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Saturday, December 07, 2019

Down In Jungleland: A Clean Bill of Health

Learning a thing or two about cleanliness from the animal world.

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi | Updated: December 1, 2019 8:05:09 am
animals, birds, cleanliness, environment, eye 2019, sunday eye, indian express, indian express news Birds are especially particular about personal hygiene — they have to keep their feathers in tip-top nick if they are to fly. (Photo by Ranjit Lal)

It beggars belief: Here we are, the most intelligent species of life on the planet — or so we think — with mighty brains brilliant with ideas — and, yet, we’re the only species of life that completely mucks up its own (and, sadly, all other life forms’) environment. And on such a scale that it threatens existence.

You may say, animals pollute and dirty their surroundings. They’re into open defecation (like we aren’t). They’ll just squat and do it whenever they feel like it. But anyone who has kept dogs or cat as pets will know that’s not exactly true. When my crazy labrador Wag was a puppy, and found that he suddenly had to go very early in the morning and couldn’t wake me up he would go to the corner farthest from his bed, or desperately scratch at the door. Later, when as a grown-up he was taken to the Ridge, he would assiduously seek out the “compost-pits” (basically trash piles) and finish his jobs there. And then, vigorously cover it up by kicking stuff over it with his hind legs: All this without being “trained” (he had an aversion to training in any form). Cats, as any cat lover will tell you, are fastidiously fussy about their toilette — and also very carefully cover up their droppings. And all mama animals make sure their babies are squeaky clean especially after eating! Sure, many animals use pee and poo as scent markers, especially as claims to territory and a “come-hither” to prospective mates. Well, we do much the same on social media, raising an even bigger stink!

Birds are especially particular about personal hygiene — they have to keep their feathers in tip-top nick if they are to fly. I once watched a beautiful darter in Bharatpur preen itself for 45 minutes: minutely running its spear bill through every pinion. You may say, what about those dreadful domestic pigeons (the blue rock dove)? They stink to high heavens. And, god forbid, if one poops on you (I had that misfortune once and it ruined my lunch)! Sure they raise a stink but that’s because their numbers in cities (thanks to us) have gone through the roof. Cram people into an enclosed space on a hot, humid day and tell them to make babies — and, well, armpits, etc., will reek, a bit. Baby birds of several species, like egrets and herons, often use poop and vomit as a defence mechanism: when a predator comes calling they get a load of muck in their faces, which, I guess, work as an appetite killer!

Elephants will drop turds as they casually sashay along as do many other herbivores. But for them, Mother Nature has in place a disposal system that gets to work almost immediately. The bombs fall, and within minutes, squadrons of dung beetles turn up — aggressively fighting for all the best bits. Some tunnel themselves in the stuff, others roll them into balls and trundle them off to their holes where they lay their eggs in them, and often there’s a lot of wrestling — and some dacoity — taking place. But the stuff is gone — and turned into rich soil before you know it. In fact, we learned just how essential dung beetles (and other like-minded insects) were when cattle and sheep were introduced in Australia, in thousands. The poor local dung-beetles were only used to process the dung of local animals, such as kangaroos. They couldn’t deal with cattle dung. Soon Australia was in danger of going neck-deep in dung. So they launched a campaign to import dung beetles which were accustomed to dealing with cattle dung – and the problem was solved.

Some animals like rhinos will poop in the same place in what are called middens — which again in rhino-lore are property documents. Hippos do this in water, and spray the stuff around with their whisk-like tails, which, agreed, is disgusting: Which is why survivalists will tell us not to drink the water from a stream or spring because you never know what’s gone into the water upstream.

Many animals and birds seem to eat wastefully: monkeys take one bite of a fruit, discard it, pick up another, parrots do much the same. But again, Mother Nature’s immediate pick-up squads are on call: fallen fruit is taken by deer and other grazers. The kills of carnivores are cleaned up by hyenas, jackals and vultures (which, believe it or not, are the cleanest birds around): nothing is left to rot and spread disease. Besides, all fruit come in their own custom-wrapping — their skins. In some, like bananas, they even indicate the right time to eat them: when they’re ripe and sweet — the skin comes off smoothly and silkily. (Try peeling a raw banana).

Only humans need to encase bananas — and other fruits and vegetables — in industrial-strength plastic cladding to which nothing can happen for the next 5,000 years. We’ve poisoned our air and water and the earth itself and we think we’re the cat’s whiskers! And, then, we rudely tell someone making a mess: “Don’t be such a pig!”

(Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher)

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