SEBERANG PERAI, Dec 16 — How did the Penang Bird Park come to be based in Seberang Jaya on the mainland? It’s all because of the late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu.
When he was the chief minister of Penang, he wanted to develop tourism on the mainland to alleviate the pressure placed on the island’s beaches which were the main attraction of the state at the time.
He proposed a bird park in Seberang Jaya, a zoo in Bertam and that the aquarium be relocated to Batu Kawan.
The zoo and aquarium did not materialise, but the Penang Bird Park has continued to be one of the major tourist attractions in Seberang Perai.
With increasing development on the island, Think City started an urban regeneration project for Butterworth in Seberang Perai to again take some of the pressure off the island.
One of the objectives of the project is to spotlight places of interest in Butterworth and one of these has to be Penang's only bird park which will be celebrating its 30th anniversary in two years’ time.
Malay Mail Online spoke with the park’s director, Dr Gino Ooi, who is not a veterinarian but knows almost everything there is to know about birds from his decades of experience caring for them in the park.
The luckiest boy on earth
It all started with Ooi's fascination with the peacocks and macaws at his uncle's house on top of a hill in Sungai Petani.
"I remember going to my uncle's house when I was little and felt like I was the luckiest boy on earth to be able to see birds with beautiful tails that open up and colourful birds that could talk," he said.
From there, Ooi cultivated an interest in birds and then his father started bringing home animals and birds rescued from cooking pots.
"We stayed near an estate and there were foreign workers who would trap wild animals and birds that they would cook and eat, so my father would buy these animals from them and brought them home," Ooi said.
Ooi said he and his brother tried to take care of the animals and birds, but some died because they didn't know how to care for them.
"There was no internet at that time so we couldn't Google for ways to take care of the animals or the types of food to feed them," he said.
Over the years, they learnt from experience about caring for birds and soon, they had a whole collection of them.
"When I finished my studies, I didn't immediately go out to work but stayed home to help my brother take care of the birds and we started selling them," he said.
Their collection of birds continued to grow over the years and by 1988, they decided to set up a bird park on the island.
The Ooi brothers initially wanted to open a bird park either in Teluk Bahang or up on Penang Hill.
"The then Penang chief minister Dr Lim Chong Eu didn't want us to set up the bird park on the island," he said.
At that time, anyone heading to Tanjung Bungah had to go through the inner city and the inner city was experiencing heavy traffic congestion, so Dr Lim didn't want more tourism spots at Teluk Bahang.
"He also did not want it to be on Penang Hill as he was worried about the environmental impact if the number of visitors to the hill increased," Ooi said.
Eventually, Dr Lim convinced Ooi to set up the bird park in Seberang Perai as the state government at that time had plans to move tourism to the mainland.
"He told me about the state's plans to have a zoo in Bertam and to relocate the aquarium to Batu Kawan so that there would be tourism spots on the mainland," he said.
Penang Bird Park the early days
Though Ooi grew up on the mainland, he was initially reluctant as at that time, everyone went over to the island for everything; from spending the day at the beach to shopping.
"Nobody came over to the mainland so we were worried that nobody would want to come to the bird park, but Dr Lim reminded us that Jurong Bird Park was also far away from Orchard Road and it did very well," he said.
So Ooi took up the challenge and the Penang Bird Park opened its doors to the public on August 8, 1988.
The park was the sole tourism attraction for the mainland but when it first opened, only the locals visited it as it was located along a dead end road.
Then the planned zoo and aquarium projects were shelved when Dr Lim lost in the elections of 1992.
"When we first opened, our entrance fee was only RM2 for locals but from 1988 up till 2007, we were losing money every year because we were not getting a lot of visitors," he said.
The park finally hit a turning point when the road leading to it was connected to the main road in 2007.
"The number of visitors went up three times after they connected the roads and we started to make some money," Ooi said.
The park was finally able to start upgrading its facilities and enclosures for the birds.
They also slowly increased the variety of birds in the park and today, the park has over 300 different species of birds.
"Our objective is first, for tourism, then conservation and finally education," he said.
