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Official magazine of the Biological Sciences Society
National University of Singapore
The Mudskipper, Jan 96
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

N. Sivasothi, Zoology Postgraduate
Illustrations by Kelvin Lim (ZRC)


Whenever live animals are displayed during a practical session, demonstrators usually have to keep an eye on the exhibit to ensure that students do not poke the animal, or knock tanks in an effort to provoke some sort of response. The desire to observe an animal actively go about its business is understandable, for a sessile animal is probably a boring sight to most. So is the desire to touch these animals. Personal contact with an animal will heighten your appreciation of it, and many zoos and aquaria allow some contact with the more amenable members of their collections. This is true even with invertebrates; I began to appreciate various aspects of our invertebrate fauna only after they were brought back to the lab and maintained. This is why some other demos and myself have tried to bring along live examples to class. However, the extent to which impatience may drive a person may be unreasonable.
sea anemone poked to death
One year, an inattentive demonstrator during the invertebrate course, discovered that the sea anemone at his bench had been poked to death! There are also incidents of students inflating anemones with air to bursting point and continuously spinning sea cucumbers in circles.

Nothing is learnt from such meddling, and the guilty ones usually leave the session barely enlightened about their biology. However, my observations over the years suggest that these mindless individuals are a minority, although the effect of their behaviour is disproportionately high. The other demos I talked to agreed.

The problem is of course not restricted to undergraduates. At least in campus, the deviant minority may be policed by their teachers and fellow students. Aquariums and zoos are businesses, and are presumably reluctant to enforce rules or admonish the public who are their customers. Publicity over such matters is probably regarded as something to be avoided. At the zoo, there is the practical difficulty of monitoring each and every enclosure. Members of our public are also unlikely to admonish a stranger engaged in mischievous activity.

knocking on fish tanksIt is common to see people knocking on tanks of public aquaria to evoke response from the fish inside.

At the Underwater World, 'touch pools' are provided to facilitate interaction with some animals which many have little chance of encountering elsewhere. Unfortunately, some (tourists and locals alike) have used the opportunity to kill a pufferfish by hurling it against a wall, throw a starfish like a frisbee, and swing a catshark by its tail out of water, amongst other things.

At the zoo, the obvious signs about not feeding the animals are ignored, for people throw food (at best) or stones, plastic wrappers and aluminium foil (at worst) into the enclosures. The wrong type of food has led to illnesses and non-food items have even led to death. The children's zoo has in the past, been a 'Little Zoo of Horrors' as some children bullied animals under the encouraging eyes of their parents. Elsewhere in the zoo, prodding animals for a reaction has not been the limit: a brick was dropped into the open mouth of a hippopotamus and more recently, the tail of one of the free-ranging tamarins was set alight and burnt.
observing mandrills
In 1989, my VIth Zoology Congress group sat for hours observing the mandrills in an attempt to determine the dominance hierarchy in the group.

The previous dominant male, Ringo, had died in an attempt to get at something a visitor had thrown into the moat. Apparently, as he struggled in the water, the visitors simply watched the spectacle except for a single tourist who ran to alert the keepers. They arrived too late to fling in a float to save Ringo.

mandrills foragingPresently, it is still possible to watch the mandrills forage near the electric wire in the moat. Quite understandably, my group took a dim view of the many individuals who arrived to shout and throw things particularly when these animals were snoozing during the midday heat.

After repeated incidents, we grew discontented and took to firmly advising them against such actions. Interestingly enough, I rarely encountered a recalcitrant individual; they were all clearly aware they were doing something wrong and desisted immediately. Those who did ignore the simple request stopped the moment I got up to approach them.

Many will profess that ultimately, education is the answer. The year 1996 marks the beginning of a national attempt to promote graciousness in Singapore and hopefully this will include encouraging the public to treat animals with some dignity, or perhaps, to behave with some dignity, for the preoccupied offender usually makes a spectacle of himself while trying to elicit a response from his victims. When the gorillas were in Singapore, they were reluctant to emerge and prance around their enclosures à la the KitKat pandas. This resulted in the most pathetic displays on the part of some visitors who hollered and threw sticks. At this present time, you may occasionally witness a hint of such displays at the walkways around the mandrill and chimpanzee enclosures.

However I am pessimistic about the effectiveness of education alone. The rest of us should become proactive. Instead of silent discontent, talk to offenders; they should realise they are incurring public disapproval. Better yet, register your complaint to the management of the aquarium or zoo. It will underscore the fact that the majority disapprove of such behaviour, and since the customer is always right, perhaps lead to a better state of affairs. With encouragement (or demands) from the public, managements of zoos and aquaria might be more inclined to enforce their own rules.
let sleeping dogs lie
After all, when the old adage warned of letting the sleeping dog lie, it wasn't in aid of the dog - rather it warned that it would bite if disturbed.
 
© N Sivasothi, 2001