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Issue 13

Bats in a pandemic: Why should we care?

Hidden from a clear view by our naked eye, the only true flying mammal hung upside down from a tree’s high branches. Sleeping through the sunlit morning, its eyes and made-for-manoeuvre-wings, snapped shut. Waiting for the darkness.To hunt prey. At night, one may have even seen a bat gliding. Before the pandemic.

For after that, it seems to have become prey. In April 2020, the bat roosts found in cave and building in two provinces of Cuba, were set on fire. In May 2020, people in four districts of Rajasthan, killed 150 bats, in a misdirected effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. In September 2021, the only colony of fruit bats in the Nilgiris, is under threat as people want to cut down the trees they roost on. Out of fear? 

This when, different bat species remain important for varied reasons. For much of India’s agri-lands, bats act as a zero-cost biological pesticide, controlling pest populations. Useful broadcasters, they disperse the pollen which clings to their fur, especially while drinking the nectar of flowers blooming in the night. They are vital in preserving natural habitat across terrain, helping forest regeneration and growth of new forests too. But yes, we are in the middle of a pandemic where old and new conspiracy theories also meet?

FRIENDS, OMEN & COUNTRYMEN

Even though we have seen so many reports of bats being culled in many parts of India, it has not stopped the pandemic anywhere,” says Dr. Bhargavi Srinivasulu, a Postdoctoral scientist at the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Studies at Hyderabad’s Osmania University.

As someone who has worked on bat conservation for many years across India, from Maharashtra to Telangana, she offers a more nuanced commentary, “Indians in general think bats are a bad omen. So, everything bad imaginable is associated with bats, because they emerge in the darkness, so darkness is synonymous with everything evil, thanks to our movies on Dracula and all. In India, even today you have lots of negative perceptions about bats.” But there is another side as well, she continues,“In certain pockets of Karnataka, there are bats roosting in their cowsheds and there are houses next to the cowsheds, they do not bother. Some are tolerant, some do not tolerate the presence or anything of bats.” 

So how did it shift when Covid- 19 hit all India? Dr. Bhargavi continues,“During the pandemic, it [attitude] was much more negative. People used to give us calls and then ask us — we can see bats flying around, how do we kill them, we are scared for our elderly and our children. What if they come in and bite and my grandmother or mother gets Corona.” She fielded worry and questions, why can’t they be culled, what is their use? Responding patiently, she explained how the coronavirus found in bats is different from the human one and the host that transmitted the coronavirus from bats to humans still remains a complicated mystery. 

WHY WE NEED NOT MORE CAT, BUT BAT VIDEOS IN 2021

A recent study across 17 Spanish-speaking countries on human perception of bats, focused on the role of information and visual stimuli, in boosting a positive response. It also looked at how sociodemographic factors affect it. Published this April by Alex Boso, an associate professor of Social Sciences, at Chile’s University of La Frontera, the research team came together from departments of Forestry, Environmental Sciences, Zoology and Psychology from several universities in Chile. 

Shedding light on how providing information and aesthetic stimuli can increase a positive response towards bats, it experimented in four ways. The first two, solely visual stimuli, showing, say, only a picture of a panda bat and vampire bat. The third condition included both visual and informational stimuli together, in the form of a 72 second bat cartoon video, showing the who what where when why of bats in their natural home.The fourth and final condition offered no stimuli, visual or informational.The study found the third experimental condition, providing both informational and visual stimuli, gave a major boost to positive responses, in the attitude towards bats.

When it came to human responses in the study, males were found to have a more positive impression towards bats than females. Participants with a higher education level, ditto. Christians were seen to have a more negative attitude towards bats compared to those participants of other religions, or those who had no religious beliefs. Previous experience with bats was found to be a significant factor of influence. 

SCIENCE COMMUNICATION IN THE FIELD – FROM KOLAR TO WUHAN

If this study’s findings attempt a link between the nature of stimuli provided and the socio-economic, gender and religious belief being influential in attitudes toward the bat species, in India, Dr. Bhargavi, working largely in rural areas, places some responses in a wider experience and span of time. “When we spoke to the elders, they said when they were young boys, they used to go inside the caves and collect all the guanos [bat excreta] and use it as fertiliser in their crops. Their crops used to be so healthy. They also used to be healthy because they used to feed on non-chemical fertiliser food.” Once this link was broken by either ignorance and now fear, it has been and will continue to affect both human health and the wider ecosystem. 

