Interview with a Panda Keeper: Why Some Wild Animals Need to be Kept in Zoos

·5-min read

When you were little did you ever want to work in a zoo? Or want to raise wild animals as pets? Did you grow out of it and decide to become a lawyer instead? When the most recent addition to the Panda family at Singapore’s River Wonders was finally named – Le Le (叻叻) – my first thought was what it would be like to actually be a Panda Keeper.

As everyone surely knows by now, Le Le (叻叻) is the first Giant Panda cub born in Singapore. And the lucky person who gets to spend every day with him is Trisha Tay Ting Ni, Animal Care Officer with the Mandai Wildlife Group. So how did she manage to score this very cool job?

“I was exposed to information about the zoo and wild animals through Zoo-Ed magazines that my mum used to order for my older brother when we were kids, but I only started being interested in working with animals in secondary school,” explains Ms Tay.

“I remember being told the story of how I literally ‘fell deep’ into the zoo drain during photo-taking when I was a small kid. My mum said she was surprised when she snapped the photo as I totally disappeared from her view, and she didn’t hear me cry or make any noise. Only when she bent forward did she realise that I had ended up in a big drain. Perhaps it was a sign that I would end up falling in love with working with animals here.

“I started volunteering with the Singapore Zoo as a volunteer keeper once I reached 15 years old. I would come once a week or so and I volunteered in various sections with a variety of animals. But after a while I realised my interest was in large carnivores and I volunteered mainly in ‘Cat Country’. I remember telling my mum I wanted to quit JC [Junior College] so I could start work at the zoo earlier. But she talked me out of it, and I studied Life Sciences (Biology) at NUS.

“After university I pursued another interest for a few years and was working both locally and overseas. When I got back to Singapore after I left my previous job, I was unsure about what to pursue next and I tried a desk job for a month before realising it was not for me. I came back to volunteering at the zoo again and found out that they were hiring for River Safari, so I decided to apply for a position in the animal care team, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Lead panda caregiver Trisha Tay with Le Le. <br>Photo: Mandai Wildlife Group
Lead panda caregiver Trisha Tay with Le Le.
Photo: Mandai Wildlife Group

Things you need to know about Pandas

Originally part of the large terrestrial animal team taking care of all the animals, when the Giant Pandas arrived in Singapore, Ms Tay was assigned to their team.

“Most of my knowledge is gained on-the-job via learning from the Chinese experts who came with the giant pandas, husbandry manuals, attending meetings or conferences and going for a study trip to the panda bases,” says Ms Tay.

“Some unique characteristics about Giant Pandas that aren’t well known, are that they have a pseudo-thumb which helps them hold their bamboo [to eat] and that not all of them are black and white. There are also brown and white Giant Pandas.

“I’ve also heard that people have commented that it is cruel for Le Le to be sent back to China so soon and he should be kept with Jia Jia for a longer time. However, it is normal for cubs to be independent by 1.5 years old and leave their mother,” Ms Tay explains.

“There will always be people against the keeping of wild animals in zoos. However, sometimes the best chance of survival for wild animals is in accredited zoos, as their habitats have been destroyed to the extent that if we left them on their own in the wild, their chances of survival would be really low, and they might even go extinct without human intervention.

Photo: Mandai Wildlife Group
Photo: Mandai Wildlife Group

“With specialised breeding programmes, ex-situ research, and public education on conservation through accredited zoos, we can ensure that animals on the brink of extinction can have insurance populations in hopes of saving the species and eventually repopulating their natural habitats again if we all make the effort to save what’s left of them,” says Ms Tay.

Most of us are probably more aware of Pandas as pop culture icons, than as living and endangered wild animals these days. According to Ms Tay, this is both positive and negative when it comes to the welfare of the real animals.

“Pandas are well-loved and well-known animals as they are on the logo of WWF and appear in some well-liked cartoon series. It is great that people are aware of Giant Pandas and love them, which helps in their conservation,” Ms Tay says.

“However, there might also be a misconception about the true nature of these animals as some people might think they are cute and cuddly or that Pandas are lonely if they are kept by themselves. But Pandas are bears that can injure us if we’re not careful and they are solitary by nature, so they actually prefer to be alone.

“Additionally, somehow people tend to think that they have black tails (we see that in cartoon characters of Pandas e.g. Kungfu Panda and We Bare Bears) but actually their tails are white.”

Working with Giant Pandas sounds like it might be a glamorous job but there are apparently a few things that might put you off applying for the position. According to Ms Tay, Pandas can not only eat too fast and end up spraying your face with saliva and broken bits of panda biscuits, but their tails also seem to operate like ‘fart buttons’.

“While checking their tail area, they expel gas at the exact same time I push their tails down (like a trigger that releases gas) and I end up with a strong whiff of their farts.”

You can visit the Giant Pandas including Le Le at River Wonders, 80 Mandai Lake Road, Singapore 729826. Go to for more information. Viewing times for the Pandas are scheduled for around 10:30am and 3:30pm daily.

This article Interview with a Panda Keeper: Why Some Wild Animals Need to be Kept in Zoos appeared first on Popspoken.

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