About Ah Meng

One of the celebrities to meet Ah Meng was the late "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, who met her in 2003.
One of the celebrities to meet Ah Meng was the late "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, who met her in 2003.ST FILE PHOTO

Even though eight years have passed since Ah Meng died, the zoo icon has not been forgotten.

"When we do feedings, sometimes, people still come shouting her name," said its former keeper Alagappasamy "Sam" Chellaiyah, 65.

Now a zoology specialist, Mr Chellaiyah was one of Ah Meng's main carers. The primate was moved to Singapore Zoo in November 1971 after being confiscated from a family which kept it as a pet.

It was a year before Ah Meng could meet strangers. Its first visit was to executive chairman Ong Swee Law. They got on so well that the late Dr Ong wanted to take it to board meetings.

It shot into the limelight when the zoo set up its Breakfast With Ah Meng series in 1982, letting visitors share a meal and take photos with the ape.

Ah Meng became especially popular when it became a mother as it was very friendly and let visitors touch it and its babies. "Even if someone pulled out her hair by accident, she would not show anger, she would just look at me as if to say 'Sam, what's going on?'" said Mr Chellaiyah.

As the poster girl for the wildlife reserve, Ah Meng featured in almost 30 travel films, met royalty - Britain's Prince Philip - and celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin. It was the first non-human to receive a "Special Tourism Ambassador" award in 1992.

Ah Meng died on Feb 8, 2008 of old age. It was about 48 years old. "I was stunned by the number of people who came with flowers to the funeral," said Mr Chellaiyah. "When I hear people call her name now, I feel a bit emotional. It was the right decision to have someone take over the name."

Joanna Seow

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2016, with the headline 'About Ah Meng'. Print Edition | Subscribe