By Dr Kshamaa LM
Having a wolf cub bite you or almost being attacked by a lioness are a few of the clips from my highlight reel while at the Mysore Zoo. To be clear, these are experiences that I treasure as a 30-year-old vet.
I was a vet at the Mysore Zoo for four years and have just moved to Bangalore to work at the Bannerghatta National Park along with the Forest Department as a vet. Instead of dealing with animals in enclosures, I now work with free roaming wild animals. Although the open forest is slightly scary, my experience at the zoo has prepared me for it.
Back in the zoo, my day involved cleaning, treating and taking care of the animals. My work at the National Park is similar. But here I mostly deal with post-mortems and injuries now, and seldom interact with animals.
In the zoo, with roughly 1,600 animals and 160 species, us veterinary officers were continuously on the move. That made comfort the most important part of the clothes that I wore to work. Dressing ‘up’ for work wasn’t even in the question — it was all about ease and movement. Wearing dark colours was also optimal because the bright ones had the likelihood of annoying the animals around me at the zoo.
As zoo employees, we were all assigned uniforms but we were allowed to be flexible about it. If we were in the admin department, it was formals. If there was general maintenance work to be done at the zoo, it was either a sari or churidar; and if we had to work with the animals and get into their enclosures, it was just jeans and a T-shirt. We were allowed to wear what was comfortable for us to walk around, run and jump in — whatever was involved in a day’s work. Getting into the animal enclosures was sometimes scary, because one time we almost got attacked by a sick lioness we had to feed. Imagine running away from a lioness in a sari!
While performing treatment and autopsies on the animals, things tend to get messy, and our white lab coats wouldn’t save our clothes. We almost always had to change afterwards.
The uniform changed every year at the Mysore Zoo, but they stuck to dark colours, such as dark green or khaki for them.
At the zoo, my day started at the giraffe enclosure and ended at the administrator’s office, where I had to file my final report for the day. I cycled around to get around the 157 acres faster.
Walking around in casuals and not in uniform also allowed me to eavesdrop on comments from visitors at the zoo, which would give us an idea about what people who visited the zoo were saying. Most of the time, people complained either that they felt that the animal enclosures were too small, or that the animals were too lazy. This would usually be during 11 am to 3 pm, which is when it’s hot in the day and the animals would be sleeping, so the latter was an understandable complaint. Us vets or other workers would generally explain to the crowd if it was absolutely necessary, but sometimes we’d let these comments slide because it would be impossible to explain these things to everyone all the time. Sometimes there would be funny comments such as kids looking at the crocodiles and saying, “aye are the crocodiles made out of stone?” Or someone who is convinced that the zoo is ‘passing off’ a regular chicken as jungle fowl.
Walking around in ‘civilian’ gear also helped monitor the crowd in case anyone was up to any mischief — throwing stones at the animals, for instance. I’d immediately step in to stop them.
Working with animals was the most fun I’ve had, and I’m glad I didn’t pass on the opportunity of working with them in a zoo. I miss the fun that came with working with so many animals and treating them, even though it did involve a lot of bites, cuts and scares. My job now is still a lot of fun, and I wouldn’t trade in my zoo days for any other experience.
The National Park that I am now working in doesn’t have a fixed uniform, so nowadays I take the opportunity to dress in kurtas with pants or jeans, and even formals. Of course, this means that every now and then I’m caught off-guard.
I’ve had to perform autopsies in my slippers. Once or twice I’ve had to climb trees in my salwar kameez! We’d just have to take it in our stride and deal with it. In whatever you are wearing.
Kshamaa LM is a veterinary officer at the Bannerghatta National Park.