influence on natural instincts and by the time, the animals began to stir it was already seven forty five.
The first wild animal we spotted was the Hippopotamus. An ancient specimen, this one’s hide looked green from what looked like moss. An enthusiastic grandfather was holding his granddaughter up against the fence and screaming out friendly ‘Good Mornings’ to the Hippo. I was almost expecting a musical where grandpa, grandchild and Hippo would burst into synchronized dance steps. Except Hippo was in no mood to oblige and snorted and ran towards the fence. I knew there was a moat around the Hippo’s area. Still, it is quite disconcerting to see someone the size of a small car hurtling towards you. I jumped back and turned to see the grandpa still bravely standing his ground and persistently yelling ‘Good Morning’. Better him than me.
The next inmate to come alive was a bear. Frisking in his tiny bathtub, the bear looked utterly happy. And utterly huge. He gambolled across his enclosure to climb a tree where another bear was perched. From there, we wandered past the tiny cage of the sleeping and emaciated leopard, the hidden hyena and the restless elephants.
As a kid, I have been to zoos and I don’t remember exactly how the experience felt. However, trying to do power walking in the morning when a bear is stretching himself to your right and a hippo is stampeding to your left does not really feel normal. As the zoo began to stir to life, I began to become more and more conscious of how small the moats looked. A particularly energetic animal would be able to make a leap to freedom without much effort. Especially if it had to settle scores with enthusiastic grandfathers early in the morning. I had had enough and it was time to leave.
The zoo was a discovery though. Barely ten minutes from townside offices, it is actually a great place to step out for a quick picnic lunch and a walk in better weather. Also, once you get used to the idea of wild animals all around you in the middle of a well populated city, the walk is quite nice. Of course, this being Mumbai, I am not sure how many of the blinkered citizens have realized this walking destination.
A friend of mine tells me that the Rhino in the Byculla Zoo has been the subject of some controversy. The only newspaper article I could find on the topic told the Rhino was rather lonesome (27 years as a singleton) and plans were on to get a mate for it. However the story goes that initially the Rhino was to be released back into the MP forests to let it integrete with the jungle and find its own mate. Easier said than done since its horn had long gone and Rhino minus a horn may not just repulse the ladeez but make it vulnerable in a fight. Incidentally, the animal I have been referring to as the Hippo in the earlier paras was a Rhino (I am reasonably sure). For one, it looked like one. For another it had a big stub on its nose where a horn would have existed earlier. However, the cage said 'Hippopotamus' and I am sticking to the official version. Judge for yourselves.