SINGAPORE: When Ms Delvinder Kaur signed up for a stint as a show presenter at the Singapore Zoo in 2013, she expected nothing more than a fun holiday job of playing with animals and speaking to visitors before moving on to do her university degree.
Fast forward six years, Delvinder, 28, hopes to retire in the zoo.
“I’ve seen a lot of my seniors who have retired here, and even after retiring, they still come back. You see the passion, and I think that’s the same passion that I would want in myself as well,” she said.
The Life Science Associate is just one of the many zookeepers who joined the Singapore Zoo without a related degree.
“Like most young kids at that point in time, I was just looking for a fun job, something that was just out of the ordinary, and Singapore Zoo was one of the areas,” she said.
Show presenting gave her the opportunity to work with a variety of animals, such as sea lions and elephants, and develop her understanding of them. And it was this understanding that allowed her to appreciate the animals a lot more.
In fact, she enjoyed her post-A levels holiday job so much that she never stopped.
“I fell in love with the job,” she said, “and I dragged it on a bit longer to find out what it is that I wanted to do.”
A few months turned into another three years before she decided to continue the studies that she had put on hold.
In 2015, Delvinder moved from being a show presenter to the zoology department, where she got her first taste of working with invertebrates - specifically, insects.
She explained that she found the classification of animals - the different species and subspecies - one of the most challenging things about the job initially.
“I think not being from a life science background, zoology background, did make it a bit difficult initially … but the thing about Singapore Zoo and being a zookeeper, a lot of things happen with on-the-job training.
“Being on the field and working with different teams and with the guidance of your seniors, it allows you to develop the needed skills to manage and take care of animals and to understand the animals we have under human care as well,” she said.
All the guidance and hard work paid off when she managed to move from her part-time position to a full-time junior zookeeper position in 2016. At the same time, she started her English Language and Communications degree with the Singapore University of Social Sciences, which she is due to complete in a year.
“I feel like I grew up in the zoo. I became a bit more mature in this environment, because I understand it a bit more,” she said.
“It maybe started off as something very childish, (but) it’s something more important and valuable to me now - it’s a greater cause.”
NOT JUST A PHYSICAL JOB
Delvinder is one of an increasing number of female zookeepers who have joined Wildlife Reserves Singapore in the past decade.
Currently, 78 out of the 246 keepers under the zoo's employ are female - including the first female elephant keeper.
Although zookeeping was traditionally thought to be more suited for a man, Delvinder felt this stemmed from a lack of understanding over a zookeeper's work.
“I think it’s a common misconception that zookeeping is a masculine job, that it’s a man’s job and you have to carry heavy items and there’s a lot of work and effort that goes into it,” said Delvinder.
That was one of the main worries her parents had too, she added, as they didn’t understand the job scope.
“It took me three years to convince them that the job was alright and this is the field that I wanted and I got my blessings from them,” she said.
Zookeeping encompasses more than just caring for the animals. Other than zoology, there are departments such as conservation, nutrition, veterinary - which work closely to ensure the zoo functions smoothly.
There is also a research component to Delvinder’s work, one that she has earned accomplishments in. She contributed to a pioneering study on the breeding of Dragon-Headed Katydids, a type of invertebrate, published by Wildlife Reserves Singapore.
Ultimately, all this research helps with conservation of these animals and public education.
“Animals in zoos are representations of their wild counterparts. We have them in zoos under human care (which allows us) to view them up close, to learn more about them, and also to see them, appreciate them, and understand what we can do for those out in the wild,” she said.
She added that conservation begins with the smallest projects. Even actions like understanding the role of bees in the ecosystem and leaving a beehive alone to perform its natural functions would help wildlife thrive.
Especially since invertebrates are such commonly misunderstood animals, public education is crucial to changing the public’s mindset of them, said Delvinder.
“A lot of people, they want to help, they like the idea of having more butterflies … of having more invertebrates around, but they don’t know how to go down that track,” she said. This is where the zoo’s educational programmes come into place.
She pointed to the zoo's Swallowtail Day held this year, where members of the public were invited to join them to look for the butterflies. Not only did the activity teach participants about Swallowtail butterflies, the event closed with a sharing sessions with specialists, who taught participants about the things they could do to help the conservation of the species, she said.
“Basically, zoos play a very important role in terms of education, conservation, and having good human care for the animals,” said Delvinder.
“WHEN THE BEES DIE, WE DIE”
In her day-to-day duties, Delvinder looks after the wellbeing of all the invertebrates in the zoo. This includes monitoring the exhibits, back-of-house breeding facility. She also takes on projects.
She is currently working on the Pollinator Project which focuses on improving the population of butterflies and stingless bees through surveys of these species across all of Wildlife Reserves Singapore's parks, studying different potential habitats, and enhancing existing ones.
While Delvinder exudes confidence and is knowledgeable about invertebrates now, this was not always the case.
When she started her posting with the invertebrates, she remembered having to come face-to-face with one of her greatest fears: the Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches.
With some of them nearly half a palm in size, these black-headed, brown-bodied, segmented creatures can scurry through the tanks at a dizzying pace. Each tank can hold up to a few hundred cockroaches - although Delvinder remembered her first tank being four times the size.
“I had to clean the whole tank full of cockroaches, and that was my first day working as an invertebrate keeper.
“As you can see, you can imagine the cockroaches were scurrying all around … Every time I put my hand in and the cockroaches scurry over, I would freak out and remove my hand from the tank,” she said.
It took her about a week to get over her fear, but having the opportunity to learn about these cockroaches, to understand them, and to hold her first cockroach, was crucial in getting over her fear, she said.
It is ignorance that causes people to fear invertebrates so much, said Delvinder.
“It shows as well, that when we don’t really understand the animals, we tend to stigmatise them, and that can also affect our outlook on them. So it’s something that I’ve learned, and I’m also helping others to learn it as well,” she said.
In fact, invertebrates play a larger role than most people might expect: comprising 97 per cent of the animal kingdom, they are important for the continued survival of all animal species on Earth, she said.
“There’s a line: ‘When the bees die, we die,’” said Delvinder. “It says a lot already. In a way, it’s a domino effect. Once the bottom foundation layer starts to go, everything else will continue as well, because not only are you taking the main runners of the ecosystem, you’re also taking away those who maintain the rainforest, you’re also taking away the food for the other animals.”
“SOMETHING THAT I DON’T THINK I EVER REGRET”
Looking back, Delvinder finds the learning the most rewarding part of her job.
“For me, it’s always the ability to learn something new. Every time we learn something new, we can apply it in a certain way, and (invertebrates) is an area which I personally think is very understudied.
“There’s so much that we should learn … So being able to play a part in that and working with the other members of my internal and external team is one of the most rewarding things for me,” she said.
And it’s this desire to learn, to contribute, and to work with these animals that continues to drive this accidental zookeeper.
“You don’t realise it the moment you walk in - it takes a bit of time to understand why we’re doing this, what do we get out of it, and how (our work) is helping … (I do this) because of my appreciation and understanding, and what I think the future should be for these animals,” she said.
Reflecting on her unconventional path, Delvinder said: “It's something I don't think I ever regret. It’s gotten me to this stage right now.
"It's feel that sometimes Singapore is a bit too fast-tracked, and we need to stand back and understand what we’re interested in, and for me, allow me to develop my passion as well.”