Bear sanctuary at the Taj Majal

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2003:

AGRA–The future of captive wildlife
protection in India is at Agra, People for
Animals founder Maneka Gandhi believes, near the
east gate of the Taj Mahal.
There, at Soor Sarovar village,
Wildlife SOS cofounders Kartick Sayanar-ayan and
Geeta Sheshamani in December 2002 opened a
30-acre sanctuary for former dancing bears.
Nearly two years into a sustained effort
to enforce provisions of the 1972 Indian Wildlife
Protection Act that prohibit the traveling
exhibition of lions, tigers, leopards, monkeys,
apes, and bears, Mrs. Gandhi sees in the
Wildlife SOS project the start of a sanctuary
network to provide quality care-for-life to
hundreds of seized former circus animals.
The drive to end the use of lions,
tigers, leopards, monkeys, apes, and bears in
traveling shows began in 2001. As then-minister
of state for animal welfare, Mrs. Gandhi won a
series of verdicts from the Supreme Court of
India against exhibitors who had for a decade
used protracted lawsuits to defy seizure order
she originally issued in 1989, during a stint as
environment minister.

In January 2003 Central Zoo Authority
member secretary P.R. Sinha announced a proposed
amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act which
would strengthen the regulation of circus care of
other species by bringing traveling shows under
CZA jurisdiction.
The CZA has already closed 90 substandard
zoos since 1995, Sinha warned, while 91 others
have been ordered to close but are still
operating because there is as yet nowhere else to
place their animals. Of the 346 zoos open as of
1995, just 165 meet the CZA animal care
standards–and Mrs. Gandhi and PfA are actively
lobbying for the Indian Forest Service to raise
those standards by creating a trained
professional force of zoo administrators.
Admitting that circuses cannot meet the
existing zoo standards, Indian Circus Federation
chief Ashok Shankar reportedly won from current
environment minister and minister for animal
welfare T.R. Baalu a promise that the proposed
Wildlife Protection Act amendment will be
reviewed by a panel appointed by Baalu, the CZA,
and the Animal Welfare Board of India
Mrs. Gandhi and allies have meanwhile
begun the struggle to raise sufficient funds to
enable Wildlife SOS to demonstrate that the
sanctuary concept is viable in India. If
sanctuaries succeed in India, they are aware,
they will have established working models for
other economically stressed nations of
alternatives to exhibition for the upkeep of wild
animals who for any reason cannot be returned to
the wild.
“I am going to Australia for three weeks,
the longest I have ever been away from my home,
to help raise funds for the Agra bear sanctuary,”
Ms. Gandhi e-mailed to ANIMAL PEOPLE on April 17.
The Wildlife SOS sanctuary is the
prototype for a “carnivore rescue center” to
handle tigers and lions, authorized by the
Indian environment ministry in November 2002 but
not yet assigned to a specific site.
Like most prototypes, the Agra sanctuary
had a long development phase. Sheshamani
outlined the Wildlife SOS plans for the sanctuary
to ANIMAL PEOPLE at the November 1998 Animal
Welfare Board of India conference in New Delhi,
several years after she and Sayanarayan began the
process of obtaining the land and the necessary
permits. Construction at the 30-acre site
started with an investment of about $100,000 U.S.
by the World Society for the Protection of
Animals. That proved to be barely half the cost
of getting the sanctuary up and running. Free
The Bears, founded by Mary Hutton of Australia,
put up about $70,000 to complete the work, Mrs.
Gandhi told ANIMAL PEOPLE.
The operating expenses are to be provided
by Free The Bears, which also funds bear rescue
projects in Cambodia; the French charity One
Voice; and International Animal Rescue, based
in England, sponsoring other animal protection
projects in India, and now raising funds in the
U.S. as well.
WSPA is no longer involved in the Agra
bear sanctuary. The British group Care For The
Wild is making a donation this year, IAR founder
Alan Knight told ANIMAL PEOPLE, but in January
2003 decided against making a longterm commitment
