Learning the quirks of four koalas at Singapore Zoo

Ms Rubiah Ismail posing with an optical illusion that makes people look like they are climbing a tree (above) and sorting out eucalyptus leaves for the koalas to consume. She is one of three keepers at Singapore Zoo who have been caring for the koala
Ms Rubiah Ismail posing with an optical illusion that makes people look like they are climbing a tree (above) and sorting out eucalyptus leaves for the koalas to consume. She is one of three keepers at Singapore Zoo who have been caring for the koalas. -- ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Idalia (above), the youngest of the four koalas, enjoys exploring new places. The koalas are on loan from Australia for six months.
Idalia (above), the youngest of the four koalas, enjoys exploring new places. The koalas are on loan from Australia for six months.ST FILE PHOTO
Idalia (above), the youngest of the four koalas, enjoys exploring new places. The koalas are on loan from Australia for six months. -- ST FILE PHOTO
Idalia (above), the youngest of the four koalas, enjoys exploring new places. The koalas are on loan from Australia for six months. -- ST FILE PHOTO

Zoo's assistant curator was taught in Brisbane how to care for the animals

PADDLE is a fussy eater, Chan likes being alone, Pellita has a princess complex and Idalia, the youngest of the four, likes to explore new places.

The koalas - Singapore Zoo's latest additions - have distinct temperaments that Ms Rubiah Ismail, 49, has come to know well.

The assistant curator at the zoo is one of three keepers who have been caring for the furry quartet since their arrival on April 13. They are on loan from Australia for six months and are now housed in the zoo's quarantine facility until later this month.

Ms Rubiah had spent two months at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane, Australia, where the koalas hail from, to learn how to care for them.

At Lone Pine, she was taught how to handle the koalas, using a koala plush toy for training.

In her second week there, she finally carried a real koala for the first time.

She said: "Koalas look cuddly and strong, so I didn't expect them to be so heavy."

The female koalas weighed 4kg to 6kg, while the males could weigh up to 8kg.

The koalas were trained to sit only on a human's left arm, which left Ms Rubiah with an aching arm and back.

At the sanctuary, Ms Rubiah also observed how each of the more than 100 koalas was weighed, a process that took two hours daily. A weight loss of more than 250g overnight could signal that something is wrong with the koala.

In Singapore, caring for the marsupials includes checking their faeces daily, said Ms Rubiah, who has been with the zoo for the past 27 years and was its first female keeper.

Her love for animals stemmed from her childhood spent at a kampung, where she would help her older brother care for baby birds left homeless after rainstorms.

When she was 22, Ms Rubiah applied to work as a junior keeper at the zoo. While others got the job after one interview, she had to go for three before she was hired.

"At that time, there were no female keepers," she recalled.

Since then, she has worked with a variety of animals, such as zebras, otters, penguins, gibbons and sun bears.

On one occasion, she was chased by a wayward tapir around an enclosure .

But the koalas, which eat nothing but eucalyptus leaves, were a new challenge for her.

When it comes to feeding, Paddle likes only one type of leaves while Pellita loves to be handfed. Pellita would also stare at the keepers if they feed its peers before it, as if to say "you have to feed me first", said Ms Rubiah.

The Singapore Zoo brings in five types of eucalyptus leaves from Lone Pine and another three types from Thailand for the koalas.

The enclosure for the marsupials, which sleep 18 to 20 hours a day, will be opened to the public later this month.

Ms Rubiah has this advice for visitors: "Although the koalas are sleeping, they will get up and look around.

"It's best not to make a lot of noise as sudden noises will scare and stress them."

mellinjm@sph.com.sg