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Interview: We chat to Reptile Keeper Jose at Singapore Zoo

By: Katie Roberts

Ever complained that you have a tough job? Spare a thought for Spaniard Jose Cairos, who regularly handles king cobras, four-metre-long saltwater crocodiles and Komodo dragons. Katie Roberts went behind the scenes and interviewed him in a close encounter at the Singapore Zoo reptile enclosure.

José doesn’t immediately strike me as having nerves of steel or, for that matter, being insane. His immediate thought after leaving the cobras is “Wow, I’m alive”, he says, but other than that, it’s all in a day’s work for this 32-year-old with a zest for life and a serious addiction to reptiles.

It was his love of animals that led him to a job at the Zoo, which he first visited three years ago while holidaying here. He was so impressed by the reptiles that he applied for a position. To his delight, he was appointed as a Senior Keeper.

Now, two and a half years later, José admits that one of the big motivations to move to Singapore was the range of reptiles he would work with, in particular venomous snakes. “There were no venomous snakes, only constrictors, where I worked in Portugal and Spain for over 10 years, so this is a great professional experience for me. And when you like what you do, it is very easy to enjoy work and have fun; be it petting giant Aldabra tortoises or making friends with a three-metre-long Komodo dragon, which is the cherry on top of the cake for me,” says José.

We are talking in the orderly, air-conditioned keepers’ room at the back of the reptile exhibit amongst numerous coops and enclosures holding a smorgasbord of reptiles. This close proximity has caused Expat Living photographer Michael to sweat uncomfortably. But not José. When asked about his absolute favourite reptile, he takes a tiny leaf-tailed gecko from a glass tank and starts to explain how amazing geckos are.

Full of energy, the gecko unexpectedly leaps out of José’s hands and flies through the air a couple of metres. It lands at a very startled Michael’s feet, which is both entertaining and demonstrates what these tiny critters are capable of. “I love the way they adapt to their environment by camouflage, sometimes looking like lichen or a dead leaf, and their feeding strategies are amazing. Some of them can go long periods without food; some snakes can go up to a year without eating,” says José.

He deftly lifts a five-kilogram Burmese python, Pepino, out of an enclosure and casually arranges it around his neck. Meanwhile, he explains that Pepino, which means cucumber in Spanish, eats one rat about every two weeks. Swallowed whole. Pepino hisses several times in protest at being held and José calmly says, “It’s OK, he’s just very talkative.”

José explains why he thinks people are so scared of snakes. “As children, we are conditioned by cartoons and stories to be afraid of snakes. As adults, it’s the mystery of them that scares us. Even though we understand how they move, it’s still something we can’t quite explain.” He admits he was scared himself until he was bitten on the arm by a harmless python, and found the bite no worse than a pinch.

When José was younger he kept a two-metre-long iguana in his room as a pet. “It was perfect; she learned to toilet on newspaper behind the door and spent the day lying on my bed and taking in the sun. When I went to bed she slept underneath; we had a good relationship. But my sister was afraid of her, and would run when I opened the door,” he says.

With over 300 reptiles and 100 species, José revels in his Singapore role. “The climate is perfect for reptiles and, unlike Europe, they are kept outside in nice enclosures where they can enjoy the sun and rain, as they would in the wild.”

Unfortunately animal smugglers find this climate attractive, too. Every year, the Zoo takes in dozens of animals that have been confiscated after being illegally smuggled into Singapore. He’s seen baby snakes pushed into bottles and cigarette packets, which have not survived the trip. The star tortoise, from dry parts of India, is one of the most commonly found animals; sometimes they’re packed in suitcases. José says, “Sadly, most of them die here from pneumonia, as Singapore is too humid for them.”

The zoo has breeding programmes for reptiles such as the critically endangered Southern River terrapin and the Komodo dragon, native to Indonesia, which is listed as a vulnerable species. So far they have bred two babies (now four and two years old) from a male and female pair, but the old female Komodo died recently.

José explains that one reason reptiles are difficult to care for is that it is hard to read symptoms when they are unwell. “Unlike monkeys, which have similar symptoms to humans, it’s actually normal for reptiles not to eat for a few days. So we have to watch the way they move, but it is often much more complicated.”

Is there anything that José is afraid of? This is a man who regularly handles Elvis, a feisty, four-half-and-a-half-metre king cobra that has enough venom to kill an elephant. Incredibly, he confesses, what does scare him is something tiny and innocuous: the common cockroach.