Trivandrum's Own Steve Irwin
His pets are two lions and a tiger. He raises wild cats at his quarters. He has been chased by buffaloes, hippos and elephants. He has enough near-death experiences within two years than most people have in their entire lives. Meet Dr. Joe Jacob Sebastian– Trivandrum’s own Steve Irwin.
Most of the people who look through his photo albums online would be left awestruck or more often shocked. All the pictures show Joe in what others would call “dangerous” situation. For example, a picture with his hand inside a lion’s mouth. For Joe, it is just his job. Joe is the veterinary surgeon at the Trivandrum Zoo.
He joined the Trivandrum Zoo in 2008, after a stint as a pilot. Since then the health of all the animals in the zoo has been his responsibility. His patients range from the little deer fawn to the lethal King Cobra. Before joining the zoo he was the Chief of the Elephant Squad. It was Joe who helped capture the rogue elephant which became infamous as “Kola Kolli”. Before Joe darted the elephant, it had chased him around. Another brush with death. Another day in the office.
Though “Kola Kolli” became a name synonymous with fear, Joe only has sympathies for the animal. “It was not actually so aggressive as the media made it out to be,” says Joe, “It had two infected teeth which prompted it to come out in search for softer food. This became a nuisance to the locals who brewed illicit liquor in the area, and hence they spread these stories.” Later, the elephant which refused to accept treatment, died in captivity.
That is not the only instance Joe has shown sympathies for these so called “dangerous” animals. When a tigress rejected her cub, Joe took it home in October 2008, and his family raised it as a pet. He named it “Saya”. One month later, a pair of lion cubs also joined the tiger. “Raising the abandoned cubs is hard,” says Joe. “They have to be fed every two hours. We had to set alarm to wake up and feed them.” Joe reckons that this might be the only recorded incidence where tigers and lions were brought up together. He recalls a funny incident that happened in connection with the tiger cub. His daughter took to school a picture of her holding the one month old cub. And her friends said, “We also have these. We got it from Style Plus.”
Joe refers to the lions as his kids. They never hurt him in any way. Except perhaps the marks on his arms that a ‘playful lion’ has left. The whole schedule is a very satisfying experience for Joe. He says: “It is a very nice feeling to know that you have saved a creature, which otherwise had no chance of survival. However, sometimes you get too attached to them. And when they die, you are depressed.” Both lions had problems related to in-breeding, and died this year.
He was also part of the squad which trans-located 65 crocodiles from Neyyar to Parambikulam. As a vet, he does not have to actually handle the animals. There are trained animal handlers for the job. But then, why does he do it? He loves his ‘pets’. Apart from lions and tigers, Joe has hand-reared one Sambar deer, one Malabar Giant Squirrel, and a few birds. Right now he is looking after a Gaur, which is a type of wild buffalo. It was found by forest rangers and at five months, which is already the size of a cow. It is expected to grow into a 700 kilo beast.
Joe has had a few close calls with the wild. Once, a hippo chased him around its cage. He escaped by jumping into the moat at the Trivandrum zoo. Another time, he sedated an African Cape buffalo and was about to administer medicine to it. As he bent down, it raised its head, and its horn scraped his neck. Another inch closer and it would have been through his throat. Another time, a leopard put its paw out and whacked his shoulder. It tore his jacket and shirt and bruised him badly.
Joe’s favourite animals are the big cats. But the ones he is wary of are much smaller. “The deer maybe small, but they are too fast and panicky,” he says. “If they panic the whole herd might run over you.” The porcupines are also best left alone. One attack could put as much as 60 spines right through you. And the creature he most stays away from? The King Cobra. “It is lethal. There is no anti-venom.”
Is there a principle behind dealing with dangerous creatures? “You have
to be aware that these are very powerful animals,” says Joe. “They can
kill you anytime. They are choosing not to. Once you become
overconfident, you are gone. You cannot trust them when they are in
Joe is not happy with the politics involved in the
department. His superiors are mostly political appointments who turn out
to be people who know nothing about animals. It becomes totally chaotic
when these people issue the orders on what to do. Which is why, Joe—a
hero in all terms of the word—will soon be calling it quits as a vet and
going back to his other love—flying.
By Syam Nath