As promised, here is my second installment, and it’s full of leopards, peacocks, porcupines, and other animals from the adorable to the downright scary!
Not gonna lie, aside from the opportunity to see an extremely different kind of healthcare system, the almost legendary stories of “Amte’s Animal Ark” were a huge factor in me wanting to visit Hemalkasa.
Today, stories of the Amtes and their animals have been published in dozens of books, but I got to hear many of the stories from Dr. Amte himself!
He told us how it all began: After a few years of living in the jungle, he had become accepted and trusted in the indigenous community as their doctor, the only one within hundreds of miles. One evening as he was going on a walk through the woods, he saw a group of hunters who had killed a female monkey. It was (and still is to some extent) common in the area to hunt any animals in the vicinity for food. The female monkey had a baby. It was still alive, but would be killed and eaten. Wanting to prevent this, Dr. Amte offered to trade it for some grain, and after much convincing, the group agreed.
Dr. Amte raised the baby monkey, with his pet dog acting as a surrogate mom. The family and patients grew fond it. People began to think that when they orphaned baby animals, it might be a good idea to bring them to the Amte’s rather than kill them. Also, Dr. Amte and his wife offered all medical treatment for free. Their patients usually did not have currency, but to show their gratitude, they often brought the Amtes orphaned animals. So the population of “Bambis” (as I call them) kept growing.
Today, they’ve got at least a hundred animals, in a designated space called “Amte’s Animal Ark”. Being famous and all, the Amtes get hundreds of guests these days who want to know about Hemalkasa. Everyday, Dr. Prakash Amte runs a little tour through the Ark, going into the animals cages and telling guests about them. He helps dispel myths (eg. “porcupines shoot their quills”) and promote education and conservation. Every day, I would inconspicuously enter in behind the tour group. Then, while they all crowded around the bear or leopard, I would get up close and personal with the monkeys, deer, baby crocodiles or porcupines.
The baby crocs came from fishermen who caught them in their nets. There’s also a giant adult crocodile on the campus, who was laying eggs and shiftily trying to hide them.
I’m pretty sure the Giant Indian Squirrel actually got to know who I was by the end. I was expecting an awkward furball, but it’s actually the cutest thing ever. It would hang upside down by its tail to snack on some rice or fruit. I sneaked it some tomato once and we became best friends, if only temporarily.
The Amte kids also have a special bond with the animals, having grown up with them. The leopards are basically tame, and the three year old climbs him and scratches behind his ears without a second of hesitation. The peacock especially loves Dr. Anagha’s older son. As soon as Arnav walks into the peacock’s cage, it spreads its feathers and starts doin’ the peacock dance. It follows him wherever it goes.
The boys even play with the snakes! When I was at Hemalkasa, the resident snakes included king cobras and kraits. The banded krait was by far the creepiest. It’s supposed to be 16 times as poisonous as the cobra. There is no anti-venom available in India. And here was Dr. Amte handling a perfectly healthy banded krait, not devenomized or anything. Both the cobra and the banded krait were found in buildings in Hemalkasa- one inside the school. *Shudder*
Animals around Hemalkasa are actually a pretty common cause of hospitalizations. The day I arrived, there was a man who had received anti-venom for a near fatal snakebite. I saw a chart on the wall with a treatment flowchart. The last box had instructions on how to give a dose 20 times as strong as the recommendation. I guess if that can’t save the patient, nothing can.
Another man was recovering from a bear attack. Patients that get slashed by bears often have to walk to the hospital, a trip that can take several days. By the time they make it, their wounds are often maggot infested. Additionally, the man I saw had made the long journey on a fractured leg.
Stories like these make the locals likely to kill animals on sight. That, combined with increased hunting for fur and animal parts, means that many forest animals are disappearing at a rapid rate. Dr. Amte teaches about different animals and safe practices. The ark remains a refuge for many species.
Along with the wild denizens, Hemalkasa had its fair share of chickens, cows, geese, and buffalo. I would wake up every morning not by rooster-call, but by the honking of geese that lived right outside my room. My favorite goose moment was this guy taking a little bath in what looked to be a baking pan.
Another time, I went to check out the dairy, and was surprised to find a herd of Holsteins, looking like they came straight off a Wisconsin farm! They were pretty surprised to see me too.
And to further pile on the nostalgia, the Ark even had a honey badger! Apparently there was a name for it in the local language, but most Indians, having never seen one, called it a “Silver Bear”. Dr. Amte was pleasantly surprised to hear that I knew what a badger was. I didn’t try to explain that I refer to myself as a Badger too!
So basically I was in this animal utopia, along with everything else I was experiencing at the time. I absolutely loved it. There was only one animal experience I was not elated with, and that concerned the hyena. Let me tell you, when you wake up from a nightmare in the middle of the night in pitch black darkness with no electricity, a yelling hyena does nothing to make you more comfortable. But besides that, he was actually pretty cute!
The Amtes have received widespread praise as well as criticism for their work with animals. I’m not sure that I would support such an approach in all places, but in the historical context of Hemalkasa, I think it’s appropriate. It’s definitely not an experience I’ll forget. Just one more of the incredible encounters that defined my time in India!