|Between the ages of 13 and 16 I spent almost every summer day working as a Junior Curator at the
Oklahoma City Zoo. This job entitled me to all of the responsibilities of a full-time zookeeper, but none of the pay – I was a volunteer. I spent many hours in the company of a variety of animals, including king vultures (my favorites), tapirs, exotic birds and snakes, sloths, and even a giant fruit bat. Never in my life have I been afraid of an animal. Until tonight.
The evening started out well with a casual dinner at the entrance to Singapore’s famous Night Safari, surrounded by entertaining tribal performers eating and spitting fire. After our meal we stopped by the python exhibit, where the boys had their picture taken with one of the great snakes draped around their shoulders.
To see the animals that are not accessible by walking paths, we jumped on a tram and rode through most of the zoo, catching airy glimpses of wild Asia. One of the stops allowed us to walk through a few exhibits not visible from the tram, including the Bat Mangrove Walk, full of free-flying Malayan Bats, with an average wingspan of approximately four feet. None of these creatures are in cages (few of the zoo’s animals are). They mill about the exhibit at will, crawling or flying from one giant mangrove tree to another to eat the fruit their keepers have thoughtfully hung from the branches. (Did I mention that all of this happens at night? With illumination only from the zoo’s “subtle lighting techniques:” a few low-watt bulbs hidden in the trees to keep you from walking in total darkness.) We got to view several of these large fruit-eaters hanging right next to the sidewalk; Greg got a better view when one decided to move to another tree and flew right over his head. I took a picture of one less than 12 inches away (which didn't come out, of course), staring at me like I was a giant grape. Rather unnerving.
After the bats we moved on to the leopard exhibit, where three of the large cats sat or walked close enough for us to touch, if not for the thick glass separating us. One looked right at me and rubbed its face along the glass by my face, giving me a detailed view of its teeth. It was absolutely amazing.
As we left the leopards and started to walk down the very, very dimly lit path that would lead us back to the tram, Alec warned us that there were more bats flying around. Closer inspection revealed several wild bats, each about the size of a crow, hovering around a peeled orange dangling over the sidewalk (zookeeper bastards). Greg decided to brave the trail nonetheless, and he and Cameron started walking back to the tram. He took about four steps before I saw two of the flying beasts doing a nose-dive for his shiny head. After bonking me in the eye with his big bat target, as he ducked and turned away from the killer bats, he grabbed Cameron and ran back to the leopards. Cameron cried and Alec calmly said, “I told you not you not to go that way,” while I had visions of rampant rabies and unseen predators leaping out of the dark bushes to devour us.
Perhaps if we hadn’t just been hanging out with giant freaky Malayan bats, or maybe if I had taken advantage of the fully-stocked bar at the tram stop, I wouldn’t have so completely freaked out. But I did. I was terrified. Terrified that they would inadvertently scratch the boys. Terrified that they would swarm us and eat us alive (I know they're harmless, but go with me here - it’s hard to be rational in a dark rainforest). While I sat on a bench, fully panicked and seriously worrying that we’d have to spend the night huddled around the oblivious leopards, watching more and more of the vicious vermin flock to eat dinner right where we needed to go, an elderly couple posing as offensive linemen passed by and nonchalantly walked right through the danger. We quickly followed behind them in classic running back style.
Needless to say, we skipped the remaining exhibits on the bats’ dark path of death and jumped back on the tram as quickly as we could. While the remainder of the tour was very interesting, I’m sure, I couldn’t get the fear of hidden man-eating beasts out of my brain. I have never been so eager to leave a zoo in my life. I figure we’re safe now, as long as we stay close to home. And, as long as I try to forget that the giant fanged herbivores that scared the crap out of me at the Night Safari are native to Singapore and fly around the country every night, laughing at us derisively with the black spitting cobras and waiting for their chance to attack …
Sweet dreams. :)
Shannon et al.
Alec & Cameron with a python
Greg, Cameron, & Alec, on the tram
The Malayan fruit bat, also known as the large fruit bat, or the Malayan flying fox, is easily the largest of the world's bats. Its wingspan can exceed six feet.