Nature Condensed II: Ah Meng & the Primates

It was getting dark at MacRitchie Reservoir. A large crowd had gathered, because Singaporeans usually enjoy a spectacle.

At sunset on 31 March, 1982, a 102kg orangutan fell from a 25-metre tree, and fractured her left arm. The fall ended a three-day long episode at the reservoir involving the sudden escape of Ah Meng, Singapore’s most iconic orangutan.[1]

14890344_10154329639777013_1103194720508399283_o
MacRitchie Reservoir, where Ah Meng had her adventure

 

What was Ah Meng doing in a tree in a reservoir?

The Diva Acts Climbs Up

The Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) had commissioned a short promotional film that was to be aired in Europe. One scene required Ah Meng the orangutan to appear in it.

Filming had commenced in the early hours of 29 March, amid the dense tropical vegetation of MacRitchie Reservoir, and had proceeded smoothly until the crew returned from lunch. The director, had called for the ape to climb halfway up a tree.

Curious about her new environment, the orangutan climbed beyond the reach of her human keeper, until she was at the top of a tall tree – and then refused to come down.

Despite numerous pleas, threats and treats – including the use of Ah Meng’s two-year-old baby, May – to appeal to her maternal instincts, the ape refused to descend from her newfound perch.[2]

Finally, after two nights without food and water, she fell to the ground after being cornered in a tree. Large branches from surrounding trees were cut away to prevent her escape.

The orangutan fractured her left arm, and was taken to a private veterinarian, who put the limb in a cast. Ah Meng was consoled with a large mug of coffee, her favourite beverage.

Just like Twiggy the panther nearly a decade earlier, Ah Meng’s escape captivated the Singaporean public’s imagination. The Zoo was inundated with gifts and cards wishing the orangutan a speedy recovery. [3]

A Star is Born

Ah Meng was an accidental icon. The Zoo had initially groomed another orang-utan, Susie to be a Zoo mascot, but the latter had died from pregnancy toxaemia in 1974.

Ah Meng was selected despite being “kind of sour-faced” because she was more photogenic, and did not slouch. [4] Having been raised as a Chinese family’s pet, she was also comfortable in human company, which further added to her suitability.

 

In time, she would grow to become a household name in Singapore, as well as an international icon of Singapore’s growing tourism industry. By 1982, the nineteen-year old Ah Meng was already “the star of the Zoo”.[5] Within four years, the celebrated orangutan had been featured in at least twenty-eight travel films, and had been the face of at least 274 published stories. [6]

A Zoo Grows

Ah Meng’s meteoric rise from household pet to household name paralleled the fortunes of the Singapore Zoo in this period. From a primarily domestic audience, the Zoo began to shift its promotional efforts toward more international visitors.

While Ah Meng may have been the most visible symbol of this transformation, orangutans were not the only notable primates of this period. Gorillas and golden monkeys are also critical to understanding this era of change and international connections.

As the Zoological Gardens grew increasingly successful and more confident in its animal breeding efforts, it also widened its international networks of breeding and animal exchange. Rare animals, such as lowland gorillas, were acquired, and expensive enclosures built to display these creatures. While most of these efforts were successful, the opening of the Gorilla Exhibit in 1983, followed shortly after by the abrupt death of all four of its gorilla specimens, demonstrated the limits of these zookeeping successes.

Breakfast with Ah Meng

The Singapore Zoological Gardens was not a popular site for tourists in its initial years.[11] By 1981, the Zoo had already independently concluded that it was approaching “saturation level” for local visitor attendance, based on the experience of other zoos.[12] It was not easy, however, to attract international tourists. The Zoo thus began to pursue determined efforts at raising overseas tourist numbers, and the Zoo’s profile overseas. [13]

One of the Zoo’s more notable efforts involved guests sharing a meal with orangutans.

ahmeng2
The angmohs meet a different kind of angmo

 

Priced at an “extremely expensive” $30, the package included a buffet breakfast served at 9.00am, after which an orangutan (usually the redoubtable Ah Meng) would join guests, followed by a photography session.[15]

The programme was not very popular initially. After a tremendous amount of international publicity, including coverage in the television and radio broadcasts in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, USA and Italy, however, its popularity grew quickly.[16]

From an initial 764 participants in 1982, the annual figure reached an astounding 60,000 by 1989, of which a significant proportion comprised international visitors. [18]

Who knew eating breakfast with ten metres of a red-haired primate could attract so many angmohs too?

Animal Exchanges

In this period, the zoo also undertook a series of increasingly ambitious animal breeding programmes. There was a growing confidence in the Singapore Zoo’s ability to rear animals.

