Publish Date: Sunday,11 February, 2007, at 08:27 AM Doha Time
By Arvind Nair
THE FREAKY friendship between an Axis deer and an African lion at the Doha Zoo is flourishing well, despite their disparate behaviours.
There is as much in common between the lion cub, which was born on February 7 last year, and the young deer, which turned one on Friday, as there is between a chock and cheese, or between the Himalayas and the Sahara desert.
Since the dalliance between the two is unnatural it is fraught with potential dangers. One is a predator while the other is always the prey. One is a carnivore while the other relishes leaves and grass as a repast. One is aggressive in nature while the other as docile as, well, a deer.
One is considered the king of the jungle while the other is one of the most obedient of subjects. But that is in the jungle. Here they are like bosom buddies on an equal footing.
Their keeper Bhoreel Mukhya Yadav, a Nepali, calls the cub Chottu (youngster in Hindi), while the deer is named Fantu. Chottu is male while Fantu is female.
As both the animals celebrated their first birthday together this weekend, they are sometimes beginning to show their true “colours”, says Dr Abubacker Hamoda, the veteran veterinarian at the facility, who has been keeping a close eye on the playful youngsters.
Chottu, which is growing up to be a handsome animal, mane and all, sometimes tries to bare its teeth. Fantu, extremely conscious of her own good looks, usually dismisses such a behaviour with a dainty disdain, while of course dodging the fangs. In return, it gives a nudge to the cub with her stiff upper lip.
Despite their disparate backgrounds, there are a few things that bind them together. Both are of the same age, and both are born in captivity to mothers who are long-time inmates of the zoo.
But, perhaps the strongest connection that bonds them together is something else: both Chottu and Fantu had been abandoned by their respective mothers not long after they were born. Since then, their guardian has been Bhoreel, who has been at the zoo for 12 years.
Of course, Bhoreel receives guidance from Dr Abubacker and the zoo in-charge Hamad Saleh al-Yazeedi, who is as fascinated by the alliance as the hundreds of visitors every day.
Because they belong to different environments, they are now separated at night, Dr Abubacker explains. During the day, they mostly share the same paddock, though the veterinarian doesn’t like the idea much. “The deer likes an open, grassy environment while the cub loves to be on dry, hard surfaces,” he said.
“But, we are doing our best and trying to create a dual-purpose accommodation with a sand bed inside the paddock for the deer,” he said.
At night, the Axis deer is removed to another enclosure. In fact, they are left together only when they are watched by the keeper.
Chottu can hurt his buddy unwittingly, Dr Abubacker points out. The lion cub might be just gambolling with the kid but since he has strong paws and sharp teeth, there is a potential danger.
However, Chottu is less aggressive compared with a female cub, according to the veterinarian and the keeper. The she lions are more ferocious, they add.
They don’t know how long the two will continue their strange relationship. “We are keeping a close watch”, Dr Abubacker said. You never know when the lion takes a fancy for some fresh deer meat and goes for Fantu’s jugular. That will be a sad day for the zoo.
Keeping the two young animals together is an experiment, according al-Yazeedi, the zoo chief. They want to see how long the predator and the prey could continue to be friends.
They have already outlived the expectations of their keeper who eight months ago said the two animals might be separated five months ago.
The Axis deer can be traced to the foothills of the Indian Himalayas and Sri Lanka. Their original habitat was open country at lower elevations in forested regions.
They inhabit secondary forests or open forests with glades and an undergrowth of grasses and shrubs.