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Humboldt penguins are fed in their enclosure at Mumbai’s Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan. Photo: Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times
Humboldt penguins are fed in their enclosure at Mumbai’s Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan. Photo: Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times

Penguins in the Byculla Zoo: Why not?

When Mumbai imported Humboldt penguins from South Korea, its globalized elite was aghast. But around 300,000 people have visited the zoo since then

Mast! It’s rare to hear that classic Marathi word expressing appreciation in Mumbai’s Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan, also called the Byculla zoo, where the happiest mammals invariably look like the fruit bats that hang lazily from the vast canopies of rain trees. You can hardly blame the 64-year-old elephant for not competing. But these days the word echoes in the area where the zoo’s newest inhabitants, seven Humboldt penguins, are housed.

There were eight but Dory died after she contracted a bacterial infection. When the city imported the birds from South Korea, Mumbai’s globalized elite was aghast. It’s okay to go skiing at a snow park in Dubai or spend time with the Polar bear at the Singapore Zoo and nobody worries about sending their pet Siberian Husky on a sweaty evening walk with the handler. But penguins in Byculla? It’s so much more authentic to head to Phillip Island outside Melbourne for the Penguin Parade.

It took the judge who threw out the public interest litigation demanding the birds be sent back to South Korea to ask, “Why should Mumbaikars not enjoy such penguins?" None of my friends and family have taken their children to see the zoo’s latest acquisition.

Penguins are such a rarity for this city that some visitors don’t even know the name of the birds. Some compare them to ducks. Other common questions about the South American birds named after the cold water current in which they swim: Are they babies? Where’s the ice?

There are no guides or information boards yet to inform people that Humboldt penguins grow only up to around 2ft and that they don’t need snow. The water and air temperature in their enclosure has been set at around 14 degrees Celsius, just right for them.

For now, it doesn’t matter—the city’s upcoming middle class has been flocking since the exhibit opened in March. Around 300,000 people have visited the zoo since the birds arrived.

At present, there’s no extra fee to view the penguins but the proposal to charge Rs100 for a family of four has been cleared by the municipal commissioner, zoo director Sanjay Tripathi informs me.

In a city starved for things to do, it was still a shock when 30,000 curious visitors showed up on the opening weekend. After that initial hellish blur of selfies, the zoo banned cameras near the penguins, who were disturbed by the flash. People still try to sneak in a photo as they are being herded along.

C’mon move ahead, move ahead, yells the security woman from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). Put away that camera, sir. Haven’t you seen the notice?

Newspaper reports said the garbage generated was out of control but the day I visit, the area is pristine.

Four grubby barefoot boys, aged between 10 and 13, keep looping back in the line that moves almost as speedily as the one at the Balaji Temple in Tirupati to catch multiple glimpses of mischievous Mister Molt and his monochrome gang. The second time I spot the boys, they can’t stop grinning. It’s just summer holiday fun, they say.

I wish there was someone to tell them the stories head veterinarian Madhumita Kale and her colleague Neha Shah tell me. Molt (named so because he was moulting when he arrived) loves pushing the other birds into the water. Bubble hates the weighing scale and needs to be enticed on to it with fish. She’s also bullied the most.

Olive’s a biter—Kale and Shah have the scars to prove it. Daisy and Donald have paired up and are a very vocal couple. Olive and Popeye too rarely leave each other’s side.

Molt is just entering puberty, he’ll be 2 in July. He’s ready to mount anything and these days he’s leaning towards Bubble.

I’m hanging out to observe the birds’ antics and, sure enough, Molt disappears into a crate behind a pillar in the 2,000 sq. ft enclosure for some nooky with Bubble. Flipper, who’s shy that way (she’ll usually turn her back on you if the crowd swells), stands outside, waiting.

The keeper enters the enclosure with a laser pointer and shines it in the water. Three penguins dive in and begin swimming after the light. Kale says they love chasing bubbles too.

Most visitors have only seen penguins in movies—Happy Feet’s tap-dancing penguin Mumble plays on loop on one of the screens for those who want to see some action when the local gang is dozing by the water, shaken awake only when their belly makes contact with the pool as they fall forward.

A family from Madurai has just landed in Mumbai for a four-day holiday. The penguins are at the top of their sightseeing agenda. Gateway of India must now be happy with second place.

Forget Mumbai enjoying the penguins, the birds have already acquired a local habit: They love Bombay Duck or Bombil. “We were surprised too," says Tripathi. “It’s probably because it’s a fleshy fish like eel, their staple."

Tripathi works from a cavernous office with his taxidermy companions: a golden pheasant, an owl, a military macaw and two hill mynah. The President and Prime Minister smile benevolently from a wall on his right. A life-size fibreglass model of a tiger, courtesy Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray, awaits its turn to be installed.

Despite the lack of new animals in recent years due to a 2005 high court order, the Byculla zoo is still a popular destination because of its heritage botanical garden status. “Where else can you get such greenery in the city?" says Tripathi of the 53-acre space that has around 250 species of plants and trees, including baobabs, rain trees, banyans, kadambas and amaltas.

Of course these days it’s all about the thrill of gaining access to a part of the world many people thought they would never see except on their television screens. How can anyone have a problem with that?

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable. The writer tweets at @priyaramani

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