Archive for January, 2022

By Sriya Narayanan

Note: Please see the note below about the photos. – Editor

He was labeled a serial trouble-maker and a boy practically incapable of being a classroom-learner. He was repeatedly bounced around between schools for getting into mischief. “It came to a point where he didn’t want to go to school anymore. This is when the parents heard of us and brought him here,” says Niraja S, Chief Psychologist at Saraswathi Kendra Learning Centre. The boy she is referring to is Vignesh*, a child she holds up as a prime example of what happens when a ‘difficult’ label sticks.

Niraja and the devoted teachers of Saraswathi Kendra work hard at making learning accessible and conducive to the special needs of children on the autism spectrum, those with speech and motor delays, and also children with deep-seated behavioural issues or phobias. The staff uses a wide range of techniques including the critically acclaimed therapy dog programme that recruits rescue dogs from the Blue Cross of India, to be a medium between these children and the rest of the world. Boys like Vignesh, who find the mainstream school environment unable to provide what they need, find themselves at Saraswathi Kendra, in the hopes that their learning journey can continue uninterrupted.

Far from treating students as ‘problem children’, the Saraswathi Kendra Learning Centre recognizes that they are simply children with unique challenges – and tremendous talents and abilities – that are deserving of our attention, patience and time. Niraja notes that creating a space of safety for children is one of the top priorities – evidence of which is seen in the gregarious affection that the children show for each other in the form of moral support and warm bear hugs, though the latter has not been possible since the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Alongside the child’s development, they also work closely with parents who battle challenges of their own – both in terms of their worry for the child’s academic prospects and also in terms of varying communication styles that are called for in these situations. This includes a parents’ support group, the option of private sessions with the psychologist, and in some cases, simply drawing their attention to the positive impact they’ve had on their children which they have not paused to congratulate themselves for. The psychologist also coaches parents about the power of positive reinforcement on a daily basis and works to normalize special education centres and the consulting of child psychologists in general. “We have to make people understand that these are perfectly acceptable things,” says Niraja, of the heartening trend in this direction.

In the first meeting with Vignesh’s family, Niraja learnt that the boy had an unhealthy fascination for insects, and that he would run after them constantly, often to the detriment of his studies. The then nine-year-old’s anxious eyes would frequently dart upwards to the ceiling when a spider crawled by. Niraja, who had a hunch early on, that there was more to it than a case of ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder), recommended that he join the learning centre, and was determined to get to the root of the boy’s issues rather than take his earlier diagnosis at face value. She recalls Vignesh hiding behind his mother that day, terrified at the prospect of yet another unfamiliar environment.

Fortunately for him, this wasn’t the type of organization that treated both children and tests as standardized units. The Doctor Dog programme, for example, is designed to improve a child’s language and motor skills, while also giving them a chance to speak freely about the pressing issues that they often grow up with, hidden from everyone they know. “They would say ‘Ruffles (the dog) is listening to us’ and they’d end up talking to him about many things that they have never expressed, even to their parents, teachers or peers,” says Jayanthi S, teacher and special educator, referring to one of the furry team members from the Dr Dog programme who recently passed away. What follows after the occasional hesitation from children is a colourful eruption of conversation interwoven with stories, songs and secrets, and a human-canine bond that transcends the need for verbal responses. Today, the resident doctor is Tulsi, a mongrel with a gentle soul, who underwent significant physical abuse before being rescued by the Blue Cross of India. Tulsi the survivor pays it forward by bearing witness to the intensely private agonies of special needs children.

Alongside the therapy dog programme, Niraja also conducts daily ‘Circle Time’ in the Sensory Room with the students, by gathering them in a group to enhance self-esteem, motor and sensory skills: a time when they are free to be themselves, minus the trap of the ‘should-and-must’ environment that so often threatens a child’s very sense of self.

She observes that diagnoses such as learning disability could sometimes cause children to internalize society’s misconceptions about their abilities and future prospects. “A child who is currently unable to write might be better at expressing their thoughts through storytelling, music or art, for example,” she says, noting that the key is to shower them with motivation and encourage them to make baby steps towards their other goals. “Creativity comes with freedom,” she says, revealing that a culture of unhealthy competition and comparison, while dangerous for all young people in general, is particularly damaging to a child with special education needs. It leads to them masking their pain which sometimes manifests in anger or rebellion – things that are further misunderstood by society.