Conservation comes in when the park breeds the bird species it has and also takes in injured birds.
The story of the eagles and hornbills
In 1999, a white-bellied sea eagle flew into a Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) jet and was badly injured.
Knowing the park's reputation for taking in sick and injured birds and nursing them back to health, the RMAF brought the injured eagle to Ooi.
"The bones of the eagle's wings were broken and it looked as if it was dying but we tried to save it anyway," he said.
It took a lot of tedious and careful care but the eagle recovered and was named Siput.
"It will never be able to fly again because its wings were destroyed so we kept it to take care of it," he said.
Then in 2003, another eagle collided with another RMAF jet and it was again brought to the bird park.
"The wings were also broken but we managed to save it," Ooi said.
Today, both eagles live in an open enclosure within the park and are thriving there.
"I am not a veterinarian but somehow, people kept bringing sick and injured birds to us and even veterinarians sent people with sick pet birds to us," he said.
Ooi attributes his ability to help sick birds to the many years of experience caring for so many different types of birds.
Another pair of birds that Ooi managed to save are a pair of mother and child helmeted hornbills.
"Some company was chopping down trees in Pahang and they found a helmeted hornbill nest inside one of the trees... the mother and chick were inside the tree trunk," he said.
Fortunately, the company had heard of Ooi and his magic touch when it comes to birds, so they gave the birds to him.
The helmeted hornbills nest inside a tree where the female and chicks will not leave the nest but are fed only by the male.
"Since they chopped down the trees, the male was not able to find the female and chicks and they could have potentially starved to death," he said.
"You see, helmeted hornbills are critically endangered and no zoo has successfully kept them in captivity as most would die," he said.
Somehow, Ooi managed to save the helmeted hornbills and today, five years later, the female is thriving and its chick, a male, is almost fully grown and so tame that it comes when called.
It likes to be stroked on the beak and is not afraid of people, almost like a pet bird, he said.
Ooi hopes to breed the helmeted hornbills when the male is fully grown as part of his conservation efforts of the species.
The helmeted hornbill is a critically endangered species and is listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix I which states it is illegal to trade the birds.
The bird park has over eight different types of hornbills including the rare helmeted hornbills.
The number of helmeted hornbills in the wild has been dwindling in recent years due to the illegal trade of their beaks, called casque, so Ooi does not condone the sale and purchase of these birds.
"I will not buy these birds, I am against trading of endangered species and I only took these in because the company didn't know what to do with them as the chick was still very small," he said.
What about the future?
The park started more upgrading works four years ago and is gradually continuing with its upgrading of enclosures for the birds.
"I visited other parks and zoos overseas and there is actually a certain size of enclosure for each species of birds, we can't just build enclosures that are too large or too small," he said.
Contrary to common belief, Ooi said birds in captivity are not suffering but are actually happy because they have a place to stay that is safe from predators, food and enough space to fly.
"There is a misconception that birds need a lot of space to fly when this is not true. Birds only fly to search for food and after that, they go back to their nests," he said.
To prove his point, he said all the birds in the park are breeding and this means the birds are happy.
"When they are happy and secure, they will breed but when we recently changed some of the enclosures to glass, they stopped breeding because they felt insecure," he said.
Without the physical wires, the birds were insecure and it took them months to get used to the glass enclosures, he said.
Even enclosures which are too large stress the birds as they will feel insecure, he added.
"We have no choice but to enlarge the enclosures according to our amended Wildlife Act," he said.
The park's temporary occupation license is ending soon and though previously Dr Lim had promised an additional acre of land behind the park for its extension, Ooi said he is very uncertain about the future of the park.
"We did not take over the acre of land previously because we were losing money and could not afford it but now that we can afford it, the land has already been sold off," he said.
The park has no more space to expand so the only thing it can do for now is to improve the enclosures and aviaries.
"We can only hope for an extension of the TOL so that we can continue to keep these birds and be one of the main tourist attractions in Seberang Perai," he said.
Other than displaying hundreds of different birds, the park also has bird shows twice a day on the weekends and during school holidays.
It has three aