Hanging these up, for now: my nametag, clicker and whistle.
I started work at the Singapore Night Safari back in Jan 2008 as a part-timer with the shows. Who knew I’d last almost 5 years? After graduating in July 2011, I joined the Education Department as a full-timer, which made me more grounded in the field of wildlife education.
Shows, despite their negativity, are a good avenue for “edu-tainment”: education in entertainment. It’s a pretty smart way of promoting educational values subtly, sometimes unconsciously, in the general public.
Everything came full circle when I joined the Education Department. That’s when I realized that teaching was one of my strengths. I loved being a keeper - Show taught me animal husbandy and care over a wide range of animals, but I could never see myself train them. I loved bringing animals out and talking to people about them, which is essentially what I did in Education, amongst other responsibilities. Show became a good foundation for Education. I had the actual experience and privilege of being in close contact with animals that I teach about, to back me up when I conduct classes. And teaching about what I love? It’s a dream job.
I’ve just started a 2nd degree at the University of Queensland, studying Wildlife Science. I don’t regret my 1st one, because Sociology armed me with a variety of different viewpoints in this field. And I got quite a few credits too, so I can’t really complain! People ask if I really need another degree, but I’ll explain that next time.
Herein this blog will be about my wildlife escapades and not exclusively about the Sun Bears anymore. Not discrediting the Sun Bears of course: they were one of the more important divergences life granted me. And I definitely plan on visiting them sometime soon.
Am I closing a chapter with the Singapore Zoo? It feels like I am. But never say never.
We had a one-day Junior Zookeeper programme where kids got to experience the life of a zookeeper, minus the extensive cleaning. They learnt about husbandry, care and enrichment, which was perhaps the most important thing when dealing with captive animals.
I love working with good, smart kids. Those with a good head on their shoulders and ask intelligent questions.
There’s hope for the world, yet.
This is Marco. He’s a fishing cat, born in Feb 2012, who grew really fast and strong. His paws are huge, and he hasn’t learnt the strength of his teeth and claws yet, which makes for interesting scars all over me.
Fishing cats are a species of cat from Southeast Asia and listed as endangered. The Night Safari has a breeding programme for them. Not much has been studied about them in the wild due to their elusiveness.
He’s a darling.
Perks of working in a zoo. One of the vets fostering a colugo. He can lick his own eyeballs!
"IS IT REAL?!!!"
Oh, if I had a dollar for every time someone asks me that question…
7th December 2010. 1615 hrs. Marlborough.
I’ve arrived at the project, one day late after floodwaters have generally subsided. The floods are crazy – some creeks are still transporting water, and you feel the car struggling to stay on course while crossing them. And the evidence of the intensity – I saw fences with debris hanging on them (left behind by the floods) that were about chest level.
On our way into the project, I see wide open spaces devoted to cattle, and a crazy number of paddocks. I also spot the occasional kangaroo or two, and wonder how they manage to survive in this weird relationship the outback has with civilisation. Like Borneo and her oil palm plantations, here you realise how much meat the world consumes, and how much space is needed for them carnivores.
The people are fantastic: the family is playing host to 4 volunteers – and I’m the only Asian! It’s a bit difficult to join in conversations dominated with Australian topics, but they try to include me and explain things. They call papaya “paw-paw” and McDonald’s “Mcker’s”. They also speak in metaphors quite frequently and I take a while to decipher them – so by the time I have an opinion I can use, they’ve changed topic. I’m lost in translation with my own first language!
Days start at about 5am, and we clean pens, do husbandry till about 9, because after that the weather gets insane. It’s a different kind of heat from Asia’s – here it’s intense, dry heat till about 4pm, and I’m always thirsty. We’ve been having a few afternoon showers (of rain, not those in the toilet) the past few days though, which helps bring the temperature down a bit, but bad storms have been forecasted for the rest of the week.
Hailey (but we call her Mush), Southern Hairy-Nosed Wombat.
And the wildlife! We’re in a huge piece of land, surrounded with huge expanses of bush devoted to cattle farming. Down by the entrance there’s a natural pond frequented by the occasional flock of ducks, and a semi-habituated possum who is still reluctant to explore outside his hide-box.
There are 5 pens for the wallabies that we spend about an hour and a half cleaning each day. It’s a little bit scary trudging through tall grass while poo-picking, knowing that it’s snake country, and Australia has a handful of extremely venomous ones – doesn’t help that Brown Snakes have been spotted here before. I usually make as much noise as possible so they have enough time to avoid me.
Calypto, Red-tailed Black Cockatoo.
