I have always had mixed feelings about zoos trying to balance the feelings of seeing magnificent animals in restricted sad cages against the beneficial scientific and conservation activities that many conduct. As an individual visitor it can be a chance to see, experience, watch, learn from and photograph in real life some of the planet’s most fascinating and awe-inspiring creatures – some of those almost impossible to see in their natural habitat. Equally it can be the chance to see disenchanted, constrained animals living in unnatural areas.
By far the best zoo I have visited is Singapore Zoo. With natural barriers such as moats, ditches and waterways replacing the usual bars and barriers for most displays (a few still have glass), the zoo has an open harmonious feel to it. Displays are thoughtfully landscaped and more generously sized and there is a general mood of satisfied, contented animals throughout the zoo.
Like all zoos, there are a number of highlight displays. Singapore Zoo boasts an impressive primate collection including a wide variety of monkeys, lemurs, chimpanzees, mandrills and the endangered golden lion tamarin (with its striking facial features) which are spread over a couple of island with a variety of forests, bamboos and grasses. A large group of endangered orang-utans have a large expanse of trees, ropes, vines and platforms to keep them entertained on a carefully designed island of their own.
Over fifty Hamadryas Baboons from Ethiopia live in one of the most impressive displays simulating the harsh deserts and the rocky escarpments of Ethiopia which they so nimbly access, climb and clamber for key strategic positions. The area is a riot of noisy screeches, clouds of dust, sharp dashing movements, revenge attacks, peaceful gazing and cautious grooming. As in the wild, caring mothers piggy-back their youngsters from the slightest hint of danger while young males stage mock fights in preparation for more senior roles.
The zoo also houses a rich collection of cats including lions, leopards, pumas and jaguars. Most notable are three white tigers (not albinos) which only occur in nature around 1 in 10,000 births. Similarly rare king cheetahs which have a different pattern to the normal spots (caused by a recessive gene and mainly bred in captivity) are included among the cheetahs. With bigger areas and more natural settings, some were tricky to spot highlighting the impressive camouflage techniques of these large felines. Nearby are a number of traditional African animals such as giraffes, zebras, white rhinos, hippos, warthog and antelope.
Though heavy on air-conditioning, iced water pools and large lumps of ice, the idea of a polar bear display in a tropical zoo is questionable. The display is cleverly designed so that you can watch these bears both above and below water, polar bears being impressive and powerful swimmers (a similar method is used with the hippos). Live fish and food frozen into ice is included in their diet to maintain some natural instincts. Being a hot, humid day when I was there, these majestic animals appeared completely sapped of energy.
Though I didn’t visit the area as I have seen them all back home, the zoo features an extensive and popular Australian zone including kangaroos, wallabies and emus (though no koalas), along with the usual collection of Australian lizards, snakes, spiders and other weird creepy-crawlies. The world’s most venomous snake – the taipan – is included though safely stored behind glass.
There are numerous other animals on display from butterflies and birds to reptiles and Asian elephants. It is easy to spend a rewarding full day wandering the paths and tracks (see map) either enjoying the posted feedings spread throughout the day or simply watching the wide variety of nature’s kingdom in what is surely one of the finest zoo settings of any. To escape the harsh Singapore humidity, there are plenty of places to sit and simply enjoy the animals at play. Attached to the zoo is a Night Safari but that is a story for another day.