SINGAPORE: Walking about the park without a leash, the five creatures run up and down playground slides, curiously sniffing at bushes and wagging their tails at leaf piles.
While everyone is staying home amid the “circuit breaker” measures, the ring-tailed coatimundis at the Singapore Zoo are getting a chance to explore the park freely.
With the circuit breaker in place until Jun 1, there are no guests visiting the Singapore Zoo, and zookeepers are free to engage the animals in creative ways.
For Ms Nurfarehan Khair, an assistant supervisor in animal presentation, this means taking her charge of five male coatimundis out for walks and preparing for new presentation routines with them.
“They are very curious animals, they behave just like dogs,” Ms Nurfarehan told CNA over a video call.
The keeper, who has been with the zoo for 16 years, said the coatimundis are “pretty much unaffected” by the lack of visitors, and have gone through training to be handled easily in open areas or uncontrolled environments, making them very suitable for walks around the park.
“They just love venturing, so working with them is very, very interesting and it keeps you on your toes because they get bored very, very fast,” she said.
Coatimundis, commonly known as coatis, are native to Central and South America. The ring-tailed coatis, or South American coatis, usually move around in big groups and females are the dominant species, Ms Nurfarehan explained.
“Normally the boys are solitary. So our boys are kept together in a social setting because of how we need them to work together for shows.”
According to their keeper, coatis are closely related to racoons, and with their long tails and banded markings, many people confuse the two. The mammals, which are “very sweet” and “extremely agile”, are commonly kept as pets in the US but are rare in Asia.
As part of the animal presentation team, Ms Nurfarehan’s duties cover the shows presented at the zoo, and training the animals for husbandry or show behaviour purposes.
“And then apart from that, what we do most of the time, which a lot of people seem to not know, is we do husbandry for our animals, and that would of course include cleaning up after them, feeding them and providing enrichment for them.”
Before the circuit breaker, the keeper and her team of five coatis usually put on four shows a day, which adds up to two hours of work. But now, she can use the two hours to play with the coatis, let them explore the park or work on husbandry training, which refers to behaviours that would make it easier for the vet to carry out checks without sedation.
Aside from the coatis, Ms Nurfarehan also looks after otters, primates and the Patagonian maras. With social distancing measures in place across all of Wildlife Reserves Singapore’s (WRS) parks, she rarely sees her fellow zookeepers and other colleagues.
“I think for me it gets lonely sometimes, because now for the team I'm working with, there's only five of us and we're so used to working seven or more,” she said, adding that there are about 120 people still going to work across the four WRS parks.
“We have to practice social distancing, meaning that we don't bump into each other. So I might be working with a crew of five, but I don't really see them. Or if we do see each other, we keep a distance.”
Although the animals are still brought out to “brush up” on their presentations once in a while, she misses getting to conduct the animal presentations to a live audience.
“You miss the hype of having people in the crowd. That, for now, would have to be on hold, hopefully for not much longer,” she added.
The 36-year-old started working on animal presentations and coatimundi training about one-and-a-half years ago.
“I love presenting. I love the mic work. And then one day it just happened by accident. I was training, or maybe just trying out training with a primate,” she said.
“And I had fun, surprisingly, and then the bug just caught on, and now it's coatis and otters and maras. And I thoroughly enjoy it.”
Different animals take different amounts of time to master different behaviours, Ms Nurfarehan added, and this could vary between one or two days and one month.
“It’s very, very difficult to gauge (how long it will take), but every time we train an animal, we make sure they are set up for success, meaning we don't make them feel like it's not achievable,
“The planning for every animal is different. You might want to just make the objective a little bit more achievable for some, meaning we break it up into much smaller steps. And then for others, they can just get it at one go.”
With no guests at the zoo, all of Ms Nurfarehan’s time at work is now focused on the animals, which she considers an opportunity to explore new things with them.
“And I’m very sure if COVID gets cleared, we are never going to get the same opportunity to be with our animals at this magnitude.
“We’re just making full use of the time that we have, and then when the zoo reopens, and when the guests come in, they would be in for a nice experience with our animals.”