As one of the nation’s star attractions, the Singapore Zoo draws close to two million visitors a year. When we paid a visit, we resisted joining the throng of visitors at the Fragile Forest or Splash Safari and sat down instead with the zoo’s primate specialist, Sam, who joined the zoo as a young man and has been instrumental to its success over the decades.

Alagappasamy “Sam” Chellaiyah, 67, exudes a calm and gentle energy. As we shook hands and he beckoned us to sit down at a cafe by the zoo’s entrance, it was easy to see how nervous animals might be soothed by the elderly primate keeper with the genial smile and reassuring manner.

In fact, Sam’s animal charges are so comfortable around him that Ah Meng, an orangutan which was a beloved icon of the zoo from the 1970s till her death in 2008, used to treat him like an ad-hoc babysitter.

“Ah Meng is special,” said Sam, referring to his old charge in the present tense. “She likes us, trusts us. Usually orangutans, they come from a bad situation in the wild, [so] they won’t allow you to touch their babies in case you might harm them. But Ah Meng here, she will just take her baby and put it on your lap.”

“In fact,” he continued, “when we took Ah Meng for photoshoots or to meet VIPs, she’ll sit down and pose and give me the baby to hold, so I just hold the baby. And when I say, ‘Ah Meng, come, we’re done, let’s go back,’ she’ll go back to the buggy and sit down without looking for the baby! That shows how much she trusts us.”

Sam with his beloved orangutans in the 1980s. Photo courtesy of Sam Chellaiyah

Now a Zoology Specialist and one of the zoo’s most senior employees, Sam has been working at the zoo for 47 years, and was full of fascinating stories throughout our interview. Nonetheless, such an illustrious career came as a surprise to a kampong boy who, in his own words, “didn’t even have a love for animals” when he started working.

“Most people say ‘oh, I love animals’, that’s why they come to work at the zoo. But it was just another job for me. I was looking for a job, and they offered me one…they looked at me and sized me up and said I would be a perfect fit for looking after animals. So I took the opportunity and said ‘okay, let me try.’”

Sam began working at the zoo in 1971, when it was technically still in development. During the lead-up to its official opening in 1973, the zoo began taking in animals that had been rescued from poachers, such as sun bears, or confiscated from members of the public who had been keeping them illegally as pets. Among these were the initial 15 orangutans that Sam was assigned to look after.

At that time, Sam and his colleagues had had no proper training on how to work with animals, and had to figure things out the hard way – which sometimes came with painful consequences.

“We had no experience working with these animals! No training, nothing,” said Sam. “That’s why we got bitten. We didn’t know that when the females [orangutans] were in heat, the males get very aggressive. They think you’re the dominant male, so they attack you first.”

“So [there was this time when] I went in just as the females were in heat,” he continued. “The males were showing aggression, but I thought I could just say ‘no’ fiercely and they would go away. But when I went in and said that, the male attacked me! I had to get 26 stitches.”

He also recalled helping to capture a hippopotamus which escaped from the zoo in the mid-1970s, and spent close to two months of freedom camping out in the Upper Seletar Reservoir.

“At that time, the facilities were not very good. When the locks [on the enclosure] rusted and broke down, the animal simply pushed the door and went out. It stayed in the reservoir for almost two months! We had to stay there day and night to trap the animal and eventually we did.”

Nonetheless, muddy stake-outs and the risk of getting mauled on the job didn’t put him off, and Sam and his colleagues were later sent to Germany for training in animal husbandry and other technical skills.

By then, Sam was a man in love with his job. He lit up as he spoke of his first meeting with Ah Meng in 1971 – the meeting that changed everything, and sparked his deep and enduring love for the primates he would go on to care for.

“She came in with the Chinese family who brought her, maybe 10 years old, and she had a chain around her wrist….I looked at her and the family was talking to this animal in Mandarin, and she was listening! I was stunned. I looked at the animal, and looked at the people, and the animal was looking back at them too. It was so human. So I built my love. I said, wah, I should work with these animals.”

Sam’s natural affinity for working with animals got him noticed by his superiors, and he was tasked with looking after the zoo’s entire collection of primates, ranging from the Great Apes (such as orangutans) to Lesser Apes (the gibbons) and even the tiny cotton-top tamarins, which weigh only around 500g. He also rose through the ranks, going from Junior Keeper to Head Keeper to Curator to Assistant Director over the course of his career, before starting his current position of Zoology Specialist (a consultant-type role) in 2015.