In cases where there was once a close link between the community, ecosystem and bats, scientist-conservationists reached out.to share how people must let bats be. Or how people could  actively protect them, even during the pandemic. Dr. Bhargavi in her own work, specifically mentions being able to do this in Karnataka’s Kolar area,“When we were doing our various conservation activities, if we had not consistently gone there and told them repeatedly, over a period of time, you know, these [bats] are very important to the ecosystem, agriculture and all, based on scientific facts, videos and pictures. You have to go there and consistently talk to them in a scientific manner, break it down in a simpler manner.” Her field experience and the 2021 study’s centrality of providing clear information and visual stimuli, while in entirely different country contexts, in this way, do speak to each other. Infact a study published in China this February, by Wuhan’s Central China Normal University tried to understand how public fear would negatively affect bat conservation. Not only were the study findings similar, in the role previous knowledge of bats plays and influence of gender/education level of the respondents, there was also a new element.  

A specially curated bat conservation lecture. This, on the one hand, improved people’s attitude towards bats, but on the other, failed to clear the misconception surrounding the alleged transmission of the coronavirus to humans directly. The research recommended clarity in messaging around human-bat encounters for conservation of this much-maligned species. Batting for bat-science, it mentions public display of scientific facts on bats as well as highlighting their benefits. 

But beyond a few driven scientist-conservationists, including Dr. Bhargavi’s own partner, Dr. Chelmala Srinivasulu, more science and easy to understand information about bats, reaching the public, remains perhaps, as important as washing our hands. At the very least, in a National Wildlife Week being held during an ongoing pandemic.

Devanshi Daga is a fourth year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She has completed her major in Psychology and is currently pursuing her minor in Sociology and Media Studies. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 13

The End Of The Zoo: Has The Pandemic Changed The Way We See Zoos?

Yadunandan’s last moments, in all likelihood, were spent in panic. Having accidentally wrung his neck around the rods of the treatment centre at the Bannerghatta Biological Park in Bengaluru, his desperate attempt to extricate himself, saw him twist his neck twice. The male giraffe died within minutes of asphyxiation. According to The Hindu, the staff at the park have launched an inquiry into the lapses that led to the demise of Yadunandan on 19 September. He had arrived in April 2020, as a gift from the Sri Chamarajendra Zoological Garden, Mysore. 

Yadunandan’s unfortunate death may just have been an accident, but it points to a larger issue around animals and captivity, increasingly being highlighted by animal welfarists. The primary site of animals in human captivity – the zoo, they say, needs to be rethought. 

Can we – should we – do away with them altogether?

Absolutely! We need to do away with zoos outright!”, insists a source (who prefers to remain anonymous) who works closely with animal welfare in Bengaluru. “In any case, going to the zoo during and after the pandemic feels like visiting a Covid patient’s home. But it’s not just the loneliness and sense of isolation that the animals feel, there are far deeper problems that exist in zoos in India and the world over.

THE ZOO’S COLORED LEGACY

The practice of keeping animals in captivity started out as a menagerie – which comes from the French word ‘menage’, meaning ‘to keep house’. A menagerie was a private collection of animals, generally owned by the elite, who would put them up on display. Many of these sites were open to the public, but humans and human pride would very much be at the centre of this exercise: as Gary Bruce writes in Through The Lion Gate: A History of the Berlin Zoo, humans captured animals and “put them on display to satisfy our own curiosity.” The first ‘modern’ zoo, with scientific classifications of animals, was set up in Paris in 1794, at the Jardin des Plantes, following which. a zoo was also set up in London’s Regent Park. 

While royalty from Egypt to India were known from ancient times, for taming wild animals and keeping them in captivity, the empires of these European nations used their violent prowess to ship ‘exotic’ animals from Asia and Africa all the way home. By displaying these animals in the zoo to a broader public, these countries would underline their might as imperial forces. Often these exhibitions would display ‘exotic’ human beings to bewildered European audiences as well. 

