Visakhapatnam Animal Rescue Center helped to save a troubled zoo

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2007:
VISAKHAPATNAM–Built to a then-state-of-the-art plan in 1972,
the 625-acre Indira Gandhi Zoological Park in Vis-akhapatnam is among
the world’s most spacious zoos, and is among the few in India with
authentic conservation breeding credentials.
“Captive breeding for species survival” is the mission touted
on page one of the Indira Gandhi Zoological Park brochures. Captive
breeding successes include the December 2007 births of eight dholes,
Asian cousins of the better known African wild dog.
Yet while captive breeding may have enhanced the prestige of
the Indira Gandhi Zoo among fellow zoo professionals, the mission
that really saved the zoo appears to have been opening one of the
first CZA-accredited Animal Rescue Centres for ex-circus animals, in
February 2001.


Current Indira Gandhi Zoo director B. Vijay Kumar added the
Animal Rescue Centre as part of a master plan to rehabilitate the zoo
image, after much of the collection was poached or stolen under his
predecessors during the 1990s.
Replacing the missing animals and restoring the grounds,
Vijay Kumar more than tripled zoo attendance, revenues, and the
operating budget.
More than a quarter of the budget goes into maintaining the Animal
Rescue Centre. Not open to the public, the Animal Rescue Centre has
nonetheless become a source of community pride, attracting at least
as much news coverage as the zoo itself.
Built to hold 30 lions and 30 tigers, the Visakhapatnam
Animal Rescue Centre actually houses 48 lions and 13 tigers at
present, as–to the surprise of the Central Zoo Authority–African
lions turned out to be far more common in Indian circuses than either
tigers or native Asiatic lions.
The paucity of Asiatic lions in circuses who might be
suitable for inclusion in captive breeding protocols has disappointed
zoos nationwide, who had hoped for an influx of new genes from
circus animal collections.
Keeping lions and tigers healthy and happy in a confined
environment is a considerable challenge, even at the best of zoos.
Physically and psychologically rehabilitating ex-performing cats is
more challenging still.
Most of those in Visakhapatnam arrived with chronic physical
problems, as result of poor diets, parasites, lack of adequate
exercise while spending years in small cages, and untreated old
injuries.
Scars on most of the big cats’ foreheads are a visible
consequence of repeated electroshocking. Degenerative hip ailments
are a legacy of riding many thousands of miles over bumpy roads in
wagons without good springs–or any springs at all. Some of the cats
are blind.
As much physical care as the big cats typically require,
however, their psychological abnormalities are harder to treat.
The tigers, in general, adapt more rapidly to relative
freedom within spacious enclosures. Many of the lions, even after
years at the Animal Rescue Centre, are still afraid to go outside.
Once coaxed or coerced to go outdoors, they wait fearfully beside
the door until allowed back in.
Inside, some pace within the exact bounds of the circus
wagons they occupied years ago, imagining barriers where none
exist. Several try to hide from humans.
Eight lions and tigers died from various unforeseen
complications during the first 21 months that the Visakhapatnam
Animal Rescue Centre operated, Ramesh Susarla of The Hindu reported
in June 2003. Among them, four tigers were killed by other tigers
after finding various ways to breech cage barriers, despite repeated
barrier modifications and reinforcement. The original design
apparently worked well with ordinary zoo tigers in France, but the
ex-circus tigers proved to be more inventive and aggressive.
With most of the Indian traveling shows now out of business,
Vijay Kumar and staff do not anticipate an ongoing large influx of
more ex-circus animals.
The Visakhapatnam Animal Rescue Centre has, however,
received animals from at least two other zoos that had serious
problems. Most recently, in August 2006, the center took in six
big cats from the Birsa Munda Zoological Park in Ranchi, Jharkand,
after six others died within a month’s time from the tick-borne
disease babeosis. Ironically, the Birsa Munda Zoo was itself
planning to build an Animal Rescue Centre.
Two years earlier, in August 2004, the Visakhapatnam Animal
Rescue Centre took in seven tigers from the former Pratap Sinhav
Udyan Zoo in Sangli, Maharashra, derecognized by the Central Zoo
Authority due to bad conditions and poor animal care.
Despite the derecognition, and despite protests led by
PETA/India, the Pratap Sinhav Udyan Zoo continued operating for
another year, still with five lions, until flooded by the August
2005 monsoons.
Wildlife SOS then evacuated the last five Sangli lions to the
Animal Rescue Centre run by the Sri Venkateswara Zoological Park in
Tirupati. [Two photos of the evacuation appeared on page 12 of the
September 2005 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE.] The Sri Venkateswara Zoological Park built the Tirupati
Animal Rescue Centre to more-or-less the same specifications as the
Visakhapatnam Animal Rescue Centre, to accommodate 60 big cats.
After receiving the last of the Pratap Sinhav Udyan Zoo
lions, it was almost full, but nonetheless accepted another 16
lionesses, three lions, and a tiger just two weeks later. Kerala
Forest Department senior veterinary E.K. Easwaran told news media
that the Jumbo Circus of Wayanad, Kerala, had apparently kept the
animals for seven years in a garden on a coffee plantation, hoping
to find a way to again exhibit them.

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