Sam receiving the Employee of the Year Award in 1992. Photo courtesy of Sam Chellaiyah.

Even as his career progressed, and his work took on more of a supervisory nature, Sam still got to spend lots of time with his beloved Ah Meng. The zoo’s poster girl was popular with many of the celebrities and dignitaries who visited, and Sam, as her primary keeper, enjoyed the privilege of a front-row seat at such meetings.

“Ah Meng brought me fame. We met Michael Jackson!” Sam enthused, recalling the superstar’s visit to Singapore on his Dangerous world tour in 1993. The zoo drove Ah Meng and four other orangutans over to the Raffles Hotel, where Jackson was staying at the time. Sam got to go along for the ride – and smuggled in another visitor too.

“We spent 45 minutes with [Michael Jackson]. At first, we took our cameras out, but they [Jackson’s team] said no cameras, so they took our cameras away. And then they said only the keepers could go in.”

“But Bernard Harrison [the zoo’s founder, and its Executive Director at the time] was with us, and he wanted to come in too. So we changed his title from Director to Keeper and got him in with us,” shared Sam, grinning. He went on, “Michael Jackson was touching Ah Meng and talking to me, and so I touched his [Jackson’s] arm, just to check ‘is this real?’”

Sam grew even more animated as he spoke of the several opportunities he had to meet Mr Lee Kuan Yew. His respect for the late statesman was obvious as he recalled their interactions over the years, such as when the latter attended the opening of the Night Safari.

Sam with then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew at one of the latter’s visits to the zoo, circa the mid-2000s. Photo courtesy of Sam Chellaiyah.

“It was like a gift for me, you know, getting to spend three hours with such an intelligent, brilliant man and having him ask [me] questions. If he wanted an answer from you he would direct all his questions to you. I felt so proud that he asked me all this.”

“When I was told he was coming and my bosses wanted me to bring him around, I said, ‘but I don’t know all the zoo’s animals, how?’ My bosses told me to just tell him, ‘Sir, I don’t know the answer but I can find out for you,’” he shared.

“So that’s what I did. I didn’t know most of the answers so I just told him I wasn’t sure, and he said that’s okay. But I wrote down the questions and gave them to the senior zoo staff and they sent the answers to him immediately the next day. He wrote back to say thank you, and he even left a note to say, ‘tell Sam thank you very much,’” shared Sam, pride evident in his voice.

Sam’s conscientiousness continues to impress even today. For example, although his senior position no longer requires him feed the animals himself – a task usually assigned to more junior keepers – he still goes in every day to do so.

“I really love them,” he said, firmly. “My young keepers said ‘eh, now you don’t actually have to do this!’ But it’s like feeding my children. When you get to the enclosure you see young orangutans hold your leg and ask you for food. So it’s thrilling lah. It’s really thrilling.”

Sam also takes it upon himself to personally wander among the zoo’s thousands of visitors to keep an ear out for feedback and pay attention to any comments.

“I have a habit of always going around and if I see a crowd of people laughing at the animals or commenting about them, I stand there and listen…sometimes they say something which makes me go ah, that’s a good idea, and we try and implement it,” he said.

On occasion, he receives unexpected praise. “Once a lady said that coming to the zoo makes her feel like she’s in the wild. And that’s a high score for us!”

When asked for any final thoughts on his adventures to date, Sam grew reflective, choosing to look to the future and beyond our shores. “You have to change. There should always be new ways of doing things. You need to keep close contact with the world outside the zoo, so that if you need help, you can turn around and ask. Good zoos will be willing to help you, because it’s not good to keep such knowledge in your heart. You’ve got some ideas, you tell us, we will exchange.”

“People will go to zoos that are creative and innovative and ready to try out new things,” he said firmly. “Sometimes if you do things and it’s not successful, don’t get disheartened.”

On the whole, though, he is pleased with how things have turned out. His four grandchildren visit him at the zoo sometimes, which gives him great pleasure. Their grandfather’s passion for the magnificent creatures with which we share this planet has also left a deep impression on them.

“I ask them how they like the zoo, and they say they want to work with the animals!” he said. “So I told them, okay, be a graduate and come and work here.”

“If I had worked elsewhere, I would be [a] nobody, but this has opened my entire life. My entire life [has been] in the zoo.”

Written by: Chew Hui Lin

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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