SINGAPORE - It was a whimsical idea dreamt up by then zoo director Bernard Harrison - build a mountain of bananas and have Ah Meng the orang utan perched atop to celebrate the zoo's 10th anniversary. Enterprising staff of the Singapore Zoo took the challenge head-on.
They commissioned a contractor to build scaffolding fitted with steps and ordered crates of the fruit to construct a pyramid of bananas the height of about six men.
The striking 1983 image of the great ape on her banana Everest by then Straits Times photographer Simon Ker is an unforgettable one, said zoology specialist Alagappasamy Chellaiyah - the late Ah Meng's keeper. It was a photo opportunity that featured not only the world famous Ah Meng, but her children, Medan and Hong Bao, and a gibbon.
"We pulled together to do something special for the zoo's 10th anniversary. Everybody was talking about the photo when it came out," said Mr Alagappasamy, 63.
He is one of five keepers featured in the photo who are still with the zoo. Four of them spoke about the labour of love that took about three weeks to set up.
Beyond apes, they had to gather a motley crew of animals to encircle the 12m pyramid. This included elephants, lion cubs and snakes such as pythons.
"We had to introduce the animals to one another and make sure they were comfortable. The elephants were scared of the orang utans the first time they met," said Mr Alagappasamy.
Next, the keepers had to train the apes to take turns to climb the scaffolding steps. They also had to get them accustomed to the mound of bananas in their midst.
"Stopping them from eating the bananas was definitely a problem," laughed former keeper Revi Nair, 53, who is now manager of animal presentations at the Night Safari. Ah Meng, for one, would devour an entire bunch during practice sessions. "It was hard for them to keep their hands off the fruits. They would reach for the bananas and stuff them into their mouths very quickly," he recalled.
On the day itself, keepers took an hour to line up the entourage.
Zoology mentor Mr G. Permalo, 64, said the animals were the picture of calm. This, he said, was testament to the zoo's good practices. "It showed the world that the animals were comfortable with their trainers," he said.
Although it gave the zoo great publicity, a "cake" of that size has never been recreated because orchestrating a gathering of animals on such a scale would be too time-consuming, said the keepers.
"It was the first and last time," said Mr Alagappasamy wistfully.
Fingering the edges of the photo, Mr Permalo added: "It was a lot of fun... You wonder how we managed to pull it off. So many things could have gone wrong."
Indeed, trial and error marked the early days of the Singapore Zoo. Mr Alagappasamy for instance, needed more than 40 stitches from two orang utan bites in the 1970s. An adult orang utan has the strength of five men and he learned the painful way that males can get aggressive with keepers when a female is in heat, seeing them as competitors.
Nowadays, protocols and standards are in place to manage animals, and experienced keepers pass on their knowledge to newbies. The zoo, one of the first in the world to allow animals to roam freely, has had spectacular success breeding endangered animals ranging from orang utans to white rhinos.
Just as Singapore has made the journey from third world to first in double-quick time, the zoo has come a long way from its humble beginnings. It is now home to more than 2,800 animals of over 300 species, visited by more than 1.6 million people every year and one of the best wildlife parks in the world.
Through the years, the love between keepers and their animals has not wavered. Keepers who resign often return because they cannot bear to be away from their animal charges. This happened with head keeper of zoology Tony Mathivanan, 56, who works with Inuka the polar bear. He left in 2001, but returned six years later.
"The animals are like our children," he explained. "Coming to the zoo is like coming to spend time with your family."
Mr Alagappasamy, who has spent his entire 43-year career at the zoo, agreed. He took care of Ah Meng most of her life - he was there when she dined with pop star Michael Jackson, when she became a mother and a grandmother, and he cradled her as she drew her last breath in 2008.
Today, he oversees the care of Ah Meng's granddaughter Chomel and her two babies, Bino and Ishta. "Ah Meng's legacy will live on in photos like these," he said. "We're glad we did this. Future generations of Singaporeans will get to see our team spirit and learn more about the wonderful creature that Ah Meng was."
This article was first published on Aug 9, 2014.
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