“Who’s Who at the Zoo” is an amazing book of animals by Ruskin Bond. Published by National Book Trust, India.

Each animal is special; none too stupid or ugly, says the author. Out of 24 animal friends talked of in the book, here are some for you.

The Zoo is For You

In an overcrowded world, where the forests and wilderness are fast disappearing, it is becoming more and more difficult for many birds and animals to find food and shelter. Some species have already died out. For others, the zoo is often the last refuge.

The preservation of wildlife is not the function of a zoo, which is really a sort of Grand Hotel for a large collection of animals. Wildlife is best preserved in natural sanctuaries. The function of a zoo is rather to bring animals closer to human beings, so that we may be provided with a close-up of the beauty, charm and fascinating way of life of birds and animals coming from different parts of the country, different areas of the world.

Who’s Who at the Zoo
Who’s Who at the Zoo

Not everyone is in a position to visit the Kaziranga Sanctuary to see a rhino; not everyone can go to the Gir forest to see a lion. But any Delhi schoolboy can see these animals in the zoo. Not everyone can venture into the rain-forests of South America to see a jaguar or a brighty-coloured macaw; but anyone living in Delhi, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Bombay or wherever there is a zoological garden, can find these and other fascinating animals in residence.

The best zoos are those which attempt to provide their animals with conditions and surroundings similar to those in which they lived, when wild. After all, animals are as capable of being happy or miserable as humans, and there is no sadder sight than a wild animal cooped up in a cage so small that is barely able to turn round.

The Delhi zoo is the largest in Asia. It is also reputed to be one of the best in the world. It has plenty of water for a bird colony; a spacious deer park; caves for tigers; trees for leopards; and large clean cages, where cages are necessary. This is the ideal kind of zoo: the equivalent of a good hotel for people. In fact, some of the residents in the Bird Colony have come there on their own.

The best way to learn about animals is to watch them. All that my book can do is to introduce you to some of the animals you may find in a zoo: some of them well-known, like the tiger and the elephant; others who are strangers, like the mandrill and the zebra. Of course, they can’t all be included here. It would take a very fat directory to list and describe all the animals in the world. Which is an encouraging thought; for it would be a sad day indeed when all the world’s animals could be put into one short list.

THE ADJUTANT STORK

If you have lived in or near an Indian village, you may have seen the adjutant, the long legged wading bird which likes stretches of open water in the countryside. An adjutant, as you probably know, is an army officer, and this particular stork is so named on account of its stiff, parade-ground walk.

The adjutant has fine flowing feathers, a great bare head and long legs; an altogether handsome bird, worthy of an officer’s rank.

It has a powerful beak with which it can swallow an animal as big as a rabbit, or a bird as large as a fowl. It is very useful, like some vultures, for it clears the village street of refuse and destroys snakes and lizards.

This stork is easily tamed. The manner of its walk and its odd habits often cause amusement. My grandfather, who kept a number of pets, once had an adjutant stork. It was in the habit of standing behind Grandfather’s chair at dinnertime and taking its share of the meal.

Some writers have called the adjutant an ugly bird, because of its huge bill and the long pouch hanging from its neck.

But different people have different ideas of beauty, and I am with those who think the adjutant is rather good-looking. He also has the virtue of being a silent bird (he does not have any voice muscles), and the only noise he makes is a clattering of the mandibles. When he is in love he manages to emit low grunts.

The adjutant can be found throughout India (where there is water), but if you live in a city, you are most likely to see it in the Bird Colony at the zoo. It is there that you will also find its relative the spoonbill, a bird not so large, but with a wide black beak like a spoon, with which it fishes out water-creatures very effectively.

THE CHIMPANZEE

The chimp would be most offended if we left him out of this book. We’ve mentioned a baboon, and the chimp, surely, is far more civilized than the baboon. Too civilized, perhaps, to want to be included among the animals. He does, after all, bear the closest resemblance to Man of any of the surviving anthropoids (animals related to man), and his attitude to the author may well be: “If you’re going to put me in your zoo, you should be in it too!”

It’s true that the chimp likes to be among humans. He is the constant companion of Tarzan, the jungle-hero. In fact, the various chimpanzees who have acted in the Tarzan films have sometimes been known to learn their parts better than the supermen who have acted as Tarzan.

A chimpanzee’s life-span is about the same as human’s. Hence, a nine-year old chimp would be an ideal companion for a nine-year old boy. And they have much in common.

The author, Gerald Durrell, who collects animals for zoos all over the world, kept a pet chimpanzee who joined him for tea, dinner, and an after dinner smoke. The chimp inhaled and blew the smoke out of his nostrils with great aplomb. Chimps don’t like the cold and soon learn to appreciate the value of clothing. One chimp is look such a delight in new clothes that, whenever he was given a new dress, he tore the old one to pieces to that he wouldn’t have to wear it again.

Strangely enough, even in their wild state chimpanzees prefer the ground to the tree-tops. One would think this would make them easy prey for leopards (so dreaded by the monkey tribe), but these apes find their security in numbers. They are also surprisingly strong, with long powerful arms, and huge hands and feet. Their true home is in West Africa, but they would not object to being given a seat in the United Nations.

THE WILD ASS

To call a stupid person an ass is a grave insult to the ass, because this animal, whether tame or wild, is one of the most intelligent creatures. A domesticated ass is as responsive to affection as a horse, and has an equal amount of ‘horse sense’; while the wild ass is a shy and sensitive creature.

Indian wild asses are found in north-west India and Pakistan, but now there are very few of them left.

They are mainly to be found in the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, an area of a thousand square miles of salt wasteland. The Board for Wildlife in India has given them protection and put them on the list of rare animals.

In Syria and Persia, the wild ass was once found in large numbers but is now extinct.

The wild ass can run very fast. So swift is it in flight that it cannot be overtaken even by a fleet of Arabian horses. But its speed has been its undoing. Like the cheetah, it became a favourite object of pursuit, and in Persia it was hunted by the well-to-do – one reason why it is now extinct in those parts.

The people of the Rann of Kutch do not hunt or harm the wild ass. Some wild asses even cross over the boundary of India and Pakistan at the eastern end of the Rann in order to graze; they help themselves to the best that is obtainable from both sides.

Wild asses are well-built creatures about four feet high — bigger than the domestic donkey which is descended from the Egyptian ass.

They are a bright sandy colour, with dark chestnut manes. Like zebras, they have short ears. They live in herds, each herd under the command of a leader, who rules with great authority and a sense of responsibility for the welfare of the herd.