Firsthand: I got owned by insects at S'pore Zoo. It was nice.

They no longer bug me.

Julia Yee | October 28, 2023, 09:59 AM



There are two types of people who pass by Delvinder Kaur’s workplace.

Those who avert their eyes, and those who stop to press their noses up against the glass.

When visitors in search of the Fragile Forest's adorable woodland critters accidentally stumble upon the enclosure's insect exhibit, many may find themselves battling conflicting emotions of compulsion and disgust.

Delvinder, who mans this menagerie of creepy crawlies, simply looks on in amusement.

Being the subject of morbid fascination has long ceased to faze the assistant curator of Herpetology and Invertebrates, ever since she began working with the Forest's more disparaged residents: tarantulas, scorpions, and worms, to name some.

These are the villains of the Forest. The understated neighbours of loveable mousedeers, ducklings, and squirrels whom monopolise the attention of all who drop by.

Gif by Julia Yee

But Delvinder understands the aversion to the beasts she’s grown to adore.

After all, she herself was at one point, not their biggest fan.

She's a keeper

Before her fateful encounter with creepy crawlies, Delvinder assumed she'd grow up to be a History teacher.

"After my A-Levels, [my] intention was always to go to National Institute of Education (NIE)," she tells me.

That was until 2013, when she took up a holiday gig as a show presenter at the zoo.

Delvinder hosted an array of animal shows including "Splash Safari" — the one with the sea lions — and the iconic "Rainforest Fights Back", which allowed her to work with rainforest natives like pythons, otters, and monkeys.

"I'd be the person sharing the names of the animals and fun facts [about them]," she shares.

"It was actually a very good opportunity for me to understand all the animals in the zoo and work with other keepers."

Among the experienced animal handlers, though, Delvinder was a fish out of water.

As a pure arts student in school, the young girl knew next to nothing about zoology and environmental science.

Armed with sheer curiosity, she threw herself into on-the job learning, and steadily made her way up the ranks from Junior Keeper to Animal Care Officer.

Eventually, she attained the coveted role of Assistant Curator.

Photo by Andrew Koay

Dreams of helming the classroom long forgotten, Delvinder now spends her days studying the zoo's collection of exoskeleton-clad peculiarities, holding one-sided conversations with them and hunting down escape artists who wriggle out of their crates.

Since the only knowledge I have of insects come from watching "A Bug’s Life", I headed down to the zoo to bug Delvinder for more insight.

Don't judge a bug by its cover

When I knock on the tattered door of the Discovery Outpost, it swings open to reveal Delvinder, who ushers me in like it's her second home.

A mass of inhuman eyes swivel around to watch me cross the threshold.

I feel the eyes on me as I get a tour of their owners' den.

It makes me feel like an intruder, here in this narrow room lined with enclosures of little nightmares.

I go to settle down beside an insect hanging out on a twisting branch. "She'll poop on you," Delvinder warns.

I decide to stand somewhere else.

Photo by Ilyda Chua

Then we begin to chat. Turns out it doesn’t matter where I stand, because Delvinder plucks the insect off its branch and places it on my arm like it's the most natural thing in the world to do.

For as long as I can remember, I've always had a crippling fear of bugs with long bodies.

I think it has something to do with the uncanny way they move, their segmented anatomy, and the fact that you can't really tell where their stomachs are.

So when the insect touches my arm, and I feel its elongated abdomen settle against my skin, I'm ready to start freaking out.

But when the little thing latches onto me softly, I feel an unexpected rush of affection towards it.

Looking at the creature gently inspecting my arm, delicate and struggling to stay on, it's hard to recall the things about it that should have me recoiling.

The insect's spiked legs tickle me as it crawls up my side and tries to hook onto my hair. It slips, and I feel oddly like a mother cradling her newborn baby when I have to support it.

Delvinder informs me that it is trying to "get to the highest point".

Which I assume is my head.

Gif by Ilyda Chua

When I ask for the animated stick's name, Delvinder tells me, "She doesn’t have one."

It's okay, because in my mind, I’ve already named her Kaya.

Photo by Julia Yee

"She" is the pronoun Delvinder continues to use when referring to Kaya, a habit that makes it easier to humanise the insect and its other strange-looking friends.

