27-year-old zookeeper shares about the highs and lows of the unconventional career
Besides the feeding and cleaning there’s much more that goes behind the profession of zookeeping.
While most of her friends are easing into their office cubicles, Shanice Lee’s day unfurls in a much different fashion.
It’s 10am on a Thursday morning at Singapore Zoo and the primates zookeeper is busy setting the stage for the stars of the show.
In front of throngs of visitors, the 27-year-old wades through the foliage and plants herself at an inconspicuous spot. Moments later, orangutans Natu and Joko swing into view. As the crowd welcomes them with clicks of the camera, Shanice gingerly lifts a wooden pole to help the orangutans make a safe descent from the treetops to the centre stage where they greet visitors with cheeky poses.
This segment, Breakfast in the Wild at Ah Meng Restaurant, is part of Shanice’s daily routine as caretaker of Natu and Joko.
She recalls when she first began her career at Mandai Wildlife Reserve five years ago, the two boys were more shy. “It’s also after a few years of engaging with them and being around them that we sort of grew a lot closer and that’s also why only I can bring them down,” she jests, referring to when the keepers have to get the animals back into their enclosures. She adds that one of the sure signs the orangutans are comfortable with the keepers is if they chirp or grunt in response to their names being called.
Besides Breakfast in the Wild, Shanice’s mornings are also packed with physically laborious duties. This involves the cleaning of exhibits, food preparation and addressing any ongoing issues such as maintenance of the exhibits.
From noon, she gets more engaged with positive reinforcement training, such as recall training whereby keepers positively encourage the animals to return to their habitat areas as and when needed.
There’s also medical training which covers aspects like monthly body weight taking, to ensure the animals are in their best state — which can be quite a challenge. However, it’s one she has successfully trained Natu and Joko to do. She adds that this small win is one of her memorable experiences with the boys.
Another more “advanced” and difficult aspect of medical training is vaccination, shares Shanice, as the keepers have to train the orangutans such that they will voluntarily offer their arms. Unfortunately, this is still a work in progress as the orangutans are fearful of the procedure.
Keepers like Shanice are also heavily involved in research work. This includes investigating potential stress factors of zoo features to ensure that they are safe environments for the orangutans. This usually begins with a simple idea, a bubble of thought, which keepers discuss and develop into hypotheses. Various teams then collaborate to birth research papers.
There are also topics of research that are less complex. It can be as straightforward as finding out what the animals prefer to eat. But understanding their preferences plays a crucial role in sustaining their population over time.
“That’s really the big goal. (I want to) see how I can evaluate my commitment a bit more to the bigger picture which is conservation and sustainability because I’m pretty sure there are a lot of other ways to help or to do more. I’m still on a journey of figuring it out.”
As interesting as the job sounds, however, there are many days when Shanice thinks of jumping to another career. In fact, she almost quit during her initial years of zookeeping. Back then, most of her days were physically intensive, with a heavy focus on husbandry.
“It was tough because I think for a hot minute I came in and I was like, is that all there is to this job?”
She confesses that at the back of her mind, she knew she still had the luxury to “conveniently backtrack” and switch to another career.
But, under the guidance from her bosses and head keepers, she understood that it was simply something she had to deal with. It is also only through husbandry that keepers can understand their animals better since they’re working in close contact with where the animals live and what the animals eat, says Shanice.
Another factor that has really kept her going in the field is her aversion to people watching her “lose”. She says: “I’m not gonna lie, it hasn’t been a very easy journey from the start, even from the studies, up until now.”
Her decision to study zoology in Melbourne, Australia wasn’t supported by many people, with only her mother having faith in her. The rest of her family and friends were hesitant since zookeeping is a rather unconventional choice of careers.
After attaining her degree in zoology from the University of Melbourne, returning home to work seemed “like a natural reflex”. She candidly admits that starting from homeground was also her way of proving people wrong.
“Maybe the deeper part about how I feel towards my job is more so about letting me use my own ways and show you what there is to an occupation that a lot of people don’t have the luxury of time to go and find out more.”
That said, as gung-ho as she is, there still remain days when Shanice feels demoralised. She shares that given the “niche nature” of the job, apart from her colleagues, it’s hard to find other friends or peers who can relate to the highs and lows of her career.
Another cause for frustration is that many also seem to harbour the misconception that there’s a lack of career progression with zookeeping. The public’s perception of zookeeping is and will invariably be limited to the feeding of animals and cleaning up after them, says Shanice. “It gets quite discouraging sometimes because it’s hard to explain to a person who is coming to the zoo (for) one day. There’s so much more that goes behind zookeeping.”
For Shanice, she has aspirations to delve more into the “nitty gritty details” of managing a zoo at a curatorial level, as well as go into more research work.
As she inches closer to her long-term goals, Shanice keeps in mind an important lesson – when it comes to something based on science, and churns mainly off on passion, the rewards are often intangible and only become apparent in hindsight. Immediate gratification can be a rarity, she says, especially when working with nature.
“I’m talking about calls for conservation or even sustainability. You just got to keep (in) the back of your mind…that whatever you’re doing every day does play a part into a bigger picture. You just have to be patient that one day you’ll see the rewards of what you’re fighting for.
“And even if that day doesn’t come, just know that you’re doing good. You’re not choosing the conventional path in the very first place. I think that in itself is a very big feat already.”