It was time for Brian and I to meet Barrington and Fabio for a behind-the-scenes tour of the Singapore Zoo’s Snake House. On our way out of the River Safari, we passed through the Amazon River Flooded Forest exhibit. For six to nine months every year, heavy rains cause the Amazon River to swell, inundating the forest in up to 30 feet of water. Manatees, dugongs, and piranhas literally swim through the trees. To simulate this, the zoo filled the world’s largest freshwater aquarium with artificial trees and 71,000 cubic feet of water. The tank’s 72 x 13 foot viewing panel (above) is also a world record and rivals any flat screen TV I’ve ever seen.

There are over 100 species of reptiles in Singapore. There used to be more, but habitat loss has driven them away. You might think this would be a good thing, but snakes are important to have around. They eat rats. “In urbanized city-states,” said Shawal, “We have a lot of pests. Some people will say this is good because it creates a lot of jobs for pest control. For me, it’s a waste of resources.”

“Ah, I see,” said Barrington. “Snakes are nature’s way of keeping everything in balance.”

Shawal then took us through a door into a back room of the Snake House. One wall was lined with shelves of snakes: dog-toothed cat snakes, reticulated pythons, keeled rat snakes, puff-faced water snakes, and blood pythons. “What’s the hardest part of handling a snake?” asked Barrington.

Photo by Oliver Uberti

“Letting the snake know you’re going to pick it up.”

Shawal then reached into a box and pulled out a long, gold and black mottled one. “This is a royal python,” he said, draping it over Barrington’s right wrist. “They’re called royal pythons because these are the snakes that Cleopatra used to wear as jewelry in ancient Egypt.”

Pythons aren’t venomous. They kill by crushing you between their coils. Still, Barrington didn’t look comfortable. “Is there anything I need to know about holding this thing?”

1. “Do not press on the top of its head. A snake’s fangs are its only defense. Restricting their only weapon makes them nervous. It’s like cable-tying a person’s hands and feet.

2. Snakes will tap and hiss when they’re about to strike. If you see that, put it down. Don’t wait until it’s in the strike position. At that point, putting it down is like defusing a bomb.

3. Also, it’s not good to have so much arm hair. To them, it looks like prey.”

“Great,” said Barrington. “Thanks for telling me now.”

Outside, thunder boomed. As we left the Snake House, our tram passed by the giraffe enclosure. Two females and a male stood in a patch of grass no longer than a bowling lane. “They don’t have much room to run, do they?” asked Barrington.

“I haven’t seen them run in a while,” said Shawal. “In the landscape of Singapore, we don’t have enough space for our people, let alone our animals. We’re doing our best.”

Speaking of the best, we asked you to vote on where we should go. The Zoo and River Safari made the top three, but the Night Safari was your clear winner with 28.9% of the votes. Good choice. It’s the world’s first and only zoo devoted exclusively to nocturnal and crepuscular animals.

Nocturnal animals are active at night; crepuscular animals come out at dawn and dusk. To navigate in the dark, these creatures have special techniques. Bats emit high-frequency sound waves and have big ears to hear when those waves echo off their prey. Snakes can “see” prey by smelling the air with their forked tongues; big cats use whiskers to detect vibrations. Some animals just have bigger, specialized eyes. Tarsiers, tiny primates that zip from branch to branch like The Flash, have the largest eyes in relation to body size of all animals.

Photo by Brian Ford

Photo by Brian Ford

Photo by Brian Ford

The Night Safari opens at dusk and closes at midnight. Brian and I arrived at 7:30 p.m. After pausing to purchase bug spray, we walked past a stand of tiki torches and entered the dark forest. “Welcome to Jurassic Park.”

Natural barriers like moats and rocks separated the animals from the footpaths. We’d be walking along the path and then look over to see a fishing cat patrolling a stream ten feet away. Or a barking deer or a Malayan porcupine (above). I wanted to see the pangolins.

Picture a cross between an anteater and an artichoke. Pangolins are mammals with scales instead of fur. They’re also exceptionally difficult to see in the wild, and if weren’t for zoos like the Night Safari, we might never see them. As USA Today recently reported, the pangolins of Southeast Asia are being hunted to extinction for their skins, scales and their meat: “For many middle-class Chinese, consuming black-market pangolins is now considered a sign of wealth.”

This is where zoos can help. Not only does Singapore’s Night Safari have the world’s first Sunda pangolin exhibit, on Febarury 14, 2010 they celebrated the first birth of a Sunda pangolin in captivity. It’s through protection and breeding programs like this that zoos help save animals from human greed.

Of all the animals we saw in Singapore, the ones I will probably remember most are the leopards. There were two windows into their enclosure. Looking into the first one, we couldn’t see anything. The path then wrapped us around to a second window. Easily ten feet wide by eight feet tall, the glass extended all the way to the ground. Directly on the other side of it, in a beam of simulated moonlight, lay two sleeping leopards. Brian knelt down and put his face to the glass. Less than a foot away, spotted ribcages rose and fell with each breath.

Elsewhere in the parks, visitors had been exactly as Shawal predicted. They were loud. They used camera flashes. They made jokes and talked as they walked past the animals, stopping only to snap a photo or skim an information panel. The leopards commanded a different experience. Viewing them was like entering a church. I could feel the reverence welling up in what I can only describe as a strange mix of “Aw, look how cute!” and “OMG if I wake that thing, it will kill me.”

Brian and I sat and watched the leopards for about fifteen minutes. One by one visitors approached and stopped their conversations mid-sentence.

You could hear rain dripping from the trees.

Insects whirred overhead.

Whatever feelings you have about zoos and the confinement of animals, it’s hard not to applaud their ability to create moments like this, moments when people shut their mouths for a minute and marvel at the majesty of nature.

One hopes it’s not too little too late.

UP NEXT: Restoring Coral Reefs in Bali