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The animal farm

December 02, 2012

Dr A. A. Quraishy recalls the glorious days of Karachi zoo in the ‘70s

In those days, it was customary for the Pathans of the city to visit the zoo during Eid holidays. They would arrive by truckloads, take over the best lawns, sit in a circle and dance in groups to drums and shehnai. The celebrations continued for three days, but most animals found the noise disturbing. On one such day, Dilpari the bear, who was the keeper’s darling, felt terrified and wanted to get away from the clamour. When at sunset he brought her dinner, she pushed the half open door with all her might and before the keeper could realise, she was in the open amid people, sprinting as fast as possible. Before long she ran into the traffic on the road.

I was informed of the incident at my residence inside the premises. Keepers were already chasing her while she ran down Garden Road. I asked one of the keepers to bring jaggery and a cage with a drop door to try and lure her towards the back door of my house which opened on the main road. Tranquilising guns were also not available to us at that time.

It soon became dark. I knew bears were short-sighted. I opened the back door, switched off all lights and dropped jaggery pieces all around my backyard as well as on the footpath leading to my house. Also put some water in her cage and left the door open. Thankfully the plan worked and soon enough I heard the drop door shut. Dilpari had returned.

Mato, calm, sweet tempered and docile, was the first elephant brought to the zoo; at the time she was only seven. Asian elephants feel very much at home with water so in the forenoon she would play in the duck pond for about two hours; after that she would walk to her enclosure for breakfast. Later, she would be harnessed, ready to take the excited children for a ride. This perfect routine continued for years and she knew her route by heart.

One day when the howdah was full of children she refused to move. Anwer the mahout was surprised and asked his assistant to find out the reason. Apparently, a one-year-old toddler crouched under her foot which she had raised to protect the baby. In the hullabaloo to get in the howdah the child had slipped through the space between Mato and the riding platform. When the assistant lifted the baby and asked who it belonged to, a loud scream came from the crowd and a woman grabbed her child.

Once a most energetic, furious and strong baboon escaped as the keeper opened the door to offer food. I knew by experience that trapping a tiger was easier than trapping a baboon. When the keepers ran after him, he climbed the nearest tree mocking the helpless employees. He had eaten his fill in the morning so throwing fruits at him was a waste of time and resources.

As he was being chased towards the quarters, the rogue did his best to stay on the roofs. The fire brigade arrived with water jets but he braved the jets like a trained fighter. When he found it hard to breathe he jumped to the ground, spotting  the door of one of the rooms deliberately left open for him. The door was locked from the outside and the fireman aimed his jet at him from the roof.

Soon he was grabbed by the neck, put in a small mobile cage and released in his enclosure where he immediately hopped to his swing, jumped back to the floor and put his hand out through the bars and begged for fruit. Game over.