A nest full of fledgling crows landed on our car one rainy morning a few years ago, when a branch from the large Rain Tree by our compound broke off. A nervous baby Barn Owl was the next find in our basement another year. Both times, we deposited the chicks in the nurturing care of Jayanthi Kallam and her team at Avian and Reptile Rehabilitation Centre (ARRC) in Bengaluru.
Jayanthi’s love for wild animals and her concern over the plight of urban wildlife in fast-shrinking habitats inspired her to move continents and give up a thriving corporate career to establish the Avian and Reptile Rehabilitation Centre in Bengaluru in January 2016. She is a certified wildlife rehabilitator and serves on the board of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (IWRC).
I spoke to Jayanthi about her career shift, the dangers that routine human actions pose to wild birds and animals sharing our urban spaces, ARRC’s urban wildlife rescue and rehabilitation efforts, and awareness initiatives to sensitise the public on the need for peaceful coexistence with urban wildlife.
It is a big leap from the corporate world to wildlife rehabilitation. Can you tell us more about what prompted this decision?
I grew up wanting to do something meaningful and impactful, but always found reasons to procrastinate. After working in New York for many years, I joined the Stern School of Business for an MBA, where I was exposed to tools and exercises to evaluate individual strengths and values. This brought about the realisation that working for social and environmental causes would be a more fulfilling career choice for me than climbing the conventional corporate ladder.
My love for animals and their suffering because of human actions drew me to wildlife rehabilitation. Many people put off pursuing their passion till after retirement. I feel it is important to take the plunge and start working on issues that matter to us in our prime, while we can make a substantial contribution, rather than view issues related to social and environmental justice as just a pastime.
How did ARRC come into being? And why in India?
India is my home. With the country developing at a rapid pace, we must ensure that the voiceless – be it people, animals or the environment as a whole – are not crushed by the juggernaut.
I made a two-month trip to India in 2014 to scope out opportunities in wildlife rehabilitation and environmental education and met several people in the field. During one such trip to Bengaluru, I met Saleem Hameed who had dedicated himself to wildlife rehabilitation for many years. When Saleem explained the issues facing urban wildlife in the city, the complexities of carrying out wildlife rehabilitation and the lack of a standardised approach in the field, I decided to establish a wildlife rehabilitation centre in India with his help.
I was already a certified wildlife rehabilitator in the state of New York, with the experience of working with various rehabilitation centres in the US under my belt. There were many challenges I faced initially to translate this experience to the Indian context, but with the help of Saleem and other board members, ARRC was formally founded in January 2016.
How does ARRC function?
ARRC is a wildlife rehabilitation facility where we rescue, treat and release urban wildlife back into their home ranges. In addition to treating wildlife casualties, we also focus on public education, assistance with managing human-wildlife interactions, fostering coexistence, science-based rehabilitation and knowledge sharing with other facilities and government departments.
We operate a Rescue Hotline – 94496 42222, where the public can call us for matters concerning wildlife in distress and our trained staff will rescue the wildlife casualty and transport it back to our centre for evaluation and treatment. When the animal has recovered and is deemed fit, we release it back at its home range.
ARRC is self-funded, and the trustees fund the operation as a personal philanthropic initiative.
What kind of species does ARRC focus on?
ARRC primarily focuses on native wild birds, reptiles and small mammals. Pigeon rescues and exotic species are beyond our ambit.
We also treat injured snakes, but do not assist with catching and relocating them. Instead, we educate the public about the need to coexist with urban wild species including snakes. Our goal at ARRC is to keep wild animals in their habitats, even in urban areas, which unlike popular perception, is very much a habitat for wild beings too.
At ARRC, we measure our success based on our ability to facilitate and aid wild animals to continue living and thriving undisturbed in their habitats, rather than the number of animals rescued or admitted to our facility.
How many rescues does ARRC carry out in a week? How does the operation work?
ARRC operates seven days a week from 7am to 7pm. However, we inevitably start at 6am and wind up at 10pm on most days. We perform an average of 90 rescues per week.
Our rescuers travel all over the north and east zones of Bengaluru to rescue wildlife casualties and transport them back to our centre, where our veterinary team treats the animals. When the animal has recovered fully and exhibits species-specific behaviours to survive in its natural habitat, we release it back in its home range.
What are some routine challenges you encounter during rescue operations and rehabilitation?
Most people want to help animals in distress but are not equipped with the necessary skills. In their desire to help, they inadvertently end up harming the animal. Despite specific instructions to not feed the animal or administer water orally, many do not heed the advice and want to help the animal right away rather than wait for trained help to arrive.