Newspaper reports regularly trumpeted the Zoo’s successes in breeding animals. A “minor population boom” was reported in 1984, which the Zoo attributed to the excellent living conditions they provided.[26] In 1988, there was an “unmatched baby boom”, with a record fifty-one births. Such successes encouraged the Zoo to exhibit animals which were increasingly costly and difficult to care for.[28]

There was also a growing willingness amongst other foreign institutions to work with the Singapore Zoo. A pair of Komodo dragons were presented by the Indonesian President to Singapore in 1986, making Singapore only one of seven zoos outside of Indonesia to exhibit these reptiles.[29] I

n 1987, the Zoo moreover began a series of high-profile animal exchange programmes, beginning with a pair of golden snub-nosed monkeys specially flown in from Shaanxi, China.

monkey golden.jpg

The monkeys were the first of the Zoo’s “Special Loan” exhibits, rare animals on temporary loan from overseas zoos. The primates, insured at a total cost of over $1.7 million dollars, were accompanied by their own Chinese veterinarian and zookeeper.[30] The Singapore Zoo was the first Southeast Asian zoo to display them, and only the fifth in the world to do so.

You must always take care of the foreign talent right? Whether red-heads or gold-heads…The monkeys were housed in a climate-controlled enclosure built at a cost of $650,000. They “adapted well” to their expensive enclosures, and were comfortable enough to mate. The exhibit drew an estimated 500,000 visitors from May to November 1987.[31]

A pair of “Special Loan” white tigers from the Cincinnati Zoo followed after the golden monkeys. The tigers arrived in May 1988, and were exhibited for a period of three months. It was estimated that nearly 370,000 visited the zoo during the tigers’ tenure in Singapore.[33]

Gorilla Business

Flush with success, and citing that it boasted the “largest orangutan colony in captivity”, the Zoo announced its ambitions to breed endangered lowland gorillas in 1983.[34]

Singapore-bred gorillas, it was envisioned, could then be sold to other zoos, or traded for rarer animals to display, contributing to Singapore’s participation in burgeoning animal exchange programmes with overseas animal institutions. An acute global shortage of female gorillas, and the prohibitive cost of acquiring one, made this vision an ambitious one. The expertise which zookeepers had acquired in orangutan breeding, however, gave its administration the confidence to proceed. [35]

A Gorilla Exhibit officially opened in November 1983 with four male gorillas to great fanfare. Prince Rainier of Monaco donated two adult gorillas; the other pair were juveniles on long term exchange from the Bristol Zoo. It was the first exhibit of its kind in Southeast Asia, and the single biggest project undertaken since the opening of the Zoo in 1973.[36]

But the Gorilla Exhibit failed spectacularly.

gorilla.jpg
Not Harambe, but just as sad a story

To cut a long, tragic story short: everybody died. In December 1983, just weeks after the Exhibit opened. Gori, a twenty-three-year-old gorilla, succumbed to an infection from the soil bacteria Pseudomonas pseudomallei. He died three days after he was observed to have lost his appetite.[37]

Goliath, a three-year-old juvenile, died just twelve days later from a similar infection. It was established later that the bacterium which had infected both gorillas was an endemic strain commonly found in wet, tropical soil.[38]

Raised in largely sterile environments, the gorillas had developed no natural resistance to the pathogen. Precautions taken in the wake of the two deaths, such as strictly monitored diets and quarantines, and even the development of a local vaccine, were futile. The two surviving gorillas died in 1984 from infections caused by the same soil bacteria.[39]

The sudden deaths of all four gorillas within two years came as an extraordinary shock, a huge blow to the Zoo’s reputation. The Zoo’s acquisition of the gorillas had been highly visible affairs, involving a long-term animal exchange programme with the Bristol Zoo, and as gifts from European royalty. Their demise attracted international anger. For example, the International Primate Protection League suggested the Singapore Zoo be blacklisted, and banned from exhibiting gorillas.[40]

Change and Connections

Whereas animal escapes and personnel inexperience typified the Zoo’s initial years, Ah Meng and the gorillas, who represented the Zoo’s success and failures on an international stage respectively, typified a new era of change and connections.

With growing self-assurance, both in promoting itself and breeding its animals, however, the Zoo turned to progressively elaborate projects, leveraging on growing connections with zoos around the world.

Such joint international animal exchanges paralleled the zoo’s shift in target audience, as it sought to raise its profile to overseas visitors.

Epilogue

As it entered the twentieth century’s last decade, the Zoo would experience new triumphs – but also confront challenges from unexpected quarters. The next chapter in the Zoo’s history would be heralded by a special birth in the early hours of 26 December, 1990.

