Beat No. 8

After the recent anthrax scare at Delhi zoo, Nekram,a zookeeper,says he has been here long enough to know if the animals are fine,“just by looking at them”

Written by Nandini Thilak | Published: May 13, 2012 2:44 am

A day in the life of Nekram,a zookeeper at the National Zoological Park in Delhi

Like any ordinary worker,Nekram goes to ‘office’ at 9 a.m. But while most offices are padlocked and bolted at night to prevent intruders from entering,Nekram’s office at the Delhi zoo is padlocked at multiple levels before he leaves work to prevent those inside from finding their way out. Watching him as he fills out the zookeeper’s register are four full-grown white tigers,the most treasured residents of Beat No. 8 of the National Zoological Park on Delhi’s Mathura Road.

It is just past lunch time for the tigers and the smell of raw meat rushes out as Nekram opens the door that leads to the restricted area. Inside,cages that contain the tigers,face Nekram’s small table and supply shelves. Two ferocious females and a lone male are inside cages,licking at their daily ration of beef. One cage lies empty,that of the tigress who is in the enclosure outside where she can be seen by visitors to the zoo.

After nearly 17 years of taking care of Beat No. 8 as a keeper,the smell of meat no longer bothers him,says Nekram. Like the tigers he has taken care of since the time of their birth,40-year-old Nekram too was born at the zoo.

“My father Tekram came to Delhi from Uttar Pradesh as a labourer. He used to work here as a cleaner. After he died,my mother found work here. I too joined here as a casual labourer before finding work as an assistant cleaner in this beat in 1995. The first month I was scared. After that you get used to it. I don’t feel any fear now,and thankfully,no accident has ever taken place here,” he says.

Nekram and his assistants,Ramkesh and Narender,arrive at work at 9 a.m. First they check the white tigers’ enclosure,a green space bordered by a moat. for any stray objects (water bottles,toys,etc) that might have found their way inside on the previous day. The next task is to ensure their wards are exactly where they had last left them—the four white tigers in their cages in the building behind the display area,the jaguars in their cages on the adjacent plot of land,and then the sloth bears.

Next on the to-do list for the zookeeper is the daily filling of registers. Nekram and his assistants must record every statistic related to their wards. Has any food been left uneaten? Have the medicines been taken? Is the water intake normal? Is there any change in bowel movement?

When sanitation workers arrive to clean the cages,the tigers within the cages are released one by one into caged areas outside the building. “We can never put two of them in one cage unless mating is going on. They will fight and injure each other,” says Nekram.

“We take more care of these animals than we do of our own children. I spend nearly all day with them whereas I hardly spend two-three hours with my own children. As a result,I know if there is something wrong with the animals just by looking at them in the morning. From their body language,you know what they are going to do next. When they are in a bad mood,they give us a hard time. But they are good to you so long as you know how to handle them,” says Nekram.

Between 10 and 11 a.m.,the zoo doctor Dr Panneerselvam,a familiar face at the zoo,would reach the beat for his daily rounds to check on the animals. The doctor as well as the zookeepers stay in the staff quarters of the zoo,close at hand to deal with any emergency.

“If there is an emergency,we call for the doctor immediately. Usually the keeper doesn’t stay overnight. But when there is a pregnant animal or young ones,we start night shifts. In 1998,when the breeding of white tigers first took off at the zoo and Shanti,the only white tiger the zoo had then,was mated with Lakshman,a male brought in from Nandankanan,I worked for two months straight without an off,” says Nekram.

Lakshman died about two years ago. “It was with his coming that the numbers started to increase. He died of old age,right in front of my eyes,” says Nekram.

By noon,the animals’ ration arrives from the suppliers. Beef,about ten kilograms each,for the tigers and jaguars,seasonal fruits and vegetables for the bears.

“They eat more after nightfall. In winters too,the ration increases,” says Nekram.

The tigers,undoubtedly the heavyweights among Nekram’s charges,are released one each into the display area for two hours each,starting from the first shift that begins at 9 a.m. in the summers. At 4.45 p.m.,the last of the shift ends.

When a shift ends,the keepers raise and shut the door leading from the cage to the display area,signalling to the tigers to come in. “They know the routine well,” says the assistant keeper Ramkesh,raising and lowering the lever used to open the cages to demonstrate.

On Thursday,as Nekram sprayed water to keep Vijay,Rani and Beena cool in their cages,Khushi,the white tigress,was on the 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. shift. Visitors,who have trickled in braving suspicions of anthrax infection raised after the death of a one-horned rhino at the zoo on April 28,watch from beyond the moat as the young tigress saunters along the boundary of her enclosure. Nekram points out at the tigress’s tail. The tip is missing,lost in a fight with the tiger in the adjacent cage.

Once Khushi and other animals are put back in their cages by the keepers at about 4.45 p.m.,Nekram or one of the assistants makes sure the cages are locked before switching off the lights inside the building.

“We have to make sure there is enough water and medicines if any are to be given before leaving. After we leave the zoo,guards keep a check outside,” says Nekram.

With the zoo’s white tiger breeding programme a success,many of the tigers Nekram has tended to are now far away,in different zoos in India or abroad. After having brought up the tigers from their birth,watching them leave is the hardest part for the keeper.

Nekram looks away as he speaks of the departure of Sita,a white tigress who left for Jaipur zoo in April.

“The animals are like family to us. It is very difficult for us to say goodbye,” he says.

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