An Obituary for India’s Only Gorilla

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A zookeeper remembers Polo, who passed away at Mysore Zoo after 17 lonely years
C Shankar speaks of Polo as if he were a human being. “We were great friends. He would sit on a chair and read newspapers. Sometimes, he would get angry and turn his face away, but only for a few minutes. A short whistle from me and he would come asking for his reward,’’ he says.

Polo was India’s only gorilla and Shankar was his keeper in Mysore Zoo for almost two decades. On 26 April, Polo passed away. In the postmortem, Shankar saw how much the animal resembled a human. “The only difference was that he could not speak and would only grunt. His different grunts were a proper response for every situation. One has to understand the psychology of animals,’’ he says.

Shankar had Polo’s charge from the day the gorilla arrived from Ireland in 1995 as a naughty, healthy 20-year-old mate for Sumathi, a female gorilla. Sumathi died within two years and Polo was left alone. “There were many attempts to get a mate, but somehow they were not successful,’’ says a senior zoo official.

Shankar, now 46, was in charge of Polo till last year when he was promoted as superintendent and put in charge of the hippo enclosure. But most of his life revolved around the Chimpanzee point, which housed chimps, orangutans and gorillas.

“I had to keep him occupied. Veterinarians and foreign experts say if a gorilla gets lonely, it will go into depression,’’ says Shankar. “I could make out when he was sick or out-of-sorts. It was a challenge tricking him to have medicines which I slipped between food and mixed in juices.’’

Polo’s favourites were boiled eggs and grapes. In a completely human-like manner, Shankar says, the gorilla would dip bread slices into milk or tea served in his half- litre mug while relaxing in a chair. Twice a week Polo would get a bath and be goaded to ‘ujjuko’ (rub) his face, hands and legs. “Sometimes, if I would imitate his actions, he would whack me playfully, giving the crowds good reason to cheer. Now I am going to miss him,’’ says Shankar.