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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”