Man and animal

Toby Nainan: The zookeeper who handled fighting hyenas, cuddly tigers and an anxious Rajiv Gandhi

Former curator of the Delhi Zoo, Nainan was an administrator, veterinarian, counsellor and animal trainer all in one.

On a rainy evening in July, 78-year-old Toby Nainan sat by his window recalling the day he caught a snake at his neighbour’s house. He looks for a picture on his phone and after some confused swiping, retrieves one from WhatsApp. In the photograph, Nainan has a firm grip on a snake’s mouth with his left hand. Zooming closer, he reveals his missing index finger. That one was lost while separating two fighting hyenas, he adds. The hyena episode also left him with a deep scar above his right ankle.

The table in Nainan’s drawing room was adorned with two large, emerald green emu eggs and coasters from the zoo in Algiers, both gifts from his travels. Much like the scars on his body, each of the objects in the room had a story that related to his time as the curator of the Delhi Zoo.

“There was never a dull day,” he said, remembering a job which redefined the idea of occupational hazards.

Enduring love

Nainan tells a great story about the beginning of his career and like most of his tales, it involves an animal – a mongoose, in this case. A zoology student, Nainan would often carry his father’s pet mongoose to class in his pocket. The mongoose would stick his head out and peer at the professor, prompting him to yell: “You’re going to end up in the zoo!”

Sure enough, the prophecy stuck.

Nainan joined the Delhi Zoo as zoo ranger in 1962 and says he was thrown into the deep end from the start. The crucial elements of zoo management could only be learnt on the job. “Dealing with the animals when they got sick was a challenge,” he said. “Observing stools and urine all the time took getting used to. A vet could help me, but only if I could tell him what was wrong. I also learned to observe migration patterns. Initially when birds would leave, it was really alarming for me, but then I realised that they would always come back, because they were getting food here.”

Toby Nainan catches a snake at his neighbour's house.
Toby Nainan catches a snake at his neighbour's house.

Nainan, who always refers to the animals in his anecdotes as “the lady” and “the gentleman”, says his ability to build a rapport with the animals helped him. “I always felt we had a kind of spiritual connection because I was never scared of them. I think when they saw me, they knew I was a friend so they never harmed me.”

He has a theory for this – the pheromones released from a body when a person or animal is scared have a specific odour, which scares the animals around them. On one occasion, “a gentleman rhinoceros named Mohan” knocked him with his horn, throwing him nearly 20 feet away. Nainan had spent an hour chasing him back into his enclosure, and Mohan wasn’t happy. “He was just irritated,” Nainan said with a smile. “If he really wanted to hurt me he would have used his incisors and sliced me in half like a watermelon.”

Nainan believes many opportunities came his way because he was willing to be a sahab, a higher-order officer who was still willing to “clean the shit”. The need to be a hands-on professional became clear when he trained at naturalist Gerald Durell’s Wildlife Preservation Trust in Jersey, England, specialising in breeding endangered species in captivity. “In the West, everyone does everything themselves,” he said. “I could be giving a lecture today, but the next day I had to be back with the animals, cleaning their cages. There are very few people in India who are willing do that. Cleaning is considered to be only a keeper’s job.”

A rhino in its enclosure at the Delhi Zoo. Photo credit: Anisha Russell.
A rhino in its enclosure at the Delhi Zoo. Photo credit: Anisha Russell.

His job was not restricted to the zoo’s enclosures either – the Gandhis, Nainan said, had liked presenting animals to the zoos of the countries which they visited. “I got to travel often because they always needed someone who could mingle with the diplomats but also care for the animals.” He recalled going to Algiers in 1972 as part of the prime minister’s entourage with two leopard cubs. While in the city, he helped out at the zoo, treating a zebra with an infected eye and also assisting the staff who wanted to prepare an elephantine welcome for the prime minister.

“They had 25 elephants, so we arranged them in rows of five behind small hillocks with bushes that were high enough to cover the cuffs we had put on them,” he said. “When you poke one fellow near the buttock, he will trumpet, and then all the others will raise their trunks and trumpet. It was unforgettable. I could see all the bodyguards’ faces turning white. Then Rajiv Gandhi whispered to me. ‘Sab theek thak, koi dikkat toh nahi hai?’ Is everything fine? Is something wrong? I told him everything was great.”

Gandhi later remembered Nainan in Delhi, when a snake entered their home on Race Course Road. He specifically asked his staff to find “the man he had met in Algeria from the Delhi Zoo”. Nainan finally retired in 1998 after 36 years of service.

Nainan interacts with visitors at the Delhi Zoo. Photo credit: Anisha Russell.
Nainan interacts with visitors at the Delhi Zoo. Photo credit: Anisha Russell.

Occupational hazards

A curator’s job involves being accountable to the animals and staff alike, and there were occasions when Nainan’s staff or he would get badly hurt, even lose a finger. “It could happen very easily if you were working with tigers or leopards,” he said.

On one occasion, when there was news of an escaped deer in winter, Nainan led his men from the front in the animal’s search. “I couldn’t expect anyone else to jump into the chilly water if I didn’t jump,” he said, referring to the moat near the deer enclosure at Delhi Zoo. “We didn’t have any tranquillisers or blow pipes, it was just brains and muscle, so it was a tough job and we needed all the help.”

Perhaps the most tense moment of his career came when there was a case filed against him, after a tigress died while mating. “She suddenly jumped out from underneath the tiger and ran into the water, hitting her head against the wall of the enclosure. She started bleeding profusely. We took the male inside and I tried to jump in and save her. We gave her artificial respiration, got a lot of the water out of her tummy, but we couldn’t save her.”

Rosie with a young Toby Nainan.
Rosie with a young Toby Nainan.

It was a tense time for Nainan and his family, but the case was soon dropped. “I later found that the man who had accused me wrote for the National Geographic about similar cases where tigresses have died in captivity,” he said.

Despite this, Nainan has always loved big cats. He drew a picture of Rosie, the tigress who became his “first love and girlfriend”, from his wallet.

“She came to us as a two-year-old cub,” he said, looking at the picture. “I would take her for walks on a leash and she would always stand up and put her paws on my shoulder and give me a hug. Once, Liv Ullmann who was the goodwill ambassador for United Nations Children’s Fund came to see her. Rosie being her friendly self stood up and put her paws on Ullmann’s shoulders – I guess Ullmann couldn’t take the weight because she fell flat on her back and passed out.”

A white tiger at the Delhi Zoo. Photo credit: Anisha Russell.
A white tiger at the Delhi Zoo. Photo credit: Anisha Russell.
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.