to the sanctuary.
“To date we have given £25,000 to the
Agra bear rescue facility, with £22,000 more due
in three installments over the next eight
months,” Knight said. “We are to provide
£30,000 a year from 2004 on.
“I have just had a message from Kartick
from Wildlife SOS telling me that on April 3 we
took in another 13 bears,” Knight added,
“bringing the total we now have under our care to
41. Our plan is to limit the intake to 50
bears,” he said, “although whether we will be
able to stick to this is unknown. We desperately
need to expand the sanctuary to take as many
bears as possible and keep them in acceptable
conditions.”
The Agra sanctuary may be the first in
India for large carnivores to be established
along western lines. Indeed the very term
“sanctuary” is used in India to mean “wildlife
refuge,” like the forest habitat to which 88
leopards were moved during a recent 22-month
effort to halt predation on people and livestock
in the vicinity of Junnar and Pune.
Displaced by irrigation projects in the
western Ghat mountains, leopards killed 19
humans and 535 cattle during the first 18 months
of the relocation, for which two leopards were
shot, but the leopard attacks reportedly ceased
after November 2002.
Apart from the cost and difficulty of
keeping large carnivores safely in captivity,
the Wildlife SOS sanctuary challenges a cultural
taboo against donating to feed meat-eating
animals–which has evolved, ironically, from
the pro-animal vegetarian teachings of Hinduism,
Buddhism, and Jainism, and also persists to the
disadvantage of dogs and cats. An underlying
concept in all three religions is that humans
should not eat meat because we can choose not to,
while naturally carnivorous animals are blameless
because they cannot. A common misinterpretation,
however, is that carnivorous animals are unclean
and unworthy of charity, along with meat-eating
humans, especially of lower castes.
This perspective does not, however,
prevent many devoutly vegetarian Hindus,
Buddhists, and Jains from owning non-vegetarian
stores and restaurants, on the pretext that this
is acceptable because the owners do not actually
handle or eat the meat they sell.
These paradoxical beliefs are not new.
Shelters for aged and disabled cattle called
pinjarapoles have operated in India for more than
3,000 years, often keeping other vegetarian
species too. The pinjarapole tradition may have
inspired the former British military officers who
founded the Royal SPCA in London in 1824, but
western-style dog and cat sheltering only began
in India with the British-led formation of the
Bombay SPCA in 1874.
Some carnivores have been kept since
ancient times at sanctuaries and wildlife
hospitals maintained by Hindu and Buddhist
temples, but most of these facilities long since
degenerated into quasi-roadside zoos, and many
may never have been much else.
Until now, the major destinations for
big cats, nonhuman primates, and bears seized
from exhibitors have been six zoological rescue
centers: the Vadodara, Jaipur, and Tirupati
city zoos, a 40-acre facility at Bannerghatta
National Park near Bangalore, the Arignar Anna
Zoo at Vandalur (a suburb of Chennai), and the
Sanjay Gandhi Biological Park in Visakhapatnam.
The largest rescue center, at
Bannerghatta National Park, officially reached
capacity with the January 2003 seizure of nine
African lions from the Great Prabhat Circus. The
center now has 95 lions, five tigers, and five
bears.
Despite several years of frequent
seizures, the rescue centers continue to receive
large numbers of ex-circus animals. A five-month
legal battle begun by PETA/Mumbai after the death
of a Great Empire Circus lion in November 2002,
for example, apparently ended in March 2003 with
the confiscation of 10 tigers and nine lions,
who were taken to the Jaipur rescue center. A
bear remained temporarily with the circus, since
there was no rescue center able to take him.
The circus also still has elephants,
horses, dogs, and cockatoos, whom PETA
contends are likewise mistreated.
[Contact Wildlife SOS c/o D-210 Defence
Colony, New Delhi 110024, India; phone
91-11-24621939; fax 91-11-24644231;
<wsos@vsnl.com>.]

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