Call of the wild

Employees at wildlife attractions face the dual challenge of creating an authentic wildlife encounter for visitors while ensuring the well-being of their animal charges. Regular training programmes help them achieve that delicate balance

Bringing a spot of nature to the urban jungle of Singapore is Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), the company behind the Singapore Zoo, Night Safari and Jurong Bird Park. Animals and birds in these three world-class leisure attractions are exhibited in their natural environments, transporting visitors to faraway places like the plains of Africa or the Australia Outback.

WRS employees play a key role in ensuring that every guest has a memorable wildlife experience. But working with animals can be a challenging affair, as each species displays different character traits and dietary preferences. Continuous education and training opportunities enable them to perform their functions effectively, as well as develop new skills and competencies. Each year, WRS allocates 2% of its annual payroll towards training programmes.


Unique challenges

Working in a zoo or bird park is no cakewalk, even for the most ardent animal lovers. One of the first things that a new animal handling recruit is assigned to do as part of on-the-job training is clean the animals’ enclosures. This process enables animals to become aware of the keeper’s presence and become more acquainted with their scent. Chan Poh Shan, animal presentations manager, says this can be an early sign of a recruit’s enthusiasm and commitment. “A lot of people come in, start cleaning the den and give up,” she says.

Animal handlers also need to familiarise themselves with the dietary habits and behaviours of their fauna charges. In addition to the information given to them, employees are expected to do some reading on their own to heighten their knowledge.

Truly understanding animal behaviour takes time. Since animals are not able to communicate directly with humans, a lot of learning takes place through observation and handlers need to be able to identify certain behavioural traits. For example, hyenas crouch down to a keeper’s groin level as a sign of acknowledgement, but this can sometimes be misunderstood as a sign of attack.

Handlers also need to be trained to problem-solve when an animal behaves badly. For example, a dominant animal could hoard all the food that is laid out, leaving the submissive one with nothing. Typically, a handler will dissuade such behaviour by giving more food to the dominant animal and reassuring it that there is always enough to go around.


Training and development

WRS’ handling staff undergo structured training in animal management. During their first three months with a park, they are paired up with their more experienced colleagues as part of on-the-job training and induction.

Zoos and nature parks worldwide often share and exchange their expertise in animal care and management. WRS employees are encouraged to travel to conferences and international information exchanges. Past exchanges have enabled employees to pick up new knowledge on areas like animal nutrition and husbandry. Such events also enable Singapore’s best to showcase their own successes in managing endangered species like the Asian pangolin, oriental pied hornbill, and orang-utan.

WRS also organises monthly educational programmes for its staff, as well as lunchtime talks from specialists. It invites overseas speakers as well as local staff who have returned from overseas attachments with other zoos to share their insights on wildlife conservation.


Take me to the river

The training and development programmes are set to take even greater importance over the coming years, as WRS gets set to launch a fourth park in Singapore. It is hiring 150 employees for what will be a river-themed attraction, opening in 2011.

Comprising boat rides, freshwater habitats and other highlights, River Safari is expected to draw in some 750,000 visitors a year. Employees at this unique attraction will be exposed to specialised areas such as water management and treatment, managing aquatic animals, water safety and ride management.

According to Pauline Chua, HR Director, WRS, selected employees at the new River Safari will be sent on study trips to renowned international oceanariums and theme parks. WRS is also working with local polytechnics to develop new courses to ensure that its training needs are met.


Outside the cages

It’s not just the animal handlers that undergo training and development programmes. WRS’ HR department has also been proactively identifying the training needs of every department and rolling out a host of programmes for staff at all functions and levels. These include performance coaching workshops for managers, grooming workshops for all frontline staff and early childhood workshops for staff who work closely with young children.

During the financial year of 2008/2009, WRS employees completed 1500 training places, which works out to be an average of two training places per employee. This was twice the ratio achieved in the previous year.

The in-house training team at WRS is made up of 27 operation managers and supervisors who are certified to conduct training in addition to their primary area of responsibility. The HR Development team leads and facilitates all training initiatives together with the in-house team of trainers.


Commitment to certification

WRS has been strengthening its internal training capability by developing and rolling out certified training programmes internally for the past 12 months.

Most of these have traditionally been based on specialised areas – like animal enrichment, animal training and show presentation. However, WRS recently turned its attention towards food and beverage skills as well as frontline service training. Some of the modules covered in this area include basic food hygiene, food preparation and interaction with guests.

In March 2010, WRS won a Workforce Skills and Qualifications (WSQ) award for Training Excellence. Chua says it hopes to partner closely with the Workforce Development Agency and double the number of WSQ modules within the next two years.


Enrichment Workshop

Animals in captivity run the risk of losing their natural instincts as they are fed and cared for by humans. Changing an animal’s food presentation, adding unfamiliar objects or rearranging their enclosures can help to stimulate their senses in an otherwise unchanging environment. For examples, handlers of wild cats often scatter deer urine in enclosures so that they learn to pick up the scent of potential prey.

The Singapore Zoo recently organised a workshop that focused on such enrichment activities. Some 40 people from zoos, rescue centres and wildlife parks attended the four-day event, the first of its kind in Southeast Asia. They participated in discussions, small group projects and demonstrations on how to manage captive animal behaviour and enhance animal welfare.


In Brief

»        Name: Wildlife Reserves Singapore

»        Total number of employees: 700 full-time, and more than 1000 part-time

»        Current training priorities: Developing internal training capabilities in Zoology, Animal Presentation, and Food and Beverage and Operations. Also soft skills training including leadership, supervisory skills, presentation, communications and negotiations

»        Training Budget: 2% of total payroll

»        Training methods: Several tools used, including: in-house classroom training, structured on-the-job training and the “Action Learning” methodology

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