There’s also a pair of Black Cockatoos, a Gala, Sugar and Squirrel Gliders, domestic dogs and cats, a Nightjar, blue-tongue skinks etc… Every evening I look forward to the Wombat contact sessions – they’re really interesting (and cute) animals with this smell that really fascinates me. I think it’s a mix of their bedding and pee, but I always have this urge to hug them so I can let the scent linger on my clothes.
Kody, released Wallaroo.
A few animals have been released on the property, and yesterday we met Kody, a Wallaroo that visits the yard quite often. There are also wild Galas, rabbits, kangaroos, the lot… just yesterday before we turned in for the night there was a gigantic tree frog hopping outside our rooms. This morning I found him in my shoe, and I felt horrible having to turn him out.
Humongous tree frog!
So during my study I found out that:
1. Our zoo’s educational materials and programmes are catered to a Western audience. (I’m guessing this has to do with its international recognition.)
2. Approximately 70% of daily visitors are Asian.
3. Higher SES and educational levels determine zoo attendance. (Which pretty much leaves no room for poor people, though the zoo works with VWOs to varying degrees of success.)
4. Cultures, Religions, Values etc there is so much diversity in Asia pertaining to these 3 issues! I’m not sure if you get that much diversity anywhere else. Cultural predisposition influences a zoo experience - which animals you wanna see and learn about…. and which ones you don’t. Deeply-stemmed beliefs and attitudes are also incredibly hard to change.
5. Naturalistic enclosures are actually really good educational tools. Just by watching increased animal behaviour, in a constructed habitat made to resemble natural ones, teaches a lot. “Visual images” from behaviours like climbing, flying, etc.
6. Close proximity to animals during contact, photography, feeding sessions - mere exposure increases attitudes.
7. Parents always negatively influence their kids by reactions to animals - words like “dangerous” and “ugly”, avoiding insects and reptiles etc. Stop interfering with their education!! (Also differs culturally.)
8. Damned media and school textbooks/materials determine popularity and define “cute”/”ugly”. Visitors form prejudices.
In case you’re wondering, I’m doing a project on zoo education in an asian society. And it’s actually confirmed many assumptions I had, and taught me quite a bit.
Started interning at JGIS - and I’m a bit sad that I only report twice a week because I have school on the other days. It’s a very comfortable environment, with nice people (and a nice boss). There’s piles of administrative work, but it’s not exhausting or boring, because I get to learn more about conservation and environmental issues from a totally different perspective. There seems to be an never-ending amount of campaigns, talks, programmes, etc to prepare for, each with completely different topics. And the range of topics ensures you pretty much learn something new each day.
Today I had to sort out paper leaves, each with messages written by schoolchildren on their individual visions and hopes for the future of the world. It’s extremely heartening to know that there will probably be a more proactive generation than mine: at the tender ages of 9 to 14, these kids already understand the notions of carbon footprints, sustainability, animal rights and such. I hope they don’t get jaded or lose their way like most of us have.
She’s one of the few reasons why I still go back to Jakarta.
When I was 8 I brought a stray dog home and pleaded with my Dad to let me keep it; we named him Boy. He grew up really fast and started developing a penchant for digging up my Grandma’s expensive flowers in the garden. So he had to go: my Dad brought him to my Grandpa’s factory where Boy had all the space in the world to dig himself to death.
I guess I was fortunate that my Grandpa had this piece of land - and so I started this whole stretch of saving stray dogs from the streets, de-fleaing them kampong style (which I won’t explain here for fear of repercussions… but it did involve Baygon.), and then retiring them to this little piece of heaven.
Boy grew up to be a very muscular handsome dog, with very strong Alsatian blood (confirmed by a vet). He became the alpha male to a pack of about 15 dogs, and Clover arrived from his third batch of puppies. I can’t remember what her mom was named, except she was very white, and looked a lot like a Spitz.
One day we brought Clover home in a little cardboard box, and she’s been with us ever since. Despite our constant pleas my Grandma kept insisting that normal dog food was insufficient for her beloved pet - instead Clover got a constant supply of boiled chicken, milk, and cheese biscuits. She wouldn’t touch unflavoured pastries.
Clover’s old now, about 12, and I can see it in her appearance, her walk, her slow movements. But she still has that smile, and that twinkle in her eyes.
Boy died about four years ago, and I couldn’t see him because of national service. Holding an Indonesian passport then, my parents didn’t want to risk immigration problems if Indonesia found out I was serving the army for a foreign country. He taught me a lot of things, made me the person I am today, and I was sorry I couldn’t see him one last time.
But he still lives through Clover.
And what a month it has been.
It is with a heavy heart that I leave Borneo with. Typing this entry in the steely, air-conditioned interior of the Kota Kinabalu airport, I find a sudden desire to trade all these comforts for another day in the rainforests of Sepilok. This is not an entry meant to gloat about my experience, or brandish the limits of my vocabulary. Rather, this post is meant to do Borneo justice: a post to raise awareness of a precious gem hiding quietly within Southeast Asia. And yet this gem is slowly fading into obscurity, struggling against the many facets of humanity.
