Bird Cage: Inside The New Penguin Exhibit At The Byculla Zoo

Humboldt penguins, Byculla zoo, Mumbai.

Photo: Pradeep via Wikimedia Commons.

Ever since the seven Humboldt penguins at the Veermata Jijamata Bhosale Udyan (Rani Baug) were put on view for the public on Saturday, March 18, the zoo has been thronged with people. As if to welcome the penguins, parts of the zoo have been gussied up. The ticket counter, for instance, has been overhauled. Previously a shabby structure, the counter is now a smart, biscuit-coloured edifice, which also houses a toilet and a cloakroom. The façade is decorated with animal busts reminiscent of hunting trophies in colonial-era lodges, an irony that’s no doubt lost on zoo authorities. Next to the ticket counter is a tableau with fake animals, including sculptures of penguins, arranged around a fountain. And scattered inside is some rather silly topiary of Disney characters.

The real birds are in an enclosure in a large building constructed specially for them at one end of the zoo. It takes a while to get to the enclosure given the lengthy queue that starts well beyond the gate of the building and extends right around it even on weekday afternoons. The crowd will probably thin once the zoo begins charging a separate fee of Rs100 for adults and Rs50 for kids for the penguin enclosure. Currently one can enter with the regular zoo ticket, which is priced at Rs5.

As the staff ushers you along, you get less than a minute to see the penguins as you file past their glassed-in habitat with a pool and faux rockery. The day we visited, the penguins seemed to be on strike. They were motionless, standing in a single line with their backs turned to the audience as if to say ‘we don’t appreciate being penned in this refrigerated cage and gawped at.’ So still were they that some folks in the crowd wondered if the birds were real.

Indeed it’s a tragic sight for animal lovers. The world over the conventional zoo, a colonial throwback where animals are displayed for entertainment, is on its way out. It’s being replaced by the modern zoo, where animals, especially endangered species, are meant to be conserved. Instead of moving with the times, the Byculla zoo took the outdated step of importing the birds from Seoul for public amusement. The project has been controversial from the start, drawing criticism from activists especially after one of the eight penguins brought here died of an infection in October last year. Currently the Bombay High Court is hearing a petition seeking to have the penguins sent back to Seoul so that they can be cared for better.

Veermata Jijamata Bhosale Udyan (Rani Baug), Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Road, Byculla. Get directions here. The penguin enclosure is open from 9.30am to 4pm from Thursday to Tuesday; Wednesday, closed.

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