References and Sources

[1]“She is safely back in her den”, ST, 1 Apr 1982.

[2]“High and mighty”, ST, 30 Mar 1982.

[3]“She is safely back in her den”, ST, 1 Apr 1982.

[4] Harrison, Interview, 2008.

[5] “Director’s Review”, Singapore Zoological Gardens Annual Report 1982, (Singapore: Singapore Zoological Gardens, 1983), p.5.

[6] Sharp, 21 Years, p.80.

[7] “The Eighties.”, Singapore Economic Development Board – Investing Business in Singapore, Accessed Feb 28, 2017, https://www.edb.gov.sg/content/edb/en/why-singapore/about-singapore/our-history/1980s.html.

[8] International arrivals doubled from 2,828,899 in 1980 to about 4,829,557 by 1989. “International Visitor Arrivals by Region/Country Of Residence, Monthly”, Department of Statistics, Singapore, Accessed Feb 28, 2017, http://www.tablebuilder.singstat.gov.sg/publicfacing/createDataTable.action?refId=2264.

[9] For the Zoo, tourist numbers climbed from 22,584 in 1980 to 85,503 by 1985. “Director’s Review”, Singapore Zoological Gardens Annual Report 1985, (Singapore: Singapore Zoological Gardens, 1986), p.16.

[10] “Zoo gets set for lucky visitor”, ST, 13 Nov 1974.

[11] When the Zoo was first proposed in 1969, one of its objectives were to “add to the tourist attractions of Singapore”. Graetz, “Architectural Design”, p.3.; The STPB did not initially believe the Zoo was worth promoting to international visitors, since every city already had a zoo. Harrison, Interview, 2008.

[12]“Chairman’s Statement”, Singapore Zoological Gardens Annual Report 1981, (Singapore: Singapore Zoological Gardens, 1982), p.3.

[13]“Zoo out to lure more Japanese”, ST, 21 April 1986.

[14]“Chairman’s Statement”, Annual Report 1982, p.5.

[15]“Breakfast at the zoo tour starts in May”, ST, 3 April 1982

[16]“Director’s Review”, Annual Report 1982, p.11.

[17] “Director’s Review”, Singapore Zoological Gardens Annual Report 1984, (Singapore: Singapore Zoological Gardens, 1985), p.16.

[18]Harrison, Interview, 2008. “New Terrace for zoo breakfast”, ST, 16 Oct 1989.

[19] Ibid.

[20]$233,334 was spent in 1982 on advertising. “Chairman’s Statement”, Annual Report, 1982, p.4.

[21]“Zoo will receive the SIA ad treatment”, ST, 12 Dec 1983.

[22]‘Zoological Gardens moving to woo Japanese tourists”, ST, 2 Jun 1986.

[23] “Exchange is fair game for zoos”, ST, 8 Feb 1980.

[24] “New zoo director Harrison among youngest in the world”, ST, 16 Feb 1981.

[25] “Chairman’s Statement”, Annual Report 1981, p.7. Harrison was later the president of the Southeast Asian Zoo Association (SEAZA) for a period of two terms (six years). The SEAZA was a loose, regional grouping of Southeast Asian zoos that conducted training programmes for zookeepers and shared information about their animals. Harrison, Interview, 2008.

[26]“Chimps galore in Singapore”, ST, 25 Sep 1984.

[27] “Zoo’s breeding plan a success”, ST, 25 Oct 1986.

[28] “Animal baby boom a boon to zoos here and abroad”, ST, 27 Mar 1988

[29]“Suharto’s gift of two komodo dragons now at the Zoo”, ST, 7 Nov 1989

[30] “Very Important Primates”, ST, 20 May 1987; Sharp, 21 Years, p.90.

[31]“Golden monkey may be pregnant”, ST, 21 Oct 1987.

[32] “Animal baby boom a boon to zoos here and abroad”, ST, 27 Mar 1988.

[33]“White tigers zoo’s latest draw”, ST, 2 May 1988.; “Popular white tigers”, ST, 13 Aug 1988.

[34] Sharp, 21 Years, p.95.

[35]“Breeding the Big Apes”, ST, 30 Mar 1983.

[36]“Director’s Review”, Singapore Zoological Gardens Annual Report 1983, (Singapore: Singapore Zoological Gardens, 1984), p.11.; “Zoo’s Big Day”, ST, 22 Nov 1983.

[37]“Star newcomer Gori dies after coma”, ST, 16 Dec 1983.

[38]“Second gorilla dies”, Singapore Monitor, 29 Dec 1983.

[39]“Director’s Review”, Annual Report 1983, p.20.; Sharp, 21 Years, p.95.

[40] Sharp, 21 Years, p.94.

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