Going back to nature the fun way at the Singapore Zoo

Going back to nature the fun way at the Singapore Zoo
Larger than the l'il ones: Over at the Singapore Zoo, guests can experience close encounters with animals such as the Aldabra giant tortoise.

"Making her way down now from the tree is Anita. She's a little gingerly because she has two young ones tagging along. But don't worry, Anita is a very experienced mother," comes a cheery female voice over the microphone.

I look up from my plate of scrambled eggs and thought: What's a parent in Singapore doing up on a tree with her kids? And that's when the "progressive" mother in question comes into view.

Anita as it turns out, is a Sumatran orang utan.

Ah, but of course. After all, I'm at Singapore Zoo's famed "Jungle Breakfast with Wildlife" - the only place in the world where you can have the most important meal of the day in the good company of orang utans and snakes.

If the aforementioned conjures up images of apes jumping up and down the dining table with your bananas or reptiles coiled around your chair, well … that couldn't be further from the truth. Breakfast on that cloudy Monday morning was exceptionally civil. And the animal interaction? Purely educational they say.

Anita and her primate friends are seated at a safe distance from the diners. If any adventurous visitor tries to get handsy with the orang utans, they will quickly get a stern reprimand from a nearby park ranger.

By the time I help myself to seconds at the scrumptious extensive buffet spread, I've learned that the Sumatran orang utan is rarer than its Bornean counterpart. The females are also smaller and the species has hair that's pale red. If anything, education is an important aspect of the zoo.

"We tell stories about the animals so that visitors can relate to them. When people are aware, they start to care," says Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) education curator Rekha Nair.

WRS - the sponsor for this trip - is the parent company of the Singapore Zoo, Night Safari, River Safari and Jurong Bird Park. Rekha has been with the company for five years now, developing programmes and curriculum in line with initiatives by the republic's Education Ministry and the Early Childhood Development Agency.

How early, then, do the young ones learn? According to Rekha, 18 months.

"Of course, we change the teaching delivery for a younger audience. The pre-school programme is very hands-on and we'll get them to tell us what they experienced. Sometimes, you'll hear very interesting stories from the little ones," she says with a laugh.

Set in a rainforest environment, the zoo - known locally as Mandai Zoo - also features educational content designed in an interactive mode for all its exhibits.

The "open concept" helps tremendously with interaction. At Fragile Forest for example, visitors walk among lesser mousedeers, two-toed sloths, ring-tailed lemurs and Malayan flying foxes within a massive biodome- without fences or cages. For a truly unique experience, join a behind-the-scenes tour of Fragile Forest (the only area the tour takes you to).

Through a back entrance, I step into a quieter part of the zoo where the breeding complex is located. Here is where visitors get a firsthand look at the ways butterflies and other invertebrates are cared for. Although those who fear creepy crawlies might want to think twice before embarking on this unique experience.

Other behind-the-scenes venues that the tour takes visitors to are the Reptile Garden and the Great Rift Valley of Ethiopia.

But all study and no play makes for a very dull zoo. Nothing something that Singapore Zoo, or any of the other WRS attractions, has to worry about.

The business of nature

After breakfast, I venture into the Shaw Foundation Ampitheatre for the Splash Safari Show. The star of the show is a mischievous California sea lion who performs all kinds of wacky and wonderful antics that get the crowd cheering.

But seeing the sea lion perform clever tricks, such as clapping its fins and juggling a beach ball between its nose, raises some flags. What will animal conservationists think?

"It's a misconception that when you train animals, you have to starve them. What we actually do is we work with treats. We reward them for the right things," says WRS animal presentation director Raja Segran.

"There's a bigger picture to what needs to be done. Within a show concept, we have to make sure it's bang, bang, bang all the time. Everything that an animal does has to get out a message," he adds.

Through the shows, I can better remember facts about an animal. But to an extent, it's a scrutiny that plagues all zoos that host such performances. Questions arise, like if the trained animal antics are actually their normal behaviour in the wild.

The reality is it's a tough time for zoological parks, says WRS chief marketing officer Isabel Cheng.

"It's not easy to survive as a zoo these days. A zoo is like any other organisation and there is plenty of competition," Cheng says, referring to other leisure venues in the region, such as Universal Studios Singapore in Sentosa island.

With all the conservation and educational efforts, it's easy to forget that zoological parks are also businesses. But to them it's not just about profits.

"We want to do well and do good. The former is for the latter," Cheng explains, adding that considerable funds are channelled towards the welfare of the animals and conservation works at the end of the day.

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