The shift from menagerie to zoo was an exhibitionist turn that animal captivity as a concept took: zoos were to be more accessible to the general public. They became, “important public places mostly for the lower middle class, labourers, poor people and women,” according to Dr. Mahesh Rangarajan, professor of environmental studies and history and Vice Chancellor, Krea University. This enabled a zoo to be turned into an arena of wildlife education. Common people could now learn about plants and animals, while staying in their own urbanizing areas. 

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) in 2015 offered a new World Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare Strategy, while also clarifying the contours of two centuries of human-animal interaction in the West. “First, in the 1700s and 1800s, at a time when blood sports and blatant acts of cruelty remained common and perfectly legal, reformers sought to stamp out cruelty as part of a broader programme of social progress. This led to the criminalising of deliberate cruelty and the banning of recreations such as bull-baiting and dog-fighting in many countries.”

“Then during the 1900s, with the large-scale institutionalised use of animals in food production and biomedical research, the key problem of animal ethics was perceived not as acts of cruelty, but as the use of animals for utilitarian purposes in ways that resulted in deprivation and curtailment of their freedom”. 

The report continues: “This gave rise to radical ideas, such as animal rights and animal liberation, which opposed all ownership and use of animals. It also gave rise to concerns about the welfare or ‘quality of life’ of animals in human care, and to a combination of scientific and philosophical attempts to understand what constitutes a good life for animals.”

IS INDIA SAYING BOO TO ZOOS IN 2021?

Prosenjit Dasgupta in his book, 10 Walks in Calcutta, mentions a local zoo set up in 1854. Today, with over 150 zoological parks and nature centres across India, from March 2021 -2022, the Central Zoo Authority of India, is currently celebrating 75 zoos, with specific focus on 75 species across India. Their theme: Conservation to coexistence: the people connect. In October 2021 alone, this includes a week each of public outreach activities at three nature centres in Gujarat (Indian fox at Ambardi Wildlife Interpretation Zone, Greater Flamingo at Sayaji Baug Zoo, Bar headed geese/Lesser florican at Indroda Nature Park and the Peafowl at Haryana’s Pipli Zoo) “The education concept is a lie. People don’t come to the zoo for education. Most visitors at zoos are there to picnic, or there for entertainment”, maintains the source from Bengaluru.

A joint report in 2020 by Wildlife Institute of India and the Central Zoo Authority, on Management Effectiveness, Evaluation of Indian Zoos, makes a counter numbers claim, “In India, rough estimates indicate that zoos are one of the highest visited public spaces with over 80 million visitation numbers annually.” A 2020 TERI led case study of the Delhi Zoological park also confirms that 77 % of all earnings are from recreational activities.

WHAT CAN A RETHINK MEAN?

Are private zoos a solution then, akin to the one Reliance is aiming to build in Gujarat’s Jamnagar? Not according to the source, who insists, “zoos are the problem. At least in government zoos, you can file RTIs and find out things. Plus, how will so many species from all over the world survive in the heat and humidity of Gujarat? We can use this pandemic experience to generate more attention among the public, in order to raise awareness on these issues that zoos have.

Zoos anyway need rethinking. The old cage system is out of modesty. Captive collections may not die but need to be rethought”, says Dr. Rangarajan. “In any case, specialist captive collections are not new. Gerald Durrell’s zoo in Jersey bred rare small creatures, and in India, the Sakkarbaug Zoo helped breed Asian lions.” 

The animal welfarist goes one step further. “Going forward, zoos should make a list of animals who can be released into the wild, and then they should actually be released into the wild”. Zoos can, “house injured animals who can’t make it in the wild, and thus also be a site for veterinary practice, because where else can vets be trained for the wildlife but animals in zoos?” 

Perhaps, the 45 year experience of one of the country’s longest volunteer programmes at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust also points to a middle ground, benefitting both conservation and public connect. Raising several generations of humane volunteers keen to understand animal life, 400, 000 people visited in a year and the fee helped in funding conservation. Not only were they able to bring the croc back from near extinction, but also released 1500 of them in the wild, across India.

