When profession rimes with passion…
Soham Mukherjee is a professional herpetologist who works closely with incredible (yet very unpredictable) animals: crocodiles, snakes and arachnids. While he is not based in Africa he still gets to handle African species, especially West African Dwarf Crocodiles and Nile crocs.
Soham is kind enough to share his passion for animals with us: I’m sure you’ll thoroughly enjoy this interview! 🙂
1. Soham, tell us a little about yourself/your personal background?
Zoo was the most interesting thing that happened to me at the age of 3 years. I was so obsessed that I had to be taken there almost every day for a visit! I would spend a lot of time observing each animal so my parents, aunt and granny used to take turns taking me to the zoo. It was such a pain for them to spend 3-4 hours carrying me around.
I grew up in Ahmedabad city in Gujarat state (India). Our earlier house was in a densely populated residential area in the city. The only wildlife around were squirrels, pigeons, kites, crows and ants. Watching ants was my favorite pastime!
We shifted to a new house which was then in the middle of nowhere and that’s when I advanced to the next level. Our house was surrounded by fields; full of snakes, monitors, scorpions, birds, mongooses and a lot more. It was like a giant walk-through enclosure housing multiple species.
Our house was often visited by snakes and that’s where I caught my first snake, a Bungarus caeruleus (Common Krait). I was 12. Young and crazy!
I started collecting snakes, monitors and later on scorpions for my own little ‘room-zoo’. I only got crazier as I grew up, with more and more animals. I had started ‘rescuing’ people by removing unwanted snakes from their property. Good looking specimens always had a vivarium ready for a comfortable stay!
At age 17 I figured I was getting rather good at captive management of animals. At this time I had 44 species of animals including snakes, lizards, amphibians, turtles, tortoises, arachnids, birds and small mammals. The best part – my parents didn’t know about this! 🙂
So now I thought why not put this experience to some good use. This is when I joined a wildlife rehabilitation centre, and later, headed the same (this is when I came to know that most of the animals that I was keeping were protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of India! Oops!). I bunked college to work at the rehab centre.
Working here gave me huge opportunities to work with a wide variety of animals and some really awesome people from HSI, BNHS and ZSL who helped me set up standard protocols for wildlife rehab at the centre.
I worked shortly with an outdoor adventure based learning company (ANALA Outdoors), Centre for Environment Education and the Ahmedabad Zoo. I realized that nothing excites me more than reptiles, especially snakes, and I have since been full time in love with them!
2. Where are you based?
Currently I am based at The Madras Crocodile Bank near Chennai, South India, where I work.
3. What is your profession?
I’m proud to say that my passion is my profession! I work at the Madras Crocodile Bank (thanks to Gerry Martin and Rom Whitaker) working with my favorite animals. I basically do my bit in the captive management of animals here, help with some in-house research and some education work. One of my favorite perks is the opportunity to train crocodiles as a part of their behavioral enrichment program and management strategy.
4. What made you fall in love with exotic animals? At what age? Have you always wanted to do what you do today?
I was always into animals but unfortunately in India there’s little scope of working with exotic animals except for some birds. Exotic animals as pets are still in its primary stage. Most of the animals that I have worked with are native to India. It is only now that I get a chance to work with some exotic crocodile species at the Croc Bank. As I mentioned earlier, I was 3 when I fell in love with the zoo holding both exotic and native animals!
People often ask what inspired me or what motivated me to get into this. I find it difficult to answer this because there wasn’t anything like that!! I instinctively (that’s the closest word to describe it!) got into this. And yes, I always wanted to do (this and more!) what I do today. I left my degree in computer applications for this!
5. Why herping and not something else? What’s so special about such animals?
Herps are surely on top of the list but the list is long! I love herps because they are one of the most difficult animals to understand and I love to explore their lives. You keep on learning new things all the time. With every new discovery, you are left with a world full of speculations. It is endless!
6. Take us on a typical day at work…what do you do?
Well, I start my day with a walk around the park, assessing the animals and any specific enclosure needs. With around 2500 reptiles (mostly crocs), there’s always something to be done. After the round, I go to my office to respond to loads of emails regarding animal exchange programs, herp husbandry inquiries, reptile rescue/release issues, career in herpetology inquiries, identification inquiries, etc. I also maintain the animal records in a software by International Species Information System.
I also participate in egg collection (awesome fun, especially with Salties, Siamese and Nile crocs!), processing and incubation. Neonatal management during the hatching season requires special attention. I do some enclosure enrichment when needed.
Post lunch, it’s time for croc training sessions! I am now working with 26 individuals of 10 species. The training program is part of the behavioral enrichment for crocs (and for me 🙂 ). I end my day with feeding the Draceana guianensis (Caiman Lizards) and some selective feeding to individuals that need special care.
Apart from this, I supervise some of the ongoing research projects and help with the education programs. Occasionally, I assist our veterinarian with treatment.
7. Do you ever get scared about your daily activities (I’d certainly be scared… 🙂 )?
Oh ya! Crocs and venomous snakes are potentially dangerous animals to work with. It is the fear that keeps me on high alert when I am working close with them. The moment you lose the fear and start acting rather casual, you are a threat to yourself.
8. Any stories or anecdotes you’d like to share with us?
There are loads and loads of super interesting things to share! I could keep on writing forever. However, I’d surely like to share a couple at least.
We have always known Gharials as exclusively fish-eaters but I was fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time to photo-document a Gharial catching and eating a Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). This is probably the only photo-documentation ever! I was so amazed and exciting to witness this.
Once I had caught a Xenochrophis piscator (Checkered Keelback) and thought I’d killed it. Later I figured that the snake had mastered the art of letisimulation (playing dead!). This is again the only record for this species and I got it on video! And then of course there’s this whole thing about crocodile training. I was once laughing at the concept and now I am the biggest supporter. It is unbelievable how intelligent they are and how fast they learn.
9. Any accidents while handling animals perhaps (nothing serious I hope), or situations where things got a little shaky (out of hands…)?
Only once! I got nailed by a Naja naja (Spectacled Cobra) back in 2006. I was in a hurry and it was a dark rainy night. This won’t happen again as I know what went wrong and I’ll never let it happen again.
10. Some people are supposedly capable of communicating with animals. Do you consider yourself one of them? If so how do you do it… special gift?
Most of the animals that I have worked are not very expressive, especially reptiles. But there isn’t a lack of communication. It is just a bit subtle. A lot of it depends on your ability to read their body language.
It is kind of strange because I myself don’t know how I do it; maybe it is a special gift!
11. Do animals recognize you as a person/can they sense your presence (recall your voice, etc.)?
When you keep a distance in terms of interacting with the animals, they don’t really feel the need to recognize you but when you work closely with them, I do feel (and I am sure of it) that they recognize you and in some cases, respect you.
You would probably know that mammals positively recognize people but I have found the same with birds of prey, crocs, monitor lizards, water birds, etc. while training them. They recognize the trainer by physical appearance and voice.
12. Anything else you’d like to tell us? Advice for people who’d like to pursue the same kind of path?
You need pure passion to pursue this path and if you have the passion, you wouldn’t need my advice For people who are still in the process of figuring out what they want to do, the best thing is experience it at least once before you get into it. This will help you decide if your decision is the right one.
Thank you Soham! 🙂
Visit his blog!