Shailesh Pethe is like a kindergarten teacher who ensures that each day his students are in check, looking healthy, getting enough physical and mental stimulation and being loved. But there’s one difference. Pethe’s students are a lot bigger than human pre-schoolers. So when he stops to grin indulgently at Laxmi, he has to keep a hand’s distance from the nine-year-old tigress that sprints to say hello with a deep roar.
Pethe has been with the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in Borivali for three years now as the wildlife veterinarian taking care of all the captive and non-captive wild fauna – namely 36 species of mammals – tigers, lions, leopards, sambar and spotted deer, nilgai, monkeys, owls and eagles. It also means he probably has one of the most dangerous jobs in the city, where one moment of forgetting to lock a door or sedate an injured wildcat during a surgery or cutting down physical distance by a few inches, could make him their dinner. Yet there seems to be an obvious level of trust that Pethe who has developed with the animals he encounters each day.
His day begins at 8.30am when Pethe arrives at the park and begins his morning tour of the enclosures. He modulates his voice and begins a conversation with his furry friends first meeting the lions, followed by tigers, leopards and then the deer. “My leopards I whistle to and the others I call out their names. Then I take stock of whether they’ve defecated, had their meals, and displaying usual behaviour,” he says turning towards Bijlee, 9 stretched out in the enclosure with its head resting on one of its front paws, lazily glancing at Pethe. “That’s typical of her. Unlike Laxmi who comes charging at me. If either of them acts in opposite ways it means something is wrong,” says Pethe. He is also one of the only two veterinary officers in the state who often dashes to Nashik, Chalisgaon, Kokan and Murbad to rescue an animal in distress, treat it and then rehabilitate it in their natural environment.
“Sometimes these leopards venture out of the park and lose their way inside a human settlement,” says Pethe who steers the eight-member wild animal rescue team of SGNP that saved close to 25 wild animals in the past year. “A scared animal is more dangerous than a ferocious animal. It can act in unprecedented ways,” he says emphasising the importance of observation and silence. “Chaos around a wild animal can disturb its natural behaviour and be fatal to rescue team members. People think of a leopard as the biggest threat because of its claws and teeth but a deer can dig its horn into your stomach and their kick can be a bone crushing one.”
Despite the risks, Pethe loves the thrill and his tryst with the wild. Just eleven months ago he received an emergency call from a neighbourhood in Mulund where a leopard had lodged itself inside a two storey abandoned building after attacking six people in the housing society. “For us the biggest challenge is locating the animal. It could be anywhere. In this case… any floor, any room,” says Pethe who during the four-hour rescue operation tailed its pungent scent, made voices and posed as bait until the big cat came charging. Pethe looked him in the eyes, tranquilized the leopard and brought it back to the park’s rescue centre.
Pethe grew up surrounded by farm animals in Umbergaon, earned his degree in veterinary medicine from The Bombay Veterinary College followed by a stint with the animal husbandry department and constantly consumed by a need to understand it more. Passionate about raising awareness of conservation and animal protection issues in which, he feels, zoos can play a vital role. “We’ve been conducting workshops with schools and colleges. Mumbai is the only city in the world with Schedule I big cat predators – 40 leopards – and other wild population including 3000 free-ranging deer, monkeys within its municipal limits.”
Apart from wildlife the 45-year-old has to frequently wrestle with his mother’s worries but his wife, also a veterinarian helps. “Including times when she may need to stitch me up,” he smiles showing off a scar on his palm.
In his time, Pethe has been bitten by a snake, clawed by a leopard and kicked on the thigh by a chital. “It’s just their natural behaviour,” he nods. “See, you can never physically overpower a wild animal because it has many more God-gifted defences. Being respectful of animals helps, also I’m a bit fearless.” Surprisingly, if there’s anything that frightens the man who tames wild beasts: “It’s birds,” he reveals. “They have fearsome jaw power. A parrot once bit me and that has been the most vicious and painful bite ever!”
(TOI Profiles Individuals Who Battle The Odds, Face Unexpected Risks Daily)