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All happening at the zoo

Friday, September 13th, 2013

It’s accepted that zombie flicks are less about lumbering, undead flesh-eaters than the emergent sociopathy of the humans trying to stay in one piece. The Central Zoo at Jawalakhel offers similar revelations, anticipated by a mural that exhorts visitors to consider the view from the other side of the bars.

All things considered, most visitors to Nepal’s only menagerie were as well behaved as the inhabitants; they limited themselves to communicating with their co-species through an assortment of febrile hoots and whistles. ‘Ey, they’ve already become lāto,’ remarked a young man, disappointed that the massive Himalayan Griffons hunched over on 12-foot poles failed to respond to his signals. Few animals in captivity suffer such a diminishing of horizons as do these raptors, whose counterparts in the mountain wilds are accustomed to soaring over scores of miles in a single day. Who wouldn’t become lāto, presented with the pointless gesticulations of hundreds of humans day in, day out?


Not surprisingly, it has become commonplace to characterise zoos as depressing places. They usually are, to some degree, but this is not sufficient reason to avoid them altogether. The animals may be circumscribed, but this is almost always out of necessity. The experience of encountering nature outside of nature commingles joy and sadness. A large male naur nods off under a gazebo in the summer heat, the antithesis of the springing grace with which it traverses rocky crags at 10,000 feet. The rhinoceros, larger than the life one espies from a safe distance in the Chitwan savannah, is magnificent at his water trough, and triggers a flurry of camera phones. He then resorts to the repetitive movements typical of bored captives, and I am tempted to unhook the unsecured lock of his enclosure. Half a dozen jackals stream about their cages unceasingly in an unnerving display of kinetic energy while a clouded leopard slumbers nearby. But I note that the pens are being expanded. And as I stand before the leopard enclosure, wondering if the cub that was captured at my parent’s house in 2009 is among the felines here, one interrupts its pacing to bound off a platform and hurl its body straight at the wire netting between us in a single flowing movement that showers flecks of mud over me. It’s an indication of how mentally and physically separated I am from nature that I barely flinch at this display of fury that, in the wild, would mean the end of me.

I know my fauna, so it’s easy for me to laugh at my fellows when they wonder if a large crane standing stock-still by the side of a pond is dead or alive. A boy asks his father if the clutch of guinea pigs frolicking about are rabbit young? ‘They’re piglets’, he replies, unhesitatingly. ‘Won’t the elephant do anything?’ a woman exclaims, spotting a ride in progress, another tries to feed a giant tortoise a feather, and a herd of screaming kids rush by the animals, banging on a mādal.

Still, whoever takes the time out to watch beings of different orders will learn something, even if it’s just the fact that one can never claim to have seen everything. And the Central Zoo is by no means the worst example of ex-situ conservation around. The famed Bronx Zoo is spread over 107 hectares of naturalistic habitats and houses 4000 animals of 650 species, and my visit there was a revelation. I recall observing a pair of tapirs plodding along a muddy bank in a misty, humid enclosure. Can they tell the difference?, I asked myself. On the other hand, the empty languor of the lynxes hemmed in between the screeching primates and birds in the tiny circular cage of Strasbourg’s Zoo de l’Orangerie left me uneasy. Between these extremes the modest enclosures of the 6-hectare Jawalakhel Zoo, ringing a large pond, houses over 700 animals across more than 100 species, and reportedly receives over 1 million visitors a year. Come to think of it, that’s twice as many foreigners as come to see Nepalis each year.

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