by Raju Peddada
(Swans - January 12, 2009) All day on October 22, 2008, my sagacious cousin Seshu tried to get access to a mysterious facility in Visakhapatnam. He claimed it would wake us up from our tropical stupor. He asked without using the word zoo, "would you like to go to an animal center?" I instantly replied, "Nah, been to too many zoos with the kids there." He shrugged, but still insisted with a sly grin. I wondered what zoo will excite us in this humidity, but was intrigued by his understated proposal and why we needed a permission to see a zoo. However, the access took a while to materialize. The people at the animal center were hesitant and reticent in allowing anybody to see that center for a reason -- it was not meant for the public. Finally the powers that be acquiesced to Sheshu's request, as a result of his rapport in the community where sponsorships for the animal center are a boon for the cash strapped place.
Visakhapatnam is a coastal city in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India with a burgeoning economy that boasts steel mills, oil and natural gas refinery, and one of the best universities in India. The erudition and quality of life is matched only by the extraordinary scenic beauty of the place. This sultry city is nestled between large and lush hills that produced regular rainfalls, and cooled off by the afternoon breezes from the turbulent Bay of Bengal. The next morning, we (Seshu, myself, wife, boys, and the chauffeur) drove north on Highway Five snaking out of the city; to our right, along the highway were the rocky and beckoning beige beaches with intermittent copses of coconut palms lapped by the furious surf of the bay. Then to the left were lush hills occasionally coddling the whitewashed buildings. The breezy scene was salty and invigorating; we stopped for a few pictures. At good distances there were these quaint shack-shops with palm leaf thatches as roofs on mud and corrugated huts featuring bright Coca-Cola, Budweiser, or Marlboro signs on the roof. Men sat around on the benches smoking and drinking. These retreats were everywhere and they fascinated me as they made great visual metaphors.
We had been looking to the right when all of sudden we veered to the left and came to a full stop. The innocuous blue sign said "Animal Rescue Center." The place looked austere and deserted. We pulled up inside this rusty gate and approached what looked like a mildew stained, C-shaped, yellow, single-story building. Only then did I start to get the idea of what this place was about. Dr. Srinivas, the chief veterinarian, welcomed us with a wide smile along with some other attendants and introduced us to the place. It was a tiger and lion rescue center. We walked slowly towards this C-shaped building as the doctor laid down the rules: absolutely no photography, hands must be kept to yourselves, stay away from the cages, and do not touch anything. We were indeed privileged for our admission there despite having small children with us; this was a place where adults were restricted, let alone small kids. It was a place of austerity, restraint, and also a dedicated operation in the rescue not only of the animals' health but their dignity, despite a severe lack of funds and staffing. The cages were shaded by tall groves of cypress, eucalyptus, and a variety of local trees like the Banyan and Pipal. Due to regular rainfalls and invasive humidity the walls of the cages developed a variety of mildews that displayed unique and interesting patterns in colors from vivid blues, browns, grays, and greens. This beautiful distress and decay always arrested my sense of sight, but messaged an alert about our internal decay too. These mildew patterns were suddenly disrupted by a square, painted blackboard that revealed schedules of food and treatments with given names of the cats in chalk.
I would earnestly claim that very few indeed would be allowed the privilege to experience what we did -- an experience unlike any other. To see a majestic beast convalescing is a humbling and humiliating experience, as it is a tacit yet revealing commentary on us. There were big cats in there that had been rescued from neglect and systematic abuse in the circuses, shows, and private parties. And here they came, if they were lucky. As we entered the C-shaped building, the triangular-shaped cages were extended in the back to large and enclosed compounds where the cats could spend several hours each day running around. In the front there was a four-foot-wide walkway with each narrowing cage facing the walkway; we were not prepared at all for what we were about to face. At the entrance was a rectangular depression about a foot wide by three feet long that was topped with a white disinfectant. All the attendants and doctors, as well as the visitors, dipped their feet in this rectangular pool before entering the facility. As soon as my older boy saw it he waded in to my chagrin, but Seshu quipped it was the right thing to do, and we all followed the little leader. Upon entering we were instantly hit in the face with this strong, invasive, and scary odor that went through our clothes. The smell that is instantly recognizable as that of a big and terrifying beast. It reeked in there, the alchemy of blood, feces, rot, dampness, and the beast's breath became a penetrating odor that telegraphed a den somewhere and the primitive primeval fear and death.
