This 25-year-old filmmaking student veered off the beaten track to care for rhinos, giraffes and zebras
Indah Aliyah would visit the Singapore Zoo with her dad on their shared birthday every year and being a zookeeper was a childhood dream. She tells CNA Women that young people shouldn’t feel restricted by their course of study or a typical career path but should follow their passions instead.
Each morning, Indah Aliyah starts her day cleaning up as many as six 25kg bins of poop from the white rhinoceros she cares for. Next, she prepares about 50kg to 60kg of breakfast for the herd of 10. She does the same for the zebras and giraffes, and then spends her afternoons training these large animals.
Working with these wild animals is physically demanding, and involves some element of danger as well. “I am always cautious when working in close contact with them because they are unpredictable,” the 25-year-old zookeeper at the Singapore Zoo said.
It is a job that not many in our city would choose, and also not a career traditionally associated with young women.
Indah had originally pursued a very different career path. While studying Screen Media at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), she did freelance event videography, and also part-timed as a scriptwriter and filmmaking trainer for secondary school students with special needs and from troubled families.
However, after getting her diploma, and interning as a video editor for promotional advertisements, she came to the realisation that a career in filmmaking was not suited to her. “I did not feel inspired by the job and always felt very tired,” she recalled.
So despite a tertiary education in screen media, she decided to follow her gut, stray off the beaten track and apply for a job at the zoo. She hasn’t looked back since.
RELIVING CHILDHOOD MEMORIES
The truth is, Indah knew she wanted to be a zookeeper from the time she was in kindergarten. “My dad and I are big animal lovers. The two of us share the same birthday, and when I was a child, we had a tradition of going to the zoo on our birthdays.
“My favourite part of the zoo was the polar bear exhibit. They are really majestic animals. Their fur is not really white but translucent, and their skin is black. Their whiteness comes from the reflection of the snow from the sun. They are really cool.
“Sometimes, I’d spend an hour staring at the polar bear Inuka and his mother Sheba,” she recalled of the two polar bears at the Singapore Zoo, which have since died of old age.
My dad passed away from a stroke a year back. But I always think that he is just up there looking down at me and seeing the cool stuff I get to do at work every day.
The zoo visits continued until Indah’s teenage years when her father was diagnosed with diabetes and became wheelchair bound. Although they visited the zoo less frequently, they enjoyed each visit, nonetheless. These are some of Indah’s most cherished memories.
Today, as Indah stands on the inside of the exhibits working closely with the animals in the zoo, she feels like it is a dream come true. “I love animals and the coolest thing about working at the zoo is that I get to train them and bond with them,” she said.
Each day, she does basic target training with these magnificent beasts, encouraging them to touch a ball at the end of a stick with their nose, and rewarding them with a click or whistle, and treats such as fruits and vegetables.
This is usually combined with other forms of training to condition and desensitise the animals for future medical check-ups. For blood-draw training for instance, Indah will touch the animal at the spot where blood is typically drawn by vets – such as the neck, ears or legs. For hoof training, she touches or holds the animals’ hoof to desensitise them for trims or check-ups by the vet.
These training sessions usually take place in the afternoon and involve two keepers, one focusing on target training, and the other on blood draw or hoof training. “It takes a lot of patience and communication. Sometimes, because of miscommunication, the training may go sideways.
“Because these are wild animals, they can be unpredictable. I try to read the body language and if they are a bit panicky or in a bad mood, I won’t push for training and will just let them enjoy the rest of the day,” she said.
Another enjoyable part of her job are the token feeding sessions that take place at specific times of the day. Guests pay a token sum to hand-feed the giraffes and rhinoceros their favourite treats, such as slices of honeydew. This is one of the times Indah gets to interact with guests.
“Some children get a bit frightened of the giraffes and rhinoceros during token feedings because they are quite big. Marco (the giraffe) comes from a height and it can be quite scary when looking at him from a low angle. But it is great fun and by the time kids return for the second or third time, you can see their confidence level rise,” she observed.
AN ANIMAL LOVER’S DREAM
While she enjoys interacting with young visitors, the best part of Indah’s job is spending her day with animals.
“Something about animals makes me feel at peace. It is also interesting to see how they live and adapt, especially with how our world is changing,” reflected the self-professed introvert, who often finds herself talking to the animals.
“The highlight of my day is seeing them do weird things. Izara, one of our young zebras, has a new habit of standing on top of the food trough while eating, even though the rest of the herd is also eating from the same trough.
“Our rhinoceros are always playing catching with one another, and our young giraffes love to taunt the wild macaques (monkeys) in the zoo, although they are also scared of them,” she laughed.
She has developed a close relationship with many of these animals. “My favourite zebra is Desta, our big male. He reacts differently to me as compared to the other keepers.
“He is very gentle with me, listens when I call his name and responds well. Compared to my other colleagues, it is easier for me to train him. For the giraffes, I bonded more with Balaji because he is very extroverted and loves attention.”
“My favourite rhinoceros is Dalia because she was the very first rhinoceros I met when I joined the Singapore Zoo in March 2020. She was three months old then. She only reached my waist and was full of energy. The first day I met her, I was scratching her on her neck, and she loved it so much that she fell on her belly for me. Imagine scratching a dog – it’s almost the same,” she laughed.
This bond is all the more precious because it is usually the animals that choose their favourite keeper, and not the other way around. “They are wild animals not pets. You can’t force a bond if it is not meant to be. We let them decide,” Indah said.
This fulfils a childhood wish of hers. “I remember when I was young, I had three rabbits and a cat, and was always pestering my parents for more pets – guinea pigs, hamsters, birds… And now, I’m working with such cool animals,” she mused.
Indah hopes her job will help spread her love for animals. “At the end of the day, we’re in the business of protecting wildlife. Not everyone gets the opportunity to see rhinoceros in the wild. So the zoo allows a lot of people to see these wild animals, observe them and fall in love with them so that they will hopefully want to protect them too,” she said.
Seeing the light in children’s eyes when they visit the zoo and learn interesting facts about the animals also reminds Indah of her younger self and the good times she had with her dad. “My dad passed away from a stroke a year back. But I always think that he is just up there looking down at me and seeing the cool stuff I get to do at work every day,” she confided.
While Indah still remains interested in filmmaking, she is happy that she deviated from it and took a leap of faith into a different industry. “The job was what I expected but also so much more,” she said.
She also hopes to connect the dots between zookeeping and filmmaking by exploring wildlife photography and videography for the zoo or as a personal hobby.
“I don’t think we only have one route in life or in our careers – there are definitely many options. So don’t be afraid to dive away from the expected route. You never know what can happen.”
CNA Women is a section on CNA Lifestyle that seeks to inform, empower and inspire the modern woman. If you have women-related news, issues and ideas to share with us, email CNAWomen [at] mediacorp.com.sg.