“Breezy” Romulus Whitaker (KIS ’60) Lands Padma Shri for his Life’s Work
The Indian Government honored a fellow-Kodai School graduate Romulus Whitaker with a Padma Shri, one of the country’s highest civilian awards, for his nearly six decade-long career as a conservationist. Rom or “Breezy” as he is lovingly known among his contemporaries, has had a lifelong interest in reptiles, which he has pursued around the world, from his birthplace in New York to various parts of India, including, Agumbe, the Andoman and Nicobar Islands, Kodaikanal, Mumbai and finally, his home in Chengalpattu, just outside of Chennai.
Even as a young boy of four growing up in Garden City, New York, Breezy was fascinated by snakes. As Rom explains it, it was no different to him from how other kids are smitten by tops or marbles, or cars or trains. He liked to bring home various catches, including, the garter and milk snake varieties, common to the area in the suburb where he spent his early years. Rom says his mother encouraged his interest, buying him books on the subject and taking him to the New York Natural History Museum during their time in the United States.
Before long, the family to Mumbai, India, where his step-father was doing work in the color film-processing industry connected with Bollywood. And shortly thereafter, Rom and his sister, Gail, began attending Kodaikanal International School in Tamil Nadu.
Rom’s time in Kodaikanal only spurred his childhood interest. On weekends, he would head for Tope, Rat Tail or some other far-flung spot, getting away from the routine of campus life. He was known for bringing back a range of fauna from his hiking treks in the hills. Stories of Rom’s pets include a parrot he would bring to the dining hall for tea and a python which lived under his bed in the dorm, where he stayed.
Rom’s interest in wildlife continued to propel him, taking him back to the United States where among other things, he worked at the Miami Serpentarium in Florida alongside legendary snakeman, William Haast, learning from the man Rom affectionately referred to as the “guru.” Rom returned to India a few years later and established a small snake park, which would grow and become established in Guindy as the Chennai Snake Park, the first of its kind in India. Rom continued his efforts over the next few years extending them to the conservation of various species of crocodiles, culminating in the set-up of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology (the “Crocodile Bank”), a reptile zoo and herpetology research station just outside of Chennai.
Through his leadership and work on crocodiles and turtles at the Crocodile Bank, Rom would go onto establish the Anodman and Nicobar Environment Team, a research station focused on environmental sustainability in the famous Indian archipelago located in the Bay of Bengal; and then, the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, a field-based conservation effort in the Agumbe Reserved Forest in the central Western Ghats. Over the years, Rom has also been known for his work on the King Cobra as well as the Gharial, a fish-eating crocodile now considered to be a critically engendered species. Rom’s work has won him many accolades including an Emmy award for his critically acclaimed documentary about the Kind Cobra, produced for the National Geographic Channel’s Explorer program, entitled The King and I.
Rom jokingly refers to himself as a “rabid hippie conservationist,” and confidently reassures his audience that it is entirely a figment of their imagination. This was in a TEDIndia presentation back in 2009. After Rom’s talk covering the critical juncture of conservation efforts in India, he was asked, how he is so comfortable around what makes most people scared. He replied:
I take the sort of humble approach, I guess you could say. I don’t say that snakes are huggable exactly. It’s not like the teddy bear.… there is an innocence in these animals. And when the average person looks at a cobra going “Ssssss!” like that, they say, “My god, look at that angry, dangerous creature.” I look at it as a creature who is totally frightened of something so dangerous as a human being. And that is the truth. And that’s what I try to get out.
Rom, thank you for opening us to a new perspective. We can all be grateful for your special attitude and your devotion to the conservation of these creatures and their habitats in India.
– Stan Kuruvilla , Class of ’93