"Invertebrates might not be as charismatic [as mammals], but they have a certain value in them. It just takes one day in the Fragile Forest for people to get more comfortable [with them]," the curator says, admitting that she herself used to flee from the cockroaches in her house.

You'd never suspect this by looking at her now, standing serenely with a jungle nymph wrapped around her wrist.

Photo by Ilyda Chua

"People’s perceptions are that insects are freaky," she says.

"But the ability to know what they are and learn about them helps people understand [insects] better. At the same time, [zookeepers] demonstrate how to handle them, how to appreciate them, and how to feel them."

The word "feel" strikes me as a weird choice of word, but Delvinder explains that insects are actually in tune with our emotions.

Apparently, the emotion I give Kaya, as she scuttles all over me, is anxiety.

Photo by Ilyda Chua

I try to look into Kaya’s eyes and level with her.

“Stop it. You’re embarrassing both of us,” I say.

Photo by Ilyda Chua

She doesn’t seem to get it, though.

Lesson from a butterfly

As Kaya continues her frantic exploration up my arm, Delvinder tells me that humans have a lot to learn from insects.

"We go through transformation on a daily basis. Change is something quite constant in everybody’s life."

This crucial ability to adapt and survive, according to the curator, is embodied by invertebrates like the butterfly.

Take the caterpillar. The first thing it does when it hatches is to eat its way out of its egg.

As a pupa, it becomes a "gunk of goo" in its cocoon, reforming its whole body to become a butterfly.

And while some mature butterflies might fall from their cocoon when it's time to emerge — "they just climb up to a higher position to try and dry their wings again," Delvinder explains, with something akin to admiration.

Photo via Singapore Zoo

A butterfly's time on earth is transient. The average adult lives for just two to four weeks before they die — a mere fraction of the time we humans are given.

But I find comfort in the insect's unwavering perseverance to progress from one life stage to another, to survive despite their uncertain fate.

And no matter how fleeting, the butterfly's presence in the environment is a necessary one, Delvinder asserts.

"For instance, finding a purple duke butterfly in a Singapore forest means that it's a good forest," the curator says, explaining that they are pollinators and food for other plants and animals in the ecosystem.

This means that in a strange, kind of morbid way, butterflies live to die. They enter the environment as ready food sources to keep other animals alive, to give the people who chance upon them a passing moment of delight and wonder.

Humans aren't as permanent as we like to think we are. But talking like this about butterflies gets me thinking that there's beauty in mortality after all.

Little big things

There's something to be said about the little things in life.

We go about our everyday lives trying to forget things like worms or cockroaches exist, but we also forget that they are the guardians of our ecosystem.

Gif by Julia Yee

For all our distaste, invertebrates do most of the dirty work on the planet. Literally.

Worms feast on food and animal waste, releasing nutrients into the ground throughout their consumption process — nutrients that are in turn absorbed by plants.

Take away these creatures, and dead matter starts accumulating on the forest floor. Sunlight is unable to reach the ground, soil deteriorates, and trees and animals start to die.

In short, "the whole forest breaks down", Delvinder states.

For most, it's hard to look past the "creepy" in creepy crawlies and see their greater role.

"It’s really how you want to live in the world," she continues. The more we start to notice the things we usually shy away from, the more connected we'll feel to our environment.

Later, when the curator plucks Kaya from my shoulder, I feel an odd sense of loss. It's weird how hard it is to say goodbye to this green alien stick I’ve known for only 30 minutes.

But then again, it makes me think that it doesn’t take much to get people to care about the environment.

Maybe all it takes is something as simple as chilling with a bug for a bit, just to know what we're missing.

Photo by Ilyda Chua

Towards the end of the interview, I ask Delvinder if she's ever thought about working with a different animal, or at a different enclosure — with something cuter or fluffier perhaps.

"I don’t think there’s anywhere else I’ll want to work at," she responds at once, calmly placing Kaya back on her branch.

"Invertebrates are very unique, and I always find myself coming back to them," said Delvinder, adding later that she was happy to be part of sharing this unforgettable experience with visitors to the Singapore Zoo.

For me, I still don’t feel as if I’m a complete convert. At least not to the extent that I’d leave my job to follow in the curator's footsteps.

But ever since my encounter at the zoo, I find myself looking at the trees more often, hoping to catch a glimpse of a familiar green face.

Top images by Ilyda Chua and Julia Yee