The reptile man
In celebration of International Grandparents Day in September, we profile this grandfather of one who has been working at the Singapore Zoo for 34 years and is enjoying his work there, hanging with reptiles and other assorted creatures.
BY: Eleanor Yap
Francis Lim, 54, has no problems with scaly reptiles (unlike this writer) and is quite at home with them as the curator at the Singapore Zoo, in charge of three sections including the reptile section. He is so intrigued by reptiles that he even has posters of them hanging on his bedroom walls! We speak to him on why his scaly friends have such a bad reputation and his love for these creatures …
How did you get passionate about animals in the first place?
I think this passion for animals probably began during my primary school days when I was collecting spiders and caterpillars. I was curious about them and fascinated by their habits. Later I began to read widely on animal books, and among my favourites are books by the late Gerald Durrell, a British naturalist, collector and writer (author of the book “My Family and Other Animals”). This fueled my interest in nature all the more and I strived to get into an animal-related job when I completed schooling.
What about your interest in reptiles?
It started way back in the mid-70s when we frequently received snakes that had been caught and were subsequently donated to the zoo. I began to identify and study them, and kept notes of my observations. When the zoo opened its first snake house in 1973, I volunteered to work there. I soon began to take photos and compile them for use in talks. The rest is history.
Do you have any memorable experiences with them?
I don’t think I can do without these beautiful scaly animals. They have become a part of my life over the past 34 years working in the zoo. Snakes and other reptiles are not emotional creatures like dogs, which will jump and wag their tails when they see you. Nevertheless they do touch me in other ways – their beauty, unique ways of survival and adaptation, and so on.
Of course there is the downside, for want of a better word, of being scratched, bitten, whacked, etc. I remember some 20 years back, when catching and moving (transferring them from one location to the next) a gavial (a crocodile with a slender snout), it bit my thick rubber boots. The force of the bite was so great that several of the teeth got embedded in the rubber and punctured my calf! Luckily, no stitches were needed but there were some minor puncture wounds. It taught me greater respect for the speed and strength of this reptile. Subsequently when we do move the animals, we did not encounter any more problems or accidents.
Happy memories are watching hatching reptiles and of these I have had my fair share – baby crocs, snakes, tortoises and turtles. I look forward to seeing hatching komodo dragons one day.
Reptiles don’t have a very good reputation. What are some misconceptions about reptiles?
It is a misconception really. There are no good or bad reptiles. They didn’t evolve through millions of years to be judged like that. Like all wildlife, reptiles have a role to play in nature – each in their particular niche or habitat. Their disappearance is a loss to nature’s diversity and colour. It is sometimes difficult to change ingrained prejudices – like snakes are evil, slimy and out to cause harm to man. Fortunately, such mindsets are changing, as nature is more available to us now than before.
Of all the various reptilian species, which one is your favourite and why?
Snakes of course! They, more than any other reptile species, fascinate and enthrall me with their beauty and resilience. I worked with this reptile family more than any other, and I think I have managed to convert many snake haters to at least being able to tolerate them. There are about 3,000 species of snakes in the world and there is still so much to learn about them. I even have snake posters in my bedroom. WRITER’S NOTE: His wife does not mind.
You have been working at the zoo for 34 years. Did you ever imagine you would be there for that long? Can you share how the zoo has changed over the years?
The zoo landscape has definitely changed a lot over the past three decades. Exhibitory and husbandry techniques have advanced greatly, and displays now engage and involve the zoo visitor in ways never imagined before. Information is so readily available now, via the Internet. Keepers are now more educated, and can work towards contributing to our knowledge of nature through observations and research. My other older colleagues and I are happy to be part of the journey of growth and change in zoology.
I understand you completed the animal management course and diploma while working. When did you complete it? Do you further upgrade yourself?
The animal management course and diploma, which I completed in 1984, were some of the avenues available to us to increase our knowledge and better our academic qualifications. The correspondence course lasted three years and it was not easy juggling work and study at the same time. I am glad of the opportunities given to attend wildlife seminars, workshops and conferences overseas to enhance my personal development in the field of zoo keeping. I look forward to be able to attend the International Conference of Zookeepers in Seattle, US, in September that will give me a great opportunity to network with other colleagues and share ideas.
As a curator, what have been your milestones? Can you share what your plans (for the three animal sections including reptiles, Rainforest Kidzworld and tiger/pygmy hippo/Australian Outback) are for the next five years?
My current role is largely managing the collection, guiding and training of the staff, and contributing towards departmental goals. It is an ongoing challenge to ensure that the exhibits are always made presentable or upgraded. Right now I am working with the sections to repair ageing structures, as well as coming up with breeding programmes for the endangered animals.
You have written three books on snakes. Will you be writing another one?
Not likely in the near future. Photography has always been a hobby and I do grab opportunities to take unusual shots. Perhaps when I reach retirement, I can relax somewhat and write about my experiences working in the zoo.
Would you like to continue working with the reptiles, or would you rather work with some other animals?
I wish I had had the opportunity to continue to work largely with the reptile collection and bring it to a higher level. However, as a curator, I need to see to other aspects, and my time actually out in the field is lesser. I leave it to my colleagues to take care of the collection. New blood is good and I have seen wonderful changes and improvements happening in the reptile section. There is no other section I’d rather be in, given my passion for them.
How many hours a day are you at the zoo? What about weekends?
I usually work about nine hours, but usually longer if there are meetings or engagements. Weekends I used to spend with my three girls, Angela, Brigitta and Christina, when they were younger, but now that they are adults, I am free of such obligations! I use such free time now to exercise, cycle or take a walk in some of the nature trails.
How many grandchildren do you have? Do any of your grandchildren have a love also for reptiles? Do you keep animals at home?
My granddaughter is only slightly over two months old, so the answer to this question has to wait a few years. I don’t keep reptiles at home, since it would be illegal. Used to keep rabbits, hamsters and fish before but not anymore.
Do you see yourself retiring or giving up this work anytime soon to take it easy?
I think retiring now is not an option, as financial independence enables me to continue to provide for my daughters’ further education. They still need my help for now. I will see how it goes when I hit 60s as it has been my hope to do some traveling, especially to see ancient structures like the pyramids in Egypt and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I prefer to travel when I am still fit and healthy.
If you didn’t become a curator, what occupation do you think you would have taken up?
I don’t think I will be happy with any other job except one that involves animals and nature. If I did not work in the zoo, I might be involved in managing nature parks or the Sungei Buloh bird sanctuary!
Do you support any animal causes?
I do lend my support to animal causes like saving the sharks by refraining from eating sharks’ fin, and encouraging my friends to do likewise. In my talks, I highlight the plight of animals at the hands of man, through poaching, food, pet trade and habitat destruction, and what we can do to help change this. Such efforts are just drops in a bucket but these small acts add to those being carried out by other wildlife enthusiasts elsewhere.
If you could do it all over again, what would you change?
I would still do the same thing, but I will do it much better so that the impact will be greater in terms of career development. We have only one life so I would not waste opportunities but be more focused in what I want to achieve and make a definitive plan to attain my goals in terms of animal husbandry, breeding and research.
What are your thoughts on ageing?
There is no escape from ageing, so I work on living each day the best I can, and do regular exercises to keep healthy.