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A Day in the Life of a Zookeeper

July 21, 2014

Animal-uneducated melanie lee trains as a zookeeper at Singapore's Night Safari, and discovers the quirky charm of its nocturnal residents. Photographed by Darren Soh.

Published on Jul 21, 2014

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Phoenix, a muscular ball python from Africa, writhes around in my hands. "Being a keeper is all about mutual respect and trust between animals and humans," says Natalie Chan, a supervisor at Singapore's Night Safari. "The animals may not understand what you say, but they feel your energy and, as much as possible, you try to make them feel comfortable."

Phoenix, African Python
Phoenix the ball python picks up on human anxiety; this way to the egress?

My response? Yelping: "Help!" The python senses my unease and attempts to slither out of my hands.

Chan takes Phoenix and he immediately calms down and hangs off her arms in complete stillness. "He senses your nervousness," she tells me. "Animals are very good in picking up on anxiety." Translation: I have failed my initiation as a zookeeper.

For the second test, we head over to the owl enclosure. Rainbow, an American great horned owl who, according to Chan, "never acts up," squawks at my appearance, attempts to fly off when I try to carry her, and knocks over a bottle of disinfectant in the process.

Chan calms Rainbow down by stroking her feathers and whispering soothing apologies. I swear Rainbow then gives me a long, stern stare.

Rainbow, American great horned owl.
Rainbow the great horned owl "never acts up."

After my dismal performance with the python and the owl, Chan decides that I am not up to carrying either of these animals for the daily roving session at the Night Safari entrance. "You just help visitors take photos with these animals instead," assistant communications manager Natt Haniff says.

In the real zookeeper world, I would probably have been fired.

Luckily, I'm only doing a three-day stint behind the scenes at the 20-year-old Night Safari. The world's first nocturnal zoo and one of Singapore's most popular tourist destinations with 1.1 million visitors annually, the Night Safari is my go-to spot to bring friends from out of town because it presents an alternative side to the glitzy shopping mall image of this country. Yet, I'd always had the impression that the animals here—like most other living things in Singapore—were a well-disciplined lot. Everything always ran like clockwork: guided trams whizzed by every few minutes; there was an impeccable system of crowd control; and the animals, as if on cue, would be posing strategically in front of their exhibit areas precisely as carriages of trigger-happy visitors passed.

What I learned in my three short but enlightening days working at the Night Safari was that it's the diligent, big-hearted zookeepers that make the place tick. Under their care, the residents thrive. More than a third of the 2,500 animals here are considered threatened species and, in 2013 alone, 54 endangered animals of 11 species—including the Malayan tapir and the fishing cat from Southeast Asia—were bred and raised in the Night Safari. But it's not all about stats. The keepers' passion for animals is apparent as they regale me with tales of flatulent zebras and pampered giraffes who refuse to eat wet leaves.

"IS THAT A LEOPARD?" I ask Chan as I catch a glimpse of a yellow creature with black spots in the distance.

A stealthy Sri Lankan leopard.

"It's a spotted hyena," she replies with a chuckle, and then mutters to her two colleagues, "Boy, are we in for a long afternoon!"

Okay, it's true. I know precious little about the animal kingdom. I'm charging ahead with this mini-internship partly to better understand Gandhi's line, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." Wildlife Reserves Singapore runs extensive conservation efforts via captive breeding, animal research and public education programs at its institutions: the Singapore Zoo, Jurong Bird Park and the River Safari, as well as the Night Safari—which is composed of spacious, natural habitats open after dark to give visitors a chance to see the mostly nocturnal tropical mammals at their most active.

And sometimes at their most sassy. My favorite "night owl" is actually a binturong, a dark brown, furry bearcat from Indonesia named Aslan who loves posing on top of my head. He craves attention so much, Chan says, that he tends to linger during his high-wire performance in the Creatures of the Night show. The longer he can bask in the spotlight, the better.

Aslan loves posing on our author's head

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