Like many Singaporeans, Inuka the “Singa-polar” was practical and “kaypoh”, said a senior zookeeper at a memorial service held for the Republic’s last polar bear.
Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) deputy head keeper Mohan Ponichamy was sharing his anecdotes about the much loved 27-year-old polar bear on Thursday (26 April) in front of over 400 WRS staff, guests and members of the public at the Singapore Zoo.
They were gathered at the amphitheatre outside Inuka’s exhibit at the Frozen Tundra, a day after the ailing polar bear was put down on “humane grounds”.
Many attendees were donned in blue or white, a nod to Inuka’s fur colour and exhibit. Most were also seen wearing light blue ribbon pins, which were left in a box near his exhibit by an anonymous visitor on Thursday morning.
A wreath of white and purple orchids laid on Inuka’s usual resting spot in a now empty enclosure.
During a 20-minute emotional eulogy, Mohan, who could be seen pausing several times to regain his composure, detailed Inuka’s playful quirks and his “practical Singaporean” fondness for “traffic cones and bins” instead of flashier imported toys.
For instance, the polar bear “loved” to stop the waterfall in his enclosure by blocking its inlet, first experimenting with his 25cm-wide paw and later one of his toys, a giant red disc.
“He knew how the waterfall worked…He could spend the entire day trying to stop it,” Mohan shared, before thanking the water treatment engineers for putting up with the polar bear’s antics.
The keepers never stopped him from doing so, however, despite it causing the waterfall’s pump to overheat. To allow him to continue playing with the waterfall, one of his keepers had to drill holes in the red disc.
The “kaypoh” polar bear could be at the other end of the pool, but would swim over “in a minute” when staff went into the enclosure to stack up his bale of straws or bags of salt, recounted Mohan, who took care of Inuka for the past three years and interacted with him almost every day.
“When you turn around, he’s there watching what we are doing. He will not leave until everyone leaves the area,” he quipped.
Inuka, who is estimated to be in his 70s in human years, had stopped interacting with his keepers in the past three months, preferring to rest instead. Signs of his ailing health, however, were first noted in December two years ago when he slept the whole day and was unresponsive.
“He could not display the same behaviour on land, (which) might be because of the pain he was suffering. But in the water, he does not feel his pain or his weight,” said Mohan.
The polar bear had been suffering from arthritis, dental issues and occasional ear infections, as well as age-related muscle atrophy. His keepers also recently noticed that he had a stiffer gait – particularly in his hind limbs – which resulted in abrasions on his paw pads.
The last examination on Wednesday had revealed that Inuka’s open wounds, discovered during an earlier check on 3 April, did not improve even with additional treatment over the last three weeks.
Despite knowing he would be greeted by the sight of an empty enclosure without a “cheery Inuka” on Thursday, Mohan said he and his team had to “stand firm on the decision to let Inuka go, and end his suffering”.
“I love Inuka, we all love him and we want to do what’s best for him. It’s painful for us, but at the end, all the pain is felt by him. He is in a better place now,” he added.
Mike Barclay, WRS chief executive officer, who delivered the second eulogy, paid tribute to the vets and keepers who worked tirelessly behind the scene as well as the public’s “outpouring of emotion” for a “very special polar bear”.
“The constant thread (in the responses) has been of love for Inuka and grief for the unlikely passing of one of Singapore’s living icons,” said Barclay.
He noted that Inuka’s end came in the “most humane way possible”, with his keepers – past and present – in attendance.
“The decision to end his life was based on a sound medical assessment for his deteriorating condition. One that was taken to relieve him from any further pain and suffering in the future,” said Barclay. “He will live on in our pictures and memories. We will always have him in our hearts.”
WRS staff, including Dr Cheng Wen-Haur, deputy chief executive officer and chief life sciences officer, and Dr Abraham Mathew, assistant director of veterinary services, later took turns to place white roses in front of photos of Inuka, taken at different stages in his life.
To mark the end of the memorial service, attendees rose to their feet to observe a minute of applause for Inuka, instead of the traditional moment of silence.
The last goodbye
Others, who did not attend the service, came down to leave messages on Inuka’s tribute wall at the amphitheatre. In less than an hour, the wall, which would be up for at least 10 days, was decorated with over 70 handwritten paw-shaped notes.
Some visitors wrote for “big boy Inuka” to enjoy “playing with his parents” in “polar bear heaven”, while others thanked him for “happiness he had brought” to them.
Housewife Choo Xiao Wei, 42, had decided last night to bring her two-year-old son Ian and six-year-old daughter Isabel to the exhibit to bid a final farewell.
“We see him all the time for many years… Death is part of life… so we wanted to say our last goodbyes,” said a tearful Choo.
The children, who loved to see Inuka swim and dive, had prepared a handcrafted card with the words “We love you, Inuka, bye bye”.
Police officer Saiful Bahri, 37, who brought his four- and six-year-old sons along on Thursday, had to fend off their constant questions about the polar bear’s whereabouts.
“(I told them) he’s really old and sick so he died,” said the frequent zoo visitor who has seen Inuka over 10 times.
“But kids being kids”, they thought he had passed on because he “bathed in cold water every day”, Saiful added.
Pilot Jason Loh and his family, who originally intended to see Inuka a few days ago, had taken leave from work to visit the zoo on Thursday before the news of his death broke. Instead, Loh found himself leaving a message on the polar bear’s tribute wall.
“We are about the same age, and my entire life, Inuka is one of the only polar bears (in Singapore),” the 31-year-old lamented. “How often do you get to see a real-life polar bear in the tropics? It’s rare.”
WRS said on Wednesday there are plans to refurbish Inuka’s space into a sea lion exhibit “a few months down the road”.
A full autopsy will be performed on Inuka and it has not yet been determined which part of his remains will be kept for educational purposes. Unlike Ah Meng, the zoo’s iconic orangutan who died in 2008, the polar bear would not be buried on site at the zoo.