I hope this post inspires you to visit Borneo and discover the Eden so close to home. Borneo will speak to you, just like she did to me. And her words are tinged with urgency.
I : The People.
Inspiring: the one word to describe the people I’ve met. It’s one thing to watch conservationists on television, or read about them in the National Geographic - but to watch them get down and dirty really puts things to perspective.
Within Sepilok we witnessed first-hand the mechanisms of a conservation centre. We met Wai Pak, a perky individual, always brimming with enthusiasm - in my 30 days there he’s never taken an off day. I’ve never seen David in a foul mood: if he’s not joking about life, he’s usually occupied with occupying the bears. Sylvia’s a tough cookie: one woman with several men under her charge, and yet she always has time for a smile, even for volunteers. Victor and Jomius hike for 20 minutes to feed the semi-rehabilitated orangutans at platform 4 everyday. And hike another 20 minutes back. They do this twice a day. And the scores of other characters: the foreign volunteers, so displaced in this country, but never letting the culture shock nor heat get to them. We’ve never met Wong personally, but snippets of his life as told from his close friends have created a robust impression.
There are so many more of such individuals, each equally inspiring. You find that it’s never about reputation or glamour. In the conservation arena, it’s mostly selflessness that brings results. And these people I’ve mentioned have all made extensive sacrifices, some more intense than the rest. But whether you’re willing to make that first step into an unstable, foreign world with an unpredictable future - that requires courage of great proportions. They don’t teach you this in school. In Singapore everyone strives to work in a bank.
If and when the time comes, I can only hope I find similar courage to make these sacrifices. I hope I make the right decisions.
And the indigenous people I met at Sukau: I’ve almost always complained about the negativities of eco-tourism, but one thing I strongly advocate is getting locals involved. You need their full support to sustain the industry.
II : The Animals.
The people were inspiring, the animals even more so. And even if we shared no common mode of communication, their presence alone did the talking.
One impactful event still resounding in me would be our afternoon at Platform 4. There we were introduced to Sogo-sogo’s rehabilitated orangutan family, and they had the right to refuse us, to reject strangers into their territory. But they did not.
And it was this benevolence and almost-blind trust that reached me. Sitting down in the middle of a forest with a family of orangutans, and holding hands with one - perhaps one of the most emotional memories I will have. And this memory will serve as a reminder for my direction in life. Strong words, but I intend to fulfill them.
And who could forget the bears? The primary reason for my stay. I got to meet some of the most boisterous personalities of my life at BSBCC: the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. All 12 of them. I’ll be honest: from day one Jelita offered me her paw, and while I’ve always been fair to all the bears, Jelita usually gets an extra snakefruit. Or three. The day I was able to tell the adult females apart, Keningau’s character stood out from the rest, her gentle nature impossible to resist. And the other bears: Manis, Chong, Suria…. it’s impossible to not play favourites, because the bears each have their own personalities.
Within the bears, their individual stories mirror a conservationist’s list of trials and tribulations. Of errant husbandry and captive conditions, of abuse, of Man’s naked power…. Realizing the pain and mishandling some of these bears have gone through makes me ashamed to be human. Manis is a very sweet bear with a very loving personality that she’ll show you - if she’s there. Her past history growing up in a zoo must have been traumatic, and her glazed look she gives you says it all. She spends more than half her day escaping and retreating into her own world, pacing around until her claws crack and her paws bleed. Even now, with a bigger den and plenty of enrichments, she still finds solace and comfort in that dark corner of her conscious. I fear she is unable to distinguish reality.
And it is stories of such that give purpose to what people like Wong, Wai Pak and Sylvia are doing.
III : BSBCC.
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre aims to be a primary hub for sun bear rescue, rehab and conservation. They’re only in their initial stages, and need all the help they can get. During our visit here, we shared with them our experiences working in a zoo. I’ve typed one month’s worth of entries regarding these bears, please read the rest of my blog if you want to find out more in-depth descriptions. I urge you to.
Right now, their first phase is completed: dens for 20 bears, and outdoor exercise pens to rehabilitate them into the wild. The second phase is of utmost importance: a visitor centre, where awareness and education can then be focused on. Sun bears are relatively unknown, and given little attention in the conservation spotlight. I would say raising awareness is the most basic anyone can go right now, because once people are aware of these bears existing in their forests, and the plight they face, they would want to be more involved.
Phase Two needs funds. Please visit sunbears.wildlifedirect.org to donate. Once the visitor centre is set up, BSBCC can then be self-sustainable, and then pump funds into research and rehabilitation.
