It’s said that if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Raja Segran shares his journey from a quiet, introverted keeper at the Jurong Bird Park to becoming one of its most celebrated live presenters.

 

Raja’s first visit to the Jurong Bird Park with his family in 1971. Photo courtesy of Mr Raja Segran

Raja Segran, 60, is a former a live show presenter and manager of the Jurong Bird Park, and the former director of animal presentations at Wildlife Reserves Singapore. As he spoke of his 40-year career at the bird park, he was animated and lively, peppering his anecdotes with impersonations of people and chirps of the birds he had worked with.

It came as no surprise to anyone when Raja, then in his 20s, joined the bird park. He was raised in a family that had a heart for nature – his father rescued cockatoos from poor living conditions in pet shops and his mother had green fingers.

“Would anyone want to listen to a skinny Indian man talk about birds?” Raja recalled asking himself 36 years ago, when he was nearing the end of a three-month training stint for live show presenters at the park. The course had started with 23 sign-ups, which dropped to five, and eventually three, by the final month.

Judging from Raja’s eloquence and upbeat personality, one might assume that he breezed through his training. The truth, however, was that he didn’t sign up for it in the first place.

Raja holding up a young Bald Eagle at one of the bird of prey shows in 1988. Photo courtesy of Mr Raja Segran

“I was happy working with my birds and the word ‘show’ put me off. I was an introvert when I first started my career. I came in the morning, took my stuff and went up to my aviary, and that was it. You wouldn’t see me until the end of the day [as I would have been] doing my work. I didn’t talk and interact much,” Raja recollected. In fact, it was his supervisor who signed him up for the “life changing experience” that brought him out of his shell.

As we talked about his memorable moments at the bird park, Raja made it a point to acknowledge the people who believed in and inspired him. One of them was his mentor, Steve Martin, who was approached by Jurong Bird Park in 1982 to set up a live show similar to the hugely successful free-flight bird show he established at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in 1976. More than just a trainer who imparted the skills needed to put together a show, Steve was someone they knew they could always fall back on.

Raja remembered an incident where he was working with a sulphur-crested cockatoo, trying to coax it out of a log. When it finally emerged, the cockatoo took a quick snip at Raja’s thumb, leaving him with a torn-off nail dangling off a bloodied thumb. Steve took a look at the injury and instructed Raja not to look at it before getting the park’s vet to treat it. Realising that things were about to get extremely painful, Steve firmly held onto Raja as the vet yanked off the dangling nail. Raja distinctly remembered how “for the first time in [my] life, I saw stars and blacked out”.

After the park’s first live show on 11 April 1982, they held a farewell dinner for Steve. As a gift, Steve had gotten the handlers gloves for handling birds during the shows and had written a message on the gloves to each of them. On Raja’s glove, he had written, “Dear Raja, thank you for everything. This baby [the show] is now yours, it couldn’t be in better hands.” Raja was so touched by these words that he has kept the gloves till today. He still makes it a point to catch up with Steve whenever they meet at conferences.

After Steve’s departure, Raja, without a script, “just went out there and told the audience what I knew about birds” for his first show. Over time, he began to develop his own style, which ultimately led to the birth of a separate falconry show. The shows at the park eventually built up a reputation for being one of the best in the world.

Raja, too, became a celebrity in his own right. He was the face of the bird park whenever the late former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew visited, and hosted many ministers throughout his years there. Raja recalled how Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong once invited him to sit beside him on the tram at the Night Safari. Each time Raja hosted such luminaries, his father would always ask, “You got take picture anot?”

Raja’s father even created a “wall of fame” populated with pictures of Raja with former presidents, such as the late Mr Wee Kim Wee, foreign ministers, and dignitaries. So much for the once-introverted man who had no intention of being a presenter.

 

Then Bird Show manager, Raja (fourth from left), with former president, the late Wee Kim Wee (third from left), and colleagues from Jurong Bird Park in the mid-1990s. Photo courtesy of Mr Raja Segran

Owing to his newfound fame, Raja became no stranger to dealing with the media over the years. A recurring question he was asked was what his favourite species of bird was – a difficult question for him to answer because it was tantamount to making a parent choose his favourite child.

However, one bird did leave a deep impression on him: Murphy, a lanner falcon. In 1989, Murphy disappeared from the area where he was free to fly under supervision. This was unusual as Murphy, whether he was free soaring high up or chasing nearby pigeons, always returned to his keepers. On that particular day, there was no sign of Murphy and he was not responding to their calls.

Using a transmitter, Raja and the keepers finally tracked him to a nearby abandoned warehouse, where they found Murphy perched high up on the supporting structure of the roof. While Murphy called out to them, he did not return to them. That was when it dawned on them that Murphy was stuck. With the help of a tall ladder, they were able to get to Murphy and discovered he was stuck on a glue trap meant for rats and pigeons.

While they managed to free Murphy from the glue trap, they realised the glue was toxic. The bird’s feet were swollen from the reaction to the poison, and after three days under Raja’s personal care, Murphy died. With a sentimental note that lingered in his voice, Raja recalled how “the day Murphy died, that night I sat down and I cried and cried. I cried like a baby. It’s an emotional attachment because these birds are individuals and Murphy just left a mark on me.”

When asked if it was harder to engage park visitors nowadays, due to the perpetual distraction of mobile devices, Raja said, “I think you cannot take away handphones and technology, it is how you work with them. Today, visitors want to be engaged, so handphones actually aid in engaging and [bringing these] experiences to life. They are tools that, if used in the right way, can be used to retain that memory.” For instance, exhibits now have interactive signs as well as QR codes to access park maps. As an attraction, the park must constantly evolve to remain relevant to each generation, and embracing technology is a natural step forward.

Throughout the interview, Raja impressed with his ability to pinpoint the exact date of any event. When asked how he could do that, he simply said, “because you remember things that change your life.”

On his last day of work, the staff threw a surprise farewell dinner at the park. Raja “broke down in tears despite telling himself he would not” when he was greeted by rows of staff. He knew then that he had made a difference to their lives, especially when even the “auntie” who manned one of the park’s kiosks came by to hug him and thank him for all he had done.

Today, Raja is the CEO of the Malacca Zoo Night Safari, Bird Park and Wildlife Theatre, a 2.5hr drive from Singapore. The 18-year old boy who had joined Jurong Bird Park on 16 August 1976 might be a very different man today, but he still hopes to return to his first love of working with animals and indulging in the simple pleasure of sharing his joy and knowledge with visitors.

Written by: Terence C. Fong

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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