Now if you can imagine a big zoo, you would see that tiger or lion displays are surrounded by a huge moat filled with water, with a fence encircling the area for the beast; all in all, the animal is at least twenty-five yards away from you for your safety -- actually it should be the other way around. Here at the rescue center, you could be nose to nose with the animal; the only separation is the half-inch-thick rusty iron bars spaced one inch apart. An agitated tiger once amputated the fingers of an attendant at another rescue center in Melbourne, according to the veterinarian. They were worried about our kids and repeatedly asked us to keep them on a short leash. We stood in front of the first cage. It was a tiger, who was panting and looking healthy. It looked past us as if we were not there. According to the vet this cat could not be afforded by a private party and was starved almost to death. I was astonished at how large and fearsome the tiger's head was up close -- our entire head could fit into its mouth. We also could see the highly distinct and discrete pebble-like buds on its huge tongue as it panted, then suddenly and silently he snarled at us. As we stared at this unbelievably close tiger I could not take in all of its power, nature's majesty...we just gazed at this magnificent beast and wondered why would anybody want to destroy such a creation. I was abruptly overwhelmed by melancholy at the plight of these royal beasts.
Such a creation of nature deserves to be free...and free from the clutches of the basest species of all, us, and certainly not the grandest as sold by some dogmas. We are the only "grand species" that kills for pleasure. Please enlighten me here: Is it grand to kill, or to show mercy? At this point, as if reading my mind, Dr. Srinivas interjected by saying, "we are the animals who perpetrate brutality not only on each other, but worse on the other species." To our questions on their daily diet, he said that a lion or a tiger hunts every three to four days and at each kill they gorge themselves with twenty to thirty kilos of meat, spending the next few days lying around digesting. At the facility these cats were given six to nine kilos of boneless beef everyday. They looked very content and healthy. He also offered us his thoughts on the nature of these magnificent beasts saying that "a lion would take its fill and leave the rest to the pride, but we humans are never satisfied; we hoard, and make it miserable for the others."
As we walked slowly in front of the cages we realized that most beasts in here were lions, kings indeed languishing in musty, smelly cells. We saw some were wounded -- one lion was in his twenties and looked old, but his magisterial ferocity was all there. In the wild, such age is certain death as the sick and old are weeded out by the unrelenting process of nature. Here they relaxed from the ravages of age still in their manes of dignity. They all looked healthy and unerringly ferocious, occasionally charging at us, or just simply looking through us. There is a regal and fearless look on the animal's face that is hard to define, those deep red eyes, the huge canines, the huge and rough manes, the panting and licking tongue, and the whiskers all came together into an awesome countenance like no other...and looking at him from this distance, as we were privileged to do, is an experience that is esoteric and redeeming, as if witnessing nature's wrath in this manifestation. In one instance a young lion became scared at the vet's approach. To our delight he quipped, "I am more scared of your cousin's Rottweiler than these big cats in here." He apparently was Seshu's vet and this particular lion was being treated with antibiotic injections and recognized the man as the perpetrator of his pain. One old lion was sitting very close to the bars, and as I lowered myself to meet his gaze only inches away, he abruptly lunged at me with a growl, as if to warn me for challenging and invading his personal space. It shook me with chills down my spine as I realized that my reflexes were pitifully late and if this was a reality, I had already become his morsel. The unblinking and hypnotic stare of a lion is a spatial territorial demarcation. It freezes us and at the same time unnerves us into movement. That is exactly when the beast has us, the ultimate predator has psyched us out. The growl from this lion triggered roars that shook the place.
What really crowned our special visit were those indomitable roars. We had been warned about this by Seshu that if one started to roar others joined in airing their grievances in a terrifying chorus. The frightening crescendo of low frequency and high decibel roaring pierced our beings from the feet up and traveled to our brains. It triggered a horrifying dread, dread of imminent danger and death, a transparent terror that charges the adrenalin in our nervous system...quite inexplicable. As longingly romantic as a nightingale sounds, a lion's roar is the antithesis of our emotional response...nature's spectrum for our insipid senses. What made it even worse with the boys shaking in fear were the cells that doubled up as acoustic chambers amplifying the already terrorizing sound. We could not hear anything as we stood there frozen till their roars abated in ferocity and tapered off to irritable and discontented grunts, then to silence. The vet offered some anatomical facts about the reason why the lion is a walking tuba; while all other creatures had a trachea no larger then the diameter of a pea, the lion and tiger trachea (or windpipe -- the tube in the throat that carries air to the lungs) is two to three inches in diameter, enabling the induction of massive amounts of air into the lungs and ejecting this air through the mouth creating a trumpet-tuba effect. This low frequency sound carries for miles, as we certainly would carry these memories half way around the world.
We went around from cage to cage experiencing different characters and very distinct dispositions. The great cats sometimes just sat there looking at our banality, seeing through us, and sometimes scowling at us. I saw the distance between life and death dissolve in the illusion of the bars between the beasts and us...we are spiritually dead. Where there is a thin line between life and death everything becomes a metaphor; we are hanging in there for redemption. The grating irony is where nature's majesty is arrested and shackled, the baseness of our actions and deliberations remain free and unchecked. To see a magnificent lion or tiger in a cage, deprived of its domain is reflective of the regression in us and depths to which our spirits have descended. We left the premises shaken and disillusioned yet hopeful for their survival and future. Too bad our boys are too young to have vivid memories of this visit, but we will never forget those majestic faces as long as we live.
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