People find orphaned animals and feed them for several days, reporting them to us only when the animal’s condition begins to deteriorate, and it is close to collapsing. This makes treatment more challenging and jeopardises the animal’s chances of survival.
Similarly, on finding birds hanging from kite manjha threads (glass powder-coated abrasive strings for kite-flying), many ignore our advice and do not want to wait till the rescuers arrive. Without proper tools, techniques and training, ad hoc rescues cause irrecoverable injuries to such birds and can endanger the rescuer too.
The irrepressible urge to click selfies with the rescued animal is a big challenge too. Our rescuers are trained to prevent further stress to the animal by securing it in a safe box immediately and requesting people to stay away from the animal, but people frequently mistake this all-important act as the rescuer being cold and unfriendly. There are also people who extend cooperation and help spread the message, but we have more ground to cover.
A big misconception among the public, which makes our job tough is that we help control perceived nuisance caused by wildlife in their neighbourhoods by removing the animal. We try to politely educate them that we represent wildlife and can assist in resolving conflict but cannot remove the animal from its rightful habitat. These conversations can get difficult sometimes. With our efforts at creating awareness, we hope more and more people accept and learn to coexist with wildlife in their neighbourhoods and look upon us as just facilitators for such coexistence.
Are there certain times of the year when rescue calls are particularly high?
We receive the highest number of calls between December and January during the Black Kite breeding season, when many fledgling kites fall from their nests or are displaced.
During the first lockdown, we received an unusually high number of calls to rescue birds injured by manjha strings, as people were flying kites to while away time, leaving webs of manjha string dangling dangerously among tree branches. We have attended to as many as 10 manjha rescues every day. These are complex aerial rescues requiring a combination of skill, experience, and equipment.
Are there some urban wild species that seem to need more rescue and rehabilitation than others?
Black Kites are in abundance in Bengaluru due to shops selling meat in every locality, high rodent population and improper disposal of household waste. Black Kite fledglings frequently fall from their nests and need rescuing. Based on their age, the fledglings may take a month or two to grow strong enough to be released back in their habitat.
Squirrels are another common species that take longer to recuperate and need to be soft-released gradually into suitable habitats. Squirrels are mostly displaced when people clean sparingly used corners of their houses that squirrels choose for nesting, or when the mother is attacked by a predator, leaving the babies orphaned.
What are some of ARRC’s initiatives to educate and build awareness among children about rescue and rehabilitation?
Children are innately curious and empathetic. It is our responsibility as parents and teachers to harness this inherent quality in children, create an environment conducive for compassion and raise future citizens who will coexist in harmony with nature.
At ARRC, we have conducted kite manjha awareness sessions at various schools as kite-flying is a favourite pastime among children and adults alike. We educate children about the need to play the sport in a way that is not harmful to birds and other air-borne and arboreal beings around. We also conduct wildlife awareness sessions at children’s nature camps.
What are ARRC’s future plans?
ARRC is in the process of setting up a new Central Zoo Authority-approved rescue centre in Bengaluru North, which will help further improve the quality of care for our wild patients.
Also on the anvil is an urban wildlife conflict mitigation cell that will focus exclusively on mitigating wildlife conflict, educating the public about managing wildlife encounters and, carrying-out research on solutions to facilitate peaceful coexistence of humans and wildlife.
We also want to develop standardised diagnostic and treatment protocols for various wildlife species. We are planning to offer internships and conduct training sessions in wildlife rehabilitation to encourage more people to take up wildlife rehabilitation and environmental conservation as careers of choice.
Is there space for urban wildlife in cities and towns? How can citizens peacefully co-exist with urban wildlife?
Urban wildlife was in our cities before our cities became cities. They are doing their best to adjust to human presence. They are such good neighbours that most of the times people don’t realize that they are actually living alongside wildlife.
For the most part, urban wildlife does not interfere with human activity and is even beneficial. As an example, cities generate a lot of garbage, making them ideal habitats for rats. Owls unobtrusively keep urban rodent population in check and all they require is a quiet place for a couple of months to raise their chicks. When people hear of an owl near their house, they get concerned because they do not know the back story. Most people are tolerant, compassionate and do not mind minor inconveniences to let urban wildlife survive.
We have created several resources to enhance public awareness on the do-s and don’t-s when one encounters urban wildlife in distress.
The following resources can help the public take the right actions as first responders during such encounters:
All photographs courtesy of Avian and Reptile Rehabilitation Centre (ARRC).