IV : Last Words.
I’ve only covered a small area within Borneo, most of it within Sandakan. I’ve only scratched the surface of this fascinating place.
Borneo is a beautiful country. She holds so much beauty, so many treasures - a lot of them delicate and fragile, most hanging by a thread. And yet She shared all these with me so readily: from the forests of Sepilok, to the nocturnal rainforest world at the RDC, and the great Kinabatangan River with his rich shores that hide a dark secret. I’ve devoted blog posts regarding each and every experience, and I hope that I’ve given adequate representations and illustrations of truly unbelievable experiences. Experiences that may ceast to exist the next time I visit.
From the very get-go, I’ve been dealt one lesson after another. Some of which I wanted to learn about; others I had no intention of knowing.
Ultimately, I’ve a greater appreciation for the natural world, and a deeper understanding for why conservationists do what they do. The challenge of the world today
would be IS that of sustainable development: striving to find a balance between economic growth and maintaining the environment.
2 hours left in Borneo, but so much more required to reflect and make some sense of the past month. I’m probably gonna have several more conclusions over the next few days. Some of the things I’ll probably never fully grasp.
Goodbye, Borneo. Thank you for an enthralling 30 days. I’ll be back for more.
It’s 2.45pm. I have approximately an hour and a half left in the Sepilok grounds. In the morning, Amanda and I did husbandry, then rushed down for the orang utan feeding at 10.30am. At 1.00pm we had lunch, expecting a memorable last meal in the cafeteria. We did have one. Not in an ideal way, but it was memorable. Definitely memorable.
Soon I’ll be going back to see the bears for one last time. We bought loads of treats for them: fruits mostly, and packets of dried papaya and mango. Going to stuff their faces. I pity whoever’s doing husbandry tomorrow. Always wanted to say that, but the past few weeks if I did say it, I’ll be kicking myself the next morning. I can finally say it, and mean it. Probably not feel good for the people cleaning tomorrow, but oh well.
I pity whoever’s doing husbandry tomorrow.
There is so much to be done, and the urgency’s only settling in during my last hours here in Borneo. In 5 minutes I will walk back heavily to the bear house. I will soak in the scent of sun bear poop and relish it. I will scratch Keningau’s nose, feel Jelita’s paws, pat Chong on his fat bum. I will watch Cerah wrinkle and scrunch her nose. I will give Suria an extra snakefruit.
And I will enjoy every second of it, and remember these moments for the rest of my life unless I lose my memory. For they will constantly signify and remind me why the sun bears need saving. And why I’m here in the first place.
The next time I talk to people about sun bears, I will remember the ones I’ve met, who’ve made an impact on me, even if it was a very short stay. And I will mean every single thing I say.
These were probably our last few enrichments for Suria, before we leave on Friday! We added more firehose to her den, because Suria really loves climbing - sometimes she stays on the highest swing and won’t come down for a few hours. It feels like a den constructed for primates!
To bolster and encourage Suria’s climbing, we’ve been suspending various food-based enrichments at the top of her den. The most successful one had to be this green ball with a hole on one side. We stuffed loads of jackfruits in it, and it lasted TWO DAYS!! On Day Two we came in the morning to find Suria still furiously trying to claw a few remaining pieces of jackfruit out. Wonder if she even slept at all! It’s fascinating watching Suria balance so effortlessly on the swing, almost like a human child. (:
I think one of the most distinctive traits about the sun bears have to be their abnormally long tongues - I wasn’t aware of this till I arrived at the centre, and we’ve had lots of uncertainties, trying to figure out the various reasons why they own one in that length!
Photo from BSBCC.
We know for a fact that the bears definitely use their tongues to probe for honey in bee hives. All other potential applications aside, we’ve been trying to figure out various enrichment methods to keep the bears busy using both their tongues and claws.
For this enrichment, we split a hole along one side of a short piece of bamboo, smeared blueberry jam within its walls, then tied it outside the den of the young females. It was impossible to break the bamboo this way, so they could only utilize their claws and tongues to get to the jam.
Cerah showing you how it’s done.
It’s easy to assume that enrichments are mere playthings for the bears, like how people baby and spoil their domestic pets with the most elaborate toys. Anyone could do that, you say. Sure, anyone could construct an enrichment, but whether it effectively stimulates and entertains the animal is a different thing altogether. Bears spend more than half their daily lives foraging. In captivity we automatically take this behaviour away with scheduled feeding sessions. It’s this void we have to fill: with all the spare time, and no real need to forage, they start inventing ways to entertain themselves. We classify them as stereotypic behaviour.
A good enrichment does not just entertain. It has to enable the bears to optimally utilize their natural skills, whether it be fishing or climbing - or in this case, licking.