The pandemic’s rupture can also mean taking further stock not just for ourselves, but for a new tandem with our fellow species of the planet too.  And that means no more captive Yadunandans dying, by accident or poor design.

Aritro Sarkar is a fourth-year student of history, international relations and media studies at Ashoka University.  

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 7

Pets of the Pandemic

Human beings, as one knows, are social beings; be it with a fellow human or an animal. This inherent quality along with the advancement of technology and media has facilitated the sociality of a person. In the era of the internet, we are up to date and in touch with more friends, family and acquaintances than ever before. However, the year 2020 took such a turn and brutally limited this inherent sociality to being social in a room and connected through a screen. One was not only isolated but in-person social interaction also meant putting oneself and the people around at risk.

With almost completing a year amidst the pandemic, conversations around mental health concerns have seen a significant rise that has a correlational if not causal relationship with the pandemic. It is not uncommon that the pandemic, quarantine and the lockdown harboured a lot of feelings of uncertainty, isolation and loneliness. While a person to person interaction might have been risky, a number of people turned to the companionship of a pet. 

Historically, humans have always been a part of a culture of integrating animals within their lifestyle as both parties have been present in close physical proximity. Traditionally, animals such as horses, cows, dogs, etc. were domesticated to acquire goods such as dairy, meat, security etc; thus, they had a use-value. While these animals were resourceful, over time, this culture of domestication branched out into what a layperson would see as keeping a ‘pet’ in present times. One could see the emergence of keeping pets for companionship, comfort and support. A variety of research sheds light on the human-animal interaction, and one such research explores this bond through the Pet Effect. This effect addresses the impact of the symbiotic relationship of love, affection that the pet and owner share, that significantly contributes to each parties’ physical, emotional and mental well-being. A survey was conducted in 2016, which reported that 74% of the 2000 pet owners, felt that there was a significant improvement in their mental and social well-being once they acquired a pet.

Hence, to seek comfort in these unprecedented times, various individuals who could afford to, adopted a pet. If one would’ve stepped into a park in May, one would have noticed a good deal of what are called the ‘Pets of the Pandemic’. With the lockdown pushing work culture from in-office to a work from home format, not only did a pet provide companionship but also a positive and meaningful presence within the home environment. Owners could now fully distract themselves from the uncertainty and invest in attending to their pet and also indulging in physical exercise by taking them out for walks.

While pets may have been the solution to our loneliness, many have chosen to ignore the  impact of the pandemic on our four-legged companions? Research suggests that for newly born and adopted pets, socialisation is crucial within their first three months. The environment that a pet spends time in plays an essential role in their development. However, due to the pandemic, various pets like dogs and cats have spent a large portion of their initial months indoors. This leads to exposing pets to two pertinent issues: difficulty in adjusting to new environments and socialising and developing separation anxiety. 

Gradual exposure to society and socialization is an important part of taking care of and training pets, especially for a puppy. This training ensures that the puppy grows to be a dog that is comfortable with other people, animals and new environments and does not develop unnecessary fears and phobias. 

Furthermore, stemming from the same environment is the issue of separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is often noticed in dogs and is described as the dog displaying distressed behaviour when its’ guardian is about to leave the house. Distressed behaviour could look different for each dog, however, some common indicators are agitation, being upset, uneasy or restless and seeming depressed. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety bark and howl when they are left alone or cause destruction in the house, often causing self-injury and in some cases, make an attempt to escape. 

When we are experiencing distressed, often restoring to a pet for comfort is extremely normal. With owners spending 24×7 time with their pets, the latter have become a coping mechanism for many. The line between this mutually beneficial relationship and co-dependency has blurred during the pandemic. So the most important question to raise is what happens once the guardians move back to their 9-5 in-office lifestyle? How does the pet respond to getting all the constant attention for almost 11 months to transitioning back to the time when they were not? How does the owner resort to separating themselves from their pet, and find other mechanisms to cope with stress?

These are questions that one is yet to answer. 

Vanishree is currently pursuing Psychology and Sociology at Ashoka University. Vani enjoys cooking in her free time. 

Picture Credits: Sunehra Bhatura

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).