Iconic Singapore Zoo celebrates its 40th birthday

Despite hard lessons along the way, zoo is now one of the world's best

THE thought of a panther or bears escaping from the Singapore Zoo - regarded as one of the top zoos in the world today - and its staff keeping quiet about it may be hard to fathom now.

Yet that was exactly what happened 40 years ago, when its staff were still inexperienced, said one of the zoo's pioneer zookeepers, Mr Alagappasamy Chellaiyah.

But the iconic zoo, which celebrates its 40th birthday today, has come a long way, he added.

The 62-year-old, who joined the zoo in 1971 and is now the assistant director of zoology, recalled when two sun bears and a black panther escaped about four months before the zoo opened its doors to the public in June 1973.

"When the sun bears escaped, we didn't tell anyone. We thought it was okay, the whole area was forested," said Mr Alagappasamy. "Then a few days later, the black panther escaped."

That created an uproar and sparked a massive hunt, which included the army and police, for the large cat. On the second day of the panther's escape, officers shot at a black animal in the forest, thinking it was the panther. But it turned out to be one of the escaped sun bears, which the zookeepers had kept mum about.

"So the officers called all the zoology staff, about eight of us, to sit down and tell them the list of escaped animals," Mr Alagappasamy said. "Those were my saddest days. That was the time I nearly wanted to quit."

It was the zoo's famous orang utan, Ah Meng, who got him to stay on in the job. He was her keeper for 37 years until the primate's death in 2008.

When he was in Germany for three months in 1981, a fellow zookeeper told him that Ah Meng was not eating well and would climb to the highest tree branch, seemingly looking for him.

Mr Alagappasamy said: "Animals would do that. That's the beauty of the job. That's the reason I stayed here for so long."

But learning how to handle the animals was neither easy nor painless. He recalled being bitten by a male orang utan and needing 18 stitches.

"I was feeding a female who was in heat. The male thought that I was a threat to his love affair," he said. "We practically learnt everything the hard way."

But the animal escapes and injuries were all lessons learnt, and helped to introduce safety protocols that are still in place today.

For example, keepers enter an exhibit facing the animals so they can judge their mood and retreat if the creatures look upset.

Now, the 26ha zoo, which attracts 1.7 million visitors annually, has knowledgeable zoologists and horticulturists helping to run it, Mr Alagappasamy said.

The Singapore Zoo, which has over 2,800 animal specimens from over 300 species, has always been different from its more traditional counterparts, said Ms Claire Chiang, chairman of Wildlife Reserves Singapore, the zoo's parent company. "We were among the first to exhibit our animals in open-concept habitats."

In the future, she envisions the zoo becoming an edu-tainment complex "characterised by interactive learning and immersive experience".

The zoo, she revealed, is currently in the process of acquiring some new species of monkeys and lemurs from South America and Madagascar respectively to add to its tropical primate collection.

But some things cannot be replaced, said Mr Alagappasamy, referring to Ah Meng and calling the first day he met her back in 1971 the "happiest in my career".

"She changed my life."