Not really one for cities, I had anticipated my stay in Singapore would be more about catching up with people than finding things to photograph, but I had no idea about all the public access parks and gardens and the immediate access to the jungle that crouches right at the edge of the city and the Long-tailed Macaques that roam wild and free within it.
Hort Park, situated in the south-western area of Singapore, is 23 hectares of manicured lawns and winding paths which are frequently punctuated by horticultural and landscaping displays. The carefully planned and beautifully executed nooks give visitors a glimpse of what their own garden might look like if they hired that landscaper. Some of these mini gardens were designed to attract butterflies, others to attract dragonflies, some mimicked the native forests and jungles with trickling streams and mossy rocks, while others demonstrated the possible productivity of your own subsistence fruit and vegetable garden.
A multitude of butterflies competed over the flowers, dragonflies glinted like bright jewels amongst the moss, fencepost dragons posed in bushes drinking in the humid sunlight, while birds scurried about their business in a wonderland of food and shelter. Hort Park may have been artificial, but it still supplied a rich bounty of plants and animals for a wannabe nature photographer!
Two other well-known wildlife locations in Singapore are the Zoo and Aquarium. Both sites came highly recommended and lived up to their reputations of being massive and impressive. However, as the existence of zoos becomes increasingly controversial, the jury is still out on my own opinion about these establishments.
Singapore Zoo is very well designed for visitors. A shuttle bus loops the park with frequent vehicles and regular stops for an excellent hop-on, hop-off service to aid the weary walker. Most of the enclosures are quite modern with either expansive glass walls or low fences and moats to ensure the visitors can get a clear, unimpeded view of the animals. Most enclosures were well vegetated, although I would not vouch for the plant-life reflecting that of the animals’ native habitat. Most of the primate enclosures seemed particularly good, with lots of rope vines and ‘canopy’ platforms for the animals to engage with. But the notable exceptions to the enclosure design were the Polar Bear and Cheetah.
The tragic plight of the Polar Bear in the wild is fairly common knowledge. But, even for a bear bred in captivity that has never known the feel of ice beneath his paws, it was just as appalling to see Inuka “the star of the Frozen Tundra” in his concrete box. In an attempt to escape the oppressive heat and humidity, Inuka languished in his murky pool. A single palm frond the only toy I could see. While I’m not suggesting I could design a better enclosure for a Polar Bear, this one seemed pretty crap.
Cheetahs are another species that are emotionally challenging to see in a cage. It is difficult to get past the idea that an animal so highly adapted to run should not be kept in captivity. Especially in a small, lush, rainforest enclosure in Singapore Zoo. The IUCN Red List classifies both Polar Bears and Cheetahs as vulnerable, which makes it very unlikely that many people will get the opportunity to see these beautiful animals in the wild in their own natural habitat. The crux of many modern zoo mission statements is to provide education about animals and their habitats, and to provide the opportunity for visitors to have a ‘moment’ with an animal and to establish a ‘connection’ that inspires that visitor to actively help conserve and protect that animal and its habitat.
I have no doubt that Singapore Zoo strives for the same, they certainly provide great information about the species and their habitats and promote a huge range of conservation programs. There is however, a circus-like performance aspect to Singapore Zoo that just made me uncomfortable. There were scheduled shows and feeding times throughout the day. And they were shows, not ‘Meet the Keeper’ type experience where a keeper or other staff member stands out the front of the enclosure and speaks about the species while animals do whatever it is that they do. They were choreographed performances where the sea lion caught frisbees thrown by members of the audience, the elephants ‘stole’ bananas from the keepers and sprayed the audience with water, the lions leapt into the air to catch lumps of meat thrown to them from the public viewing areas and an orangutan family sat on a platform being hand fed by keepers while visitors ate their own breakfast at nearby tables and could pose for photographs with the magnificent apes.
These performances certainly allowed people to get much closer to the animals and likely increased the chance of establishing that connection that leads to proactive conservation behaviour. I was more than happy to have giant stick insects placed on my arm so I could feel their tiny feet gripping and stroke their surprisingly soft bodies. And it was quite amazing how close you could get to the Orangutans. But where do you draw the line? At what point does the welfare of the animal become less important than the experience of the person? How natural can any animal’s behaviour be in an artificial world? No enclosure in the world, no matter how big or engaging, is ever going to be better than the natural environment for an intelligent mammal like an ape. Or can the increased life expectancy of captive animals compared to wild animals be a measure of how much better captivity is? Documentaries like Blackfish certainly make you question the ethics and morality of keeping wild animals in captivity for the pleasure of people.
I have always loved zoos and aquariums, both as a child and as an adult. They are powerful learning tools and give many people the opportunity to see animals in the flesh that they would otherwise never see. But there is a yawning chasm of difference between good zoos and bad zoos.