Equipped with posters calling attention to the water crisis in Maharashtra and around 40 protestors gathered on Saturday outside Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan, popularly known as Byculla Zoo or Rani Baug, to protest the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s plans to import and house eight penguins there.

The zoo intends to import five male and three female Humboldt penguins from COEX Aquarium in Seoul, South Korea, as a part of its highly controversial revamping plan first outlined in 2011. While the zoo at that time spoke in grand terms of also getting animals such as jaguars, zebras and hyenas, the plan for the penguins is the only one to have come close to reality. After two years of delays, they are expected to arrive next month and be exposed to public viewing by the end of the year.

The municipal corporation, which runs the facility, " can’t even maintain the road outside the zoo and it still wants to bring in penguins", said Anand Siva, an advertising professional who organised the protest. “This is a city that had 20% water cuts until last week. How will they provide water for the penguins?”

Humboldt penguins, Siva said, live 20 years in the wild and 24-26 years in captivity. The penguin enclosure will have to maintain temperatures from 5-17 degrees centigrade, in a city where temperatures rarely dip below 20.

Will the municipal corporation "guarantee that the zoo will have no power or water cuts for 26 years?” he asked. “If they can say that, we might say take a chance.”

An expensive proposal

The zoo hoped to import the penguins by the end of 2015 but was delayed by a complication in the tendering process, when no construction company pitched for the tender because of a requirement that they also make arrangements for a veterinarian for the penguins for five years. The zoo does not have a veterinarian on call for 24 hours. Eventually, the zoo administration split the tenders into two – one for construction, worth Rs 6.5 crores and one for purchase, for Rs 2.5 crore.

Plans for the zoo have been systematically scaled down since they were first outlined. In November, the municipal corporation issued tenders worth Rs 113 crore. In March, after Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta expressed his displeasure over the budget being too high, the zoo had to abandon its plans to build a 5D theatre and robotic zoo, and stick only to constructing a suitable enclosure for penguins.

Dr Sanjay Tripathi, director of the zoo, dismissed the protest outside the gates.

“This is a process of democracy,” he said. “They had not informed me that there was going to be a protest. They have not given me a letter so how am I supposed to respond to their demands?”

Siva on the other hand said that he had written a letter to the Central Zoo Authority, a copy of which had been couriered to Tripathi and for which Siva had a receipt.

The letter outlines the activists’ concerns about bringing penguins to the zoo, from ethical and practical standpoints. As proof of the zoo’s incapacity to care for their animals, the letter also carried photographic annexures, showing monkeys with skin diseases and a hippopotamus being kept in a tiny pond not suitable to its size.

“Right since I was a kid, I never understood the idea of using animals for entertainment,” said Anku Pande, who was among those at the demonstration. “This is the concept of dominance at play here – we can control what we exploit. This rules out a whole scale of empathy and respect that we could teach children.”

Tripathi, however, disagreed with these moral concerns.

“There are Humboldt penguins in 122 zoos around the world,” Tripathi said. “Mumbai will be the 123rd. These are birds already bred in captivity.”

Poor record

The zoo has an abysmal track record in caring for its animals. Just in 2010-'11, the year before it drew up its plan to revitalise itself, 150 animals and birds died in the Mumbai zoo, of which 11 died in just three months. The zoo has since then been attempting to salvage its reputation. Complaints about the condition of animals there remain.

Shyam Kamble, a Byculla resident who was passing the protest and joined it on impulse, affirmed this.

“From childhood I used to feel that the zoo could not take care of these animals,” he said. “Now that there is Discovery [television channel] and the internet, people can see animals there, or do a safari and see them in their homes. Why should the animals be brought here?”

These will be the first animals the zoo will have imported since 2005.

“Keep me in Kashmir or Madras and I will die,” Kamble said. “Nature has given everyone a place to stay. Why can’t we keep the penguins where they are supposed to live?”