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At home with the wild
Is there a leopard at your front door and a python at the back? Don't panic. As habitats increasingly overlap, meetings between the wild and the human have become a reality we must deal with.
It was past midnight when Sadhna Gupte, a resident of Mumbai, was woken by what sounded like the low hiss of a pressure cooker. She looked around her ground floor flat, adjacent to a wooded area. The sound emerged from her bathroom. She opened the door to see a pair of amber eyes glowing at her. Turning on the light, Sadhna saw a Russell’s Viper —one of Asia’s most poisonous snakes — lounging in a corner. “I just froze with fear. It took me a few seconds to calm down. My first instinct was to throw something at it but, somehow, I just could not get myself to harm it,” says Gupte. She slowly backed off and immediately called PAWS (Plant and Animal Welfare Society), an animal rescue agency.
Encountering wild life at home is obviously scary for humans. But for animals too, such meetings can be nightmarish. In the process of straying into human habitation, wild animals are attacked by stray dogs or humans, often getting killed. Yet, as cities eat more and more into forests and incidents of wild life straying into urban limits increase, people have become more sensitive towards feral guests. “Earlier, people would attack animals with lathis and stones. Now, they call rescue experts,” says Sunish Subramanian, founder of PAWS, which has been rescuing wild life in Mumbai since 1995.
Sometimes, the opposite also happens. People who find a wild animal or bird in their home often keep these as pets. This, say rescue experts, is against the law. What’s more, your love for the animal may even backfire. Recently, a couple in Pune discovered an injured Malabar Grey Hornbill — an endangered bird found in dense forests and coffee plantations — on their terrace. It was in pain, so the wife tried to feed it some cooked chicken. The hornbill refused to open its beak. The couple force-fed the bird, hoping that food would make it feel better. The opposite happened; the hornbill now appeared to be in greater distress.
Eventually, the bird’s hosts took him to Ram Bhutkar, a malaria inspector with the Pune Municipal Corporation and a well-known animal rescuer. Bhutkar identified the bird and told the couple it fed only on wild fruits, explaining why the lovingly served chicken curry found no favour with the vegan winger.
“Most people think that animals, like humans, should eat and drink when they are in misery. This is not true. They can easily survive without food for 15-20 hours. Give the animal a place to hide instead. This will calm its nerves. Place some water
next to it. Keep pet dogs and cats at a distance from it and call rescue experts,” advises Bhutkar.
In some cases, pure hunger drives wild animals towards human settlements. Leopards in Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park often wander into nearby slums and colonies because the forest no longer holds enough to eat. “Surrounding residential areas have dogs which attract leopards,” says Subramanian. Recently, a jackal walked into a police colony located beside a mangrove forest in West Mumbai. “Stray dogs began attacking it, so it hid behind the watchman’s cabin. An officer immediately called us,” recounts Subramanian. “It’s best not to torture such animals as they may get aggressive,” he adds. In case you do encounter a python in your house, remember that a calm head will work best for both of you.
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