We bought a zoo: Singapore's small havens for wild animals

Mr W.L.S. Basapa with his pet Bengal tiger Apay, which followed him around like a dog, at the pre-war zoo in Punggol. PHOTO: LAWRENCE BASAPA

SINGAPORE - Did you know there was a "miniature zoo" in Pasir Panjang?

The zoo, which was opened by Mr Tong Seng Mun in 1957, was home to animals such as lions, bears, a camel, a rhinoceros and multiple birds of paradise.

More than 70 rare photographs of the miniature zoo have been shared with the National Heritage Board (NHB) for documentation and archiving.

And it's not the only private zoo in Singapore back in the early days when the wildlife trade was unregulated.

Singapore was home to private and public zoos from as early as the mid-1800s. They were especially popular in post-war Singapore due to a better economic outlook and the demand for new attractions.

The island was also a wildlife trading hub, which contributed to the number of zoos here.

Some zookeepers, for instance, started out as wildlife tradesmen. They imported tropical freshwater fish, birds and reptiles from countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. They would then export them to zoos, aquariums and research laboratories in Europe, America and Japan.

The enterprising ones like Mr Tong set up miniature zoos and opened them to the public for viewing for a small admission fee.

Apart from the late Mr Tong's zoo, the NHB has identified five other menageries so far. Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's group director of policy, believes more may be out there and encourages anyone with photos and stories to approach the board.

These are five of Singapore's early zoos as identified by NHB:

Whampoa Gardens Private Zoo

During the mid-1800s, Singapore pioneer Hoo Ah Kay displayed rare animal and bird species at his mansion at Whampoa Gardens in Serangoon. The collection was open to the public on occasions such as Chinese New Year but this practice was stopped after a visitor killed one of the birds.

Singapore Botanical Gardens' Miniature Zoo

The miniature zoo within the Singapore Botanical Gardens was set up towards the end of the 19th century. It was criticised for its "smelliness and lack of representative specimens". It closed in the early 1900s after a cut in government funding.

Punggol Zoo

Animal lover William Lawrence Soma Basapa established the Punggol Zoo in 1928. It had a collection of 200 animals and 2,000 birds. It was shut down before World War II.

Tampines Zoo

Located off Tampines road, the zoo was started in 1954 by someone called "LF de Jong". According to a newspaper report, it housed 100 cassowaries, tapirs, leopards, gibbons, crocodiles and snakes.

Second Punggol Zoo

Called the Singapore Zoo, the private zoo was opened in 1963 by the Chan brothers. One of the Chans, Mr Chan Kim Suan, was a local landowner and animal lover. The zoo went bankrupt in the early 1970s and the animals and birds in the zoo were auctioned off.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.