Vignesh’s story was a case in point. In his early days at Saraswathi Kendra, Vignesh’s emotional distress played out in the form of almost daily outbursts. He frequently grabbed his classmates’ things and flung them out the window, watching eagerly for any kind of reaction. His artwork for class, while highly creative, had tinges of violence in every frame. Instantly recognizing his behaviour as a misguided cry for attention, Niraja made it a point to look for him every morning at the assembly and acknowledge his presence specifically. “That one glance gave him what he needed,” she recalls with a smile. Vignesh also participated, albeit half-heartedly at first, in group therapy and pet therapy. Over a period of time, he began to wander over to Niraja’s office to peep at her shyly while she was at work at her desk.

“It took a long time to build that rapport,” she admits, adding that on many occasions, she stayed back after hours to watch over his homework. Students and teachers alike continued to praise, applaud and acknowledge him during group sessions. Niraja simultaneously gave him an exercise in empathy when she informed him that every time he willfully damaged another child’s property, the same thing would need to be done to him by the aggrieved child in return. The cumulative impact of this multi-pronged approach led to Vignesh gradually and permanently abandoning his disruptive behaviour. Further, the more he became engrossed in academic pursuits, the less he seemed to care about the insects around him. His handwriting graduated quickly from barely decipherable scribbles to legible, fluent sentences that showed delightful literary flourishes and a fertile imagination.

“All that remained was the insects,” says Niraja, referring to the only problem that had improved considerably but still lingered. One day, in a freewheeling conversation about everyday things with Niraja, Vignesh began to open up about how he was bullied in the past, and how he became an easy target for blame, once the ‘trouble-maker’ label stuck. The young boy revealed how it led to him displaying bullying behaviour himself.

“Finally, as we delved deeper into his difficult past, he mentioned overhearing a conversation years ago between his grandparents at home. They were chatting casually about how termites tend to eat up everything. In his innocent mind, he translated that to mean that they were in his home, coming for his toys, the roof over his head, everything! This led to him wanting to go after insects. I was able to convince him that termites are a manageable problem if and when they do occur,” says Niraja. She encouraged Vignesh to observe insects in their natural habitat and see the wonder of their beauty rather than being afraid of them to the point of obsession. She also managed to trace the characters in his violent drawings to an unpleasant experience he had experienced as a child when he visited a local Horror House for kids featuring spooky creatures.

“Diagnoses require deep work,” she says, referring to how seemingly small incidents can imprint themselves on impressionable minds, leading to a negative impact later in their lives. Vignesh, finally free of his mental burdens, soon began to create magical art that was about reconciliation and heroism. His comics today often feature his loving grandfather who recently passed away.

“Vignesh has incredible potential,” says Niraja, proudly displaying a thick sheaf of papers that contain pages and pages of his original writing, adding that the boy is now, at age 11, a gifted and confident orator as well. “The tag he was given was ADHD,” she says. “Rather than focusing solely on these labels and discounting a child’s unique experiences, we should look at them as individuals, human beings and most importantly, as souls. That’s the only way our own eyes will open up to what a child is capable of”.

* Names and certain other identifying details changed to protect the privacy of the child

Note: The photos were taken earlier before the pandemic. Now Saraswathi Kendra has re-opened again after covid. When it is open, masks and vaccinations are required.

Photos: Sharon St Joan

The Saraswathi Kendra Learning Centre is run by the Ramaswami Foundation, in Chennai, India – a charity that Forest Voices of India, a U.S. based organization, helps support.

Thank you for your kindness, your interest, and your support for the good work that they do!

Photo credit: WRRC

In Bangalore, in south India, following a recent cricket match, fans of the winning team set off loud bursts of firecrackers to celebrate.

Around dark, Anand Nair, Supervisor of the WRRC center (the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre – Bangalore), received a call from caring people in an apartment complex, saying that they had found a young barn owl, who seemed disoriented, confused, and unable to fly. Apparently, she had been very frightened by the loud, startling sounds and couldn’t fly back to her usual roosting area.

Anand asked the people to approach the owl carefully, holding a towel in front of them and then to wrap the towel around her gently in order to restrain her, then place her in a cardboard box.
He had also asked them to put a few air holes in the box before putting the owl into it, and once the owl was inside the box to tape the box securely and put it in a quiet, dark place, then wait until the WRRC could send a transporter to pick up the owl and bring her to their center for treatment. The kind people, with great care, were able to do all this successfully, so that the owl, once inside the dark box, could begin to calm down a bit.

When, a little later, the owl arrived at the WRRC Centre, with gentle secure handling, they were able to cover her face to reduce her stress. And after a short while, they were able to weigh her. She weighed 330 grams.

They gave her a physical exam and treated a few superficial injuries, then placed her in a sky kennel for further observation and recuperation. In the south of India, it can be cool at night in the winter, and not being warm enough would only slow down recovery time, so they placed a heating pad near the owl to keep her warm during the night.

Very soon she was feeling better and could be shifted to an owl aviary to check her flying ability. Dr. Roopa Satish, the chief veterinarian and licensed wildlife rehabilitator, kept a good eye on her progress.

Initially she just hobbled from one branch to the next but soon was gliding effortlessly and silently in the aviary.

As soon as the relevant permission has been received from the Forest Department, she’ll be taken back to her home range and be released at dusk in the presence of the forest officials and her human friends from the apartment complex.

Even though none of us can stop all loud noises and bright lights in a city, the more we can each remember to think about the birds that are all around us, wherever we may live, the greater chance we may have to remind others about birds, so we can all learn to be thoughtful of the birds who live among us, often unseen and unnoticed.

Barn owls are found all over the world.

This barn owl has recovered and will have a good chance to live a long happy life, thanks to the kindness and quick action of all the people who cared about her wellbeing.

It was after midnight, on November 14 of last year, when Anand and Kiran gently picked up the first star tortoise to weigh her.

After her long ordeal of so much travel, she looked dazed and not too well. Anand Nair, the Supervisor of the WRRC Centre, and Kiran, the night caregiver, took great care while moving her and treating her.

Catching a poacher

Earlier that evening, the police, acting on a tip, had been waiting at the bus station in one of the most congested parts of the city of Bangalore, in south India. Tipped off, they were waiting for a poacher and caught him red-handed with his live cargo at the bus station as he got off the bus from the neighboring state, Tamil Nadu. While some of the police officers arrested the poacher and led him away, the other officers got on to a bus, carrying the bags of tortoises and arrived at the WRRC Centre (Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre) well after midnight. They got the tortoises as quickly as they could to the WRRC, but it was a long day for the officers – and even longer for the tortoises.

No wonder the first tortoise and all the others to follow were feeling dazed and disoriented. They’d been packed tightly into baggage without enough air or space, and no water. There were several hundred of them.

Sadly, over the next week, despite the best efforts of the caregivers at WRRC, a few of the tortoises died, unable to recover from the ordeal they had been through.

A long work-day

However, with the excellent care they received, all 531 of the remaining tortoises did fully recover. That November night, into the dawn hours, Anand and Kiran weighed each tortoise, recorded their weight, cleaned them off carefully, and rehydrated them. All this took nearly three hours.

Most of the tortoises weighed between 40 to 500 grams (from around one ounce – to just over one pound). Because it was November and quite cool for the stressed tortoises, heaters and heating pads were placed all around them to keep them warm through the rest of the night.

Like all cold-blooded animals, they need to keep warm when the weather is cold. After the physical examination, they were shifted to a large enclosure with feed like freshly grated vegetables: carrot, beetroot, sweet potato, cucumber, and greens like coriander. Wild grasses were also added to improve the variety.

Wildlife Protection in India

The poor, rural farmers who had caught the tortoises had been paid just ten rupees (13 U.S. cents) by the poacher for each tortoise.

The worldwide wildlife trade is a major catastrophe for the earth’s wildlife. Most captured wildlife do not survive, and the few that do are then sold illegally, often into the pet trade. Kept confined in unsuitable conditions, they will have lost their wild homes and may never again know the joy of living in the wild.

Fortunately, India, one of the richest countries on earth in terms of biodiversity, also has very enlightened wildlife laws, especially the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. It is illegal to capture wildlife.

Soon, on December 13, many of the 531 rescued tortoises had bounced back and were feeling healthy and well again. They were ready for release thanks to the expert care and the healthy diet provided by the WRRC; the others would be released a few weeks later, just as soon as they were ready.

Return to the deep forest

That December morning, Dr. Roopa Satish, Chief Veterinarian and licensed wildlife rehabilitator, took several of them deep into the forest to an ideal site, where there was water available, far enough into the forest to be at a great distance from any human activity. There, with great care, she picked up each tortoise and then set him or her down among the tall grass at the foot of trees. She chose each spot very carefully. Each tortoise hesitated a moment, then picked up his feet and slowly made his way off into the woods. Free at last, enjoying breathing the fresh air, each tortoise made her way into the brush where she could find native plants and insects to eat, smell the fresh breeze, and begin her life anew, wild, and free again.

A couple of weeks later, a second release took place for the remaining tortoises – hundreds of lives saved – each one an individual living being.

Thanks to the dedicated police work and to the experienced professional care they received at the WRRC Centre, the tortoises are back home in the wild again, with the rest of their lives ahead of them. They can enjoy strolling along on the grass, in the shade or in the sunlight, just as nature intended.

And thank you, as well, for your very kind support for the forest animals of India!

Photo Credit:

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The photo at the top is of a different tortoise, not one of the WRRC tortoises.

The video shows the actual WRRC tortoises.