R. Devadoss feeds a a cheetah at the Dubai Zoo, with Dr Reza Khan. Devadoss passed away in India this week. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Dubai: An Indian zookeeper, who reared big cats and other wild animals at Dubai Zoo for 32 years till 2017, has been remembered for his immense contributions after his death this week.

R. Devadoss, who hailed from the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry, succumbed to COVID-19 complications in his hometown, his family said. “My father passed away on Tuesday night,” his only son Madhan told Gulf News over the phone from Karaikal in Puducherry. “We hoped to save him. But, unfortunately, he couldn’t make it as his lungs were badly affected and his body was not responding to medicines.”

The 23 — year-old game designing student said he and his mother Senthamarai had also contracted COVID-19 and quarantined themselves.

Colleagues in shock

Dubai’s wildlife specialist Dr. Reza Khan was one of the first to reach out to the bereaved family, offering his condolences and paying tributes to his former employee. Currently on vacation in his hometown in Bangladesh, Dr Reza said on WhatsApp that he had received calls from former colleagues of Devadoss after they got to know about his demise. “All of us are dearly missing him. We are in deep shock.”

Dr Reza Khan with Devadoss. Image Credit: Supplied

Dr Reza said Devadoss was one of the finest human beings he had seen and one of the most trusted zookeepers at Dubai Zoo. “We have lost a valuable family friend and an obedient employee. May Almighty rest him in peace and his son Madhan, wife and other relatives gather enough courage to overcome this great loss and a difficult time,” he posted on Facebook.

He also shared an endearing photo with Devadoss which was taken during the 60th birthday celebration of Dr Reza.

Face of zookeepers in UAE

Dr Reza recalled how Devadoss had once become the face of zookeepers in the UAE. “Gulf News’ Friday magazine did a cover story on the people who work at the zoos in the UAE in 2002. They interviewed all of us and the cover page of that edition of the magazine carried the photo of Devadoss feeding a lion cub.”

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The Friday magazine cover featuring Devasdoss. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Some of the photos taken for the cover story titled “Behind the Cage: Of bonding between animals and keepers in UAE zoos” showed Devadoss coolly feeding and playing with the lion cub named Mina and other wild animals at Dubai Zoo.

In the interview, he said he was performing the twin job of a storekeeper and that of a keeper of baby animals in the zoo.

Never scared

He said he had decided to apply for the zookeepers post in Dubai to support his family including his younger siblings. “ … in our village back home, we have always lived in proximity to animals and served them. From day one, I never felt scared of going near the [big] cats because most of them were born here and I have seen them grow up. They recognise me. I have cared for at least six lions and four cheetahs. I have a great love for all animals,” he said in the interview published in October 2002.

Devadoss feeds a lion cub at the Dubai Zoo. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

“I understand [big] cats very well. They do get angry at times, but they never attack with the intention to hurt. I feel I was made for this job and feel like a mother to them,” he added.

Dubai tales

Sharing his memories with his father, Madhan said: “He was a normal person. Very kind. Everyone liked him. His aim was only to work and take care of the animals. He was only sad that could not work in Dubai Safari when it opened soon after his retirement.”

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The late R. Devadoss with his wife Senthamarai and son Madhan. Image Credit: Supplied

“He used to come home for a month every year. He would tell us the stories about the zoo, the animals, the doctor and his family who lived in the zoo villa. He loved all the animals. He would always talk about the gorilla, the tiger, the lion.”

Devadoss and his fellow zookeepers also used to live in their accommodation inside the zoo. Post his retirement, the family told him not to pursue anything else, said Madhan. “He had worked hard in the zoo for several years. We wanted him to take rest.”

Family treasure

He said the Friday magazine cover page was a family treasure. “We framed that magazine cover page. We have also kept some of his pictures from the zoo safely.”

He said the family had a plan to visit Dubai last year. “But, that had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope I can bring my mother over to Dubai one day and we can see the area of the old zoo and visit Dubai Safari.”