Caring for 300 birds a ‘true calling’ for 31-year-old avian keeper
Having studied accountancy previously, Zaid Harithsah strayed from the beaten path to pursue his dream career.
Most visitors to the Jurong Bird Park’s Wings of Asia and Dinosaur Descendents aviaries would have crossed paths with Zaid Harithsah unwittingly.
Dressed like any visitor would, the 31-year-old spends most days at the park observing birds, often from the same locations over a prolonged period. But he isn’t just any “guest”.
He is actually an Avian Keeper and part of the animal care staff tasked to observe birds in the aviaries daily to check on their health. Dressing up as just another visitor helps mask him from the naturally cautious birds.
Zaid shares that the birds are accustomed to the keepers’ presence and routines as they remember the standard set of attire the keepers wear.
“When birds are less wary of their environment, they tend to let their guard down, allowing us to physically pinpoint any abnormalities with the birds as we observe them,” he explains.
Having worked at the park for the last five years, Zaid’s interests in birds started when he was a child. His passion for bird-keeping stemmed from the early 1990s when he was brought on school excursions and field trips to the Singapore Zoo and Jurong Bird Park.
Witnessing zookeepers in action, he thought that working with animals was not a job just anyone could do since it requires a love for animals and the know-how to take care of them. His love for animals was further fuelled by Animal Planet’s programmes, including famed Australian zookeeper Steve Irwin’s documentaries.
However, contrary to his passion, Zaid did not pursue an education in relevant fields. In fact, he holds a diploma in accountancy.
Upon completion of his National Service in 2017, he applied for a job as an accountant and a junior keeper at the bird park, he recalls. Eventually, presented with both options, he decided to join Jurong Bird Park.
“I decided to follow the passion I had as a kid instead and strayed (from) the beaten path just to do what I love,” Zaid shares, adding that his decision to pursue his dream career was supported by his family and friends.
Unfortunately, he has come across some visitors who looked down on animal keepers. Once, Zaid overheard someone who said that it is “a low-class job”.
However, instead of letting it affect him, Zaid holds firm to the belief that his job is “a calling”.
“You go beyond your daily husbandry, daily routine, daily cleaning. It is also to impart meaningful knowledge to the guests,” he shares.
To date, Zaid has taken care of 300 birds from 30 distinct species, including the Straw-headed bulbuls, Greater Green Leafbird and Cassowary.
Part of Zaid’s responsibilities include preparing medication and meals every day for the birds in a shed with his fellow keepers. He also makes his rounds to do a headcount on the birds and observe them for any abnormalities.
Zaid would go as far as squatting down or peering over the plants to get a better view of the birds. Then, he looks out for symptoms such as limping.
The keepers have to take into consideration how different species have different diets when preparing the meals.
“If the birds’ diets include food not available to us, we will instead do research on similar types of food which have the same nutritional value and then adjust their diets accordingly,” Zaid says.
Different diets are also a factor in the preparation methods. As the keepers are not able to dictate the types of food the birds will eat, they would usually prepare both dry and wet meals, serving it in a “buffet style” at different food points.
A typical dry meal would consist of bird seeds, peas and insects like mealworms, while a wet meal comprises different fruits like papaya, blueberries and apples, shares Zaid.
As for the birds’ medication, Zaid would often hide it in fruits like blueberries before directly feeding them to the affected bird.
“Some birds tend to guard the food in their feeders, so mixing the medication into food and placing it in a specific food tray might mean the sick bird will lose access to the medication.”
Of course, the process of hand-feeding them did not come about naturally. The keepers would conduct desensitisation training so the birds are more likely to lower their guard and allow themselves to be hand-fed the medication.
Even if the food is “free-for-all” when it is set down during feeding time, one will often find the Scatler crowned pigeons eating first.
Zaid jokingly refers to them as the “gangster birds”, as the other birds will not dare to eat at the same feeders while they are there.
He explains that the birds all have unique personalities which results in different behaviours and reactions.
“Some birds are more attentive when it comes to male keepers, but others may show more interest in the female keepers instead… Due to these preferences, the animal care staff often rotate keepers when it comes to performing their headcount duties.”
To stimulate the birds physically and mentally, the care staff also provides them with enrichment devices daily. This is meant to showcase the bird’s genuine behaviour in the wild.
When it comes to introducing new bird species into the aviaries, the keepers will have to put in extra effort.
The keepers would place the new birds in a smaller aviary upon their arrival. “This helps them get used to the larger aviary and allows the keepers to pinpoint any pre-existing medical conditions easily,” Zaid explains.
The behaviour of both the current and new birds are then observed during this period. “Depending on how they interact, the keepers would decide whether they should introduce the new birds into other aviaries,” says Zaid.
Though Zaid has worked in Jurong Bird Park for over five years, it does not mean the job is a walk in the park.
He believes that there is much to learn from his day-to-day duties. While there are bound to be challenging circumstances, he has taken it upon himself to embrace them.
As Jurong Bird Park relocates to Bird Paradise in the second quarter of 2023, Zaid looks forward to the upgraded exhibits, which would “enhance the welfare of the birds and improve the experience of guests”.
“I do photography in my free time, and having a bigger mixed exhibit will allow me to take more photos that are up close and personal,” he shares.
Even though the place where Zaid takes care of birds will change, his reason and passion for being an avian keeper remains constant.
“At the end of the day, I hope the guests can learn to appreciate the birds more, as they tend to prefer larger animals like giraffes.
“Ultimately, being an avian keeper is my life calling as I get to share knowledge and awareness on what goes into the conservation of species with others, and that helps to foster a greater appreciation for the avian species,” he says.
For those with intentions to follow in his footsteps, Zaid advises: “If you aspire to be part of the animal care staff, you must have an open mind and eagerly grab all the opportunities this job has to offer.”