“Ki aniso aji?” The South American parrot is demanding. After enquiring what she has brought him that day, he literally eats out of the palm of his adoptive mother’s hand. Metaphorically, however, it’s the opposite. The macaw turned 26 (his age, a matter of debate among many in the Guwahati Zoo where he stays) a week back, and his birthday party featured not one, but two fruit cakes. “I mean it obviously wasn’t a real cake,” explains Jimli Baruah, “I gathered his favourite fruits and vegetables and arranged it to look like a cake.” Baruah, a 24-year-old law graduate in the city, adopted the bird officially on February 3, 2018. But it was a long and arduous path.
“Four years long to be precise,” says Baruah. A bird-lover, the girl first saw the Blue and Yellow Macaw on an ordinary visit to the zoo a few years back. “I have always loved birds — and after my Tweety (her pet budgerigar) died, I was really upset,” she says, proclaiming that “birds are her life” — and her bio on Instagram can second that. Over the years Baruah has studied birds — mostly off the internet and books. “Facebook would connect me to fellow bird lovers all over the world, and what I gained most from those interactions was knowledge,” she says adding, “It’s all about dogs here in Guwahati. No one knows much about birds. There isn’t even a specialised avian vet in the city.”
After she saw the macaw (sometime in 2013), she remembered reading a news article about a scheme where citizens were allowed to adopt certain animals from the zoo by paying an annual sum for its care. Baruah then went to the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of the zoo to enquire. She was told that the scheme, which was originally launched in 2007, had become defunct. Prospects, however, looked promising — until the DFO was transferred. “Over the next few months I ran from pillar to post, from offices to banks trying to get the scheme reopened,” she says. In between — in typical bureaucratic fashion — another DFO changed, the file for the scheme got lost, and finally, no one could recall the bank details for the money transfer.
During these years, the bird and Baruah developed a close relationship. “I actually had already adopted him dil se — so I would keep visiting him,” she says. Macaws — and most exotic birds for that matter — are highly intelligent and can mimic human speech. “But it’s usually ‘hello’ and ‘hi’. Wish (what she christened her bird) is a notch above — he speaks full sentences in Assamese and gets supremely annoyed and jealous if I feed any other bird in the zoo!” she says. Baruah is often referred to as the “sparrow girl” in local media circles because of an incident in 2013, when hundreds of sparrows — whose numbers have been rapidly declining all over the country — congregated in her balcony one morning. “I would keep feeding them daily,” she says, “and one day, the numbers just blew up.”
Finally in December 2017, when Baruah contacted the new DFO, Tejas Mariswamy, her four-year-long quest came to fruition. The zoo, under Mariswamy, finally reopened its Animal Adoption Scheme after 11 years. “A rhino can be adopted for about one lakh a year while smaller animals and birds under the scheme can be adopted for Rs 5,000,” says Mariswamy, “Ever since we have reopened the scheme, there have been lot of enquiries — so far the macaw, a rhino and an eagle have been adopted,” he says, adding that the scheme is particularly aimed at children to foster a “sense of bonding and empathy”. Under the scheme, the child also gets free entry to the zoo and a sign bearing his/her name outside the cage of the animal.
The Assam State Zoo-cum-Botanical Garden, commonly known as the Guwahati Zoo, was established in 1957 and is spread over 130 hectares. Located in the Hengerabari reserve forest, the zoo was opened to cyclists last November. On Wednesday, when The Indian Express visited, it was crowded for a week day, filled with tourists and enthusiastic cyclists.
Around Wish’s cage, several people mill around coaxing him to speak. However, he is only interested in Baruah, following her every move. Last week, the zoo issued a worldwide appeal for a female mate for Wish. “The macaw was brought to the zoo in 1985, and has been alone for the last 5 years,” says Mariswamy, adding that such birds can mate upto the age of 40. Baruah, on the other hand, is a little sceptical about this move. “It’s easier said than done. Wish is used to being the centre of attention. If we get another bird here — he might attack her. Worse, he might even attack himself,” she says. Under duress, it isn’t uncommon for birds to engage in self-harming actions such as plucking its own feathers out. “To grow it back would take ages!” Baruah says.
But the macaw’s anxieties are of a different kind. “When I visited him yesterday, I happened to feed the marmosets (a breed of monkeys) who have recently moved next door. I thought, since they aren’t birds, Wish wouldn’t mind,” says Baruah. When she went to Wish, the bird turned his extravagant plumage on his mother, and flew to the upper parapets of the cage, his back towards her throughout. “Tumi taat juwa,” he chided her from up there. “Go to the marmosets!”