Having harangued croc wrestlers and rednecks showing off with “pet” carnivores last week, here’s a warmer perspective about our dealings with wild “untamed” animals. Out there, thankfully, is an army of people with genuine love for wild beasts, who always put the animal first.
Falling in love with a wild animal can (like all affairs) happen to anyone at any time. Often it begins when someone picks up an orphaned baby animal or bird — squirrel to leopard cub — and decides to raise it. What you rescue depends on where you live — at the edge of a forest or in the city. These souls dedicate their lives into bringing up the baby and then letting it go when it is able to fend for itself. Raising a baby bird, however, is no easy matter, what with the need to constantly fill up of that ever-gaping maw! The baby will recognise you as its “parent” and trust you, and, will show its affection by perching on your shoulder and examining your ear for hidden peanuts.
Years ago, my sister raised a minuscule baby squirrel that had fallen out of its drey during a storm. She was painstakingly fed milk from an ink dropper and kept in a cage at night. She snuggled up in rags, and, as she grew, had the run of the house and was even taken (in a pocket) to the convent school my sister then attended! Well-educated and freed on graduating, she would spend the whole day outdoors and return home in the evenings, till she evidently found a partner and settled down. This has probably happened a million times with people all over the world. Just recently, there was a YouTube clip about a man who was friends with a large pied hornbill. In Africa, a gentleman gave sanctuary to a herd of rowdy wild elephants (condemned to be shot) in his private wildlife reserve, and, with infinite patience, won the confidence of the matriarch and “convinced” her to stay within rather than go rampaging in the surrounding villages.
Repatriating home-raised animals into the wild is notoriously difficult. This came into the limelight with the story of the lioness Elsa and her rescuer Joy Adamson (in her book Born Free, 1960). Nearer home, the late Billy Arjan Singh from Dudhwa brought up a leopard cub not without controversy.
It’s amazing and rewarding how the birds and squirrels out there gradually begin to trust you as you feed them. They perch on your heads and shoulders, and even become demanding (bribery and corruption at its most benign level)!
Animals have appealed to writers and filmmakers for aeons. Fly Away Home (1996), an all-time favourite film, is based on the true story of a little girl who plays mama goose to a flock of fledgling Canada goslings and teaches them not only to fly (with the aid of her eccentric father and micro-light aircraft) but shows them the way to their migratory destination in winter. (I’m usually wary of animal films, wondering what the animals have been put through to “act” the way the director wishes, but, in this case, apparently, the actor playing mama goose actually did get herself “imprinted” on the goslings, so very little “acting” was required.) JA Baker’s classic and evocative book The Peregrine (1967) is about observing a falcon’s behaviour over English marshes, without any “contact”. Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose (1940) is a moving story of a solitary artist living in an abandoned lighthouse in the marshes of Essex in England during World War II, to whom a local girl (Fritha) brings an injured snow goose, who is nursed back to health till she’s able enough to fly away. But, every year, the goose returns to the lighthouse after migrating as a mark of friendship.
But, We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves (2013) — the story of a baby chimpanzee (Fern) and little girl (Rosemary) brought up like twin sisters by their psychologist parents to see how they developed — left me mixed-up and alarmed. This is fiction, but many such “experiments” are conducted with chimpanzees in real life, too. It’s quite a contrast to the relationship Jane Goodall and the late Dian Fossey developed with the wild chimps and gorillas they were studying in the African jungles.
There are some unbelievable literary animal characters, too — General Woundwort, the rabbit, in Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972), the wacky characters in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), and the (often nutcase) animal characters and their dealings with us in Gerald Durrell’s books. Children’s literature is full of animal tales. I’ve myself used animals in many of my books — either intentionally, or, somehow, they just slipped in of their own accord!
Finally, there are those who have dedicated their lives to wild animals in the best way possible. Some (who can afford to) have bought up tracts of wasteland, painstakingly regenerated them until — maybe 30 years later— they have a forest which is visited by elephants, tigers, et al. So much better than jumping on a croc and hogtying it!
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