Thirteen years ago, when Shiva the resident rhino emptied his bowels after 28 days of constipation, it was the most celebrated act of excretion at Mumbai’s Byculla Zoo. Rhino constipation usually doesn’t last more than 15 days, so when the five and a half kilos of blackish dung plopped out of his system, it brought an end to nearly a month of treatment by the veterinary team. Shiva was hydrated with at least 50 litres of saline water during the course of that month to ease his bowels.
“It was a rare problem and tiring work,” said Dr Sanjay Tripathi, the zoo’s director and the veterinarian who attended to Shiva. “It was the first case of surviving after such a long period of constipation.”
Tripathi recounts this as one of the highlights of his time working at the Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan – as Mumbai’s Byculla zoo is formally known. More than 150 years old, the zoo is located in a leafy enclave.
While the zoo has received criticism following the death of one of its newly acquired Humboldt penguins, there are in fact a total of 391 different birds, reptiles and mammals at its premises, each requiring care and attention for a unique set of needs. Tending to the flock as a full-time animal doctor requires back-breaking work: veterinarians at the city zoo must be on call at all times, develop a rapport with the animals, attend to feeds, inoculate and medicate the animals.
Round the clock care
At the Mumbai zoo, a team of six doctors works with 18 keepers and ground staff to ensure the animals are healthy and well looked after. “It’s a tough job that requires passion,” said Tripathi. “Anything can happen.”
There are tricky operations and interventions, but much of the work involves routine tasks. Going on rounds twice a day to check on the animals, take detailed stool samples when necessary, administer vaccinations when a new animal is brought to the zoo, monitor standards for basic hygiene in a cage. If an animal does fall sick, antibiotics might need to be administered by mixing it in their food. A wound injury from fighting in the enclosure might require localised treatment. The monsoon brings with it the amplified threat of maggot infestations, flies and bacterial infections.
There is a hospital on the premises of the zoo with space for about 10 animals. When animals are shifted there, they are taken in an ambulance-like cage with wheels. Often though, sick animals are simply tended to in their enclosures.
Not far from where the deer are housed, two hippos luxuriate in a mud bath in their enclosure. The larger one lazily lifts her head up to survey the scene. By her side, the smaller one skims the surface before disappearing out of view.
The adult hippo is Shilpa, who gave birth about seven months ago, ten years after her last pregnancy. The zoo’s staff is yet to name the young one – she is only one of the 28 animals that were born at the zoo in the year 2016-17. There’s no particular process for naming the babies – Tripathi said just a consultation between officials is enough for a christening.
More crucial than the christening is pre and post-natal care: pregnant Shilpa was kept enriched with extra vitamins in her food once the staff knew she was expecting – a regimen that has continued after birth. She delivered normally, but an animal birth isn’t always simple and sometimes doctors have been known to perform caesareans on animals in the zoo.
The last time this happened was with one of the deer. After waiting for 12 hours for a natural birth, the doctors decided to operate. “The calf was stuck, it became difficult, so we had to do it,” said Dr Komal Vivek Rao, one of the veterinarians.
Rao worked at an abattoir previously and has been working at the zoo for the past six years. She counts operating on an elephant as among her most significant experiences.
About five years ago, Anarkali, a 46-year-old female pachyderm was in heat, and had developed a growth on her vulva. The veterinary team decided she needed surgery. In order to operate they had to apply a technique called standing sedation: anaesthetise the elephant without letting her sit down. “We were literally under her,” said Rao. It was her first major mammal surgery. Anarkali recovered soon after.
Treating mammals tends to be easier because their symptoms are often more obvious – they might scratch particular areas or limp if they are in discomfort. Birds, on the other hand, tend to mask their ailments.
When one of the newly inducted penguins died last October, symptoms of the infection weren’t immediately observable.
“Wild animals consciously mask [pain and discomfort] when they are sick,” said Dr Madhumita Kale, who leads a special team of three that looks after the penguins.
The penguins require special attention – since they eat and excrete in the same water, the water must be continuously filtered. The temperature of their enclosure must be monitored to ensure that it stays at around 14 degrees celsius. Blood samples are taken every month as part of routine check-ups. One member of the team of veterinarians is available through the night in case of an unlikely but possible emergency with the penguins.
In an air-conditioned sealed-off building, a brightly lit monitor displayed a full view of the penguins enclosure. A pair had just begun to mate. “It’s a good step,” said Kale. “It shows they are happy here.”
Wearing a powder blue lab coat, Kale checked the monitor from time to time. In the past year, she said she had come to know the penguins well. They don’t respond by name, but there is certainly a rapport between her and them which took about three months to build. At first the birds would resist being touched – over time they have grown to recognise and accept Kale.
The penguins are each fed 800 grams of fish twice a day: with sardines, ravas and anchovies rotated through the meals. “We keep a variety so that they don’t get bored,” said Kale.
Mr Molt, one of the penguins was presented a special treat on his birthday. A celebratory picture of him in a red jumper with a tasty special meal made it to several city newspapers.
Everyone needs a break
Dietary variations of this sort apply across the zoo. When corn is in season for instance, it features frequently on some menus.
“Oh the parrots,” said Rao, smiling, “they love it.”
For the hippos, elephants and monkeys, watermelon and pumpkin are often served at meal times to mix things up. The bears are given “fruit cake” or fruit chunks frozen in a block. In the summer, monkeys are also given fruit lollies – sticks of fruit in ice. Likewise, the birds are allowed to have some fun with their food – fish are also frozen into blocks of ice that the birds can see, but only get to once they play with the ice a bit.
But while the vets perform their duties with tenderness, love and care, not all members of the human species are equally careful. Often, visitors heckle and bother the animals – a common occurrence across zoos. Animals are used to seeing people every day, but are most relaxed after hours, or the one day during the week when the zoo shuts.
“They are more playful with each other then,” said Rao. “It’s like working six days of the week, and then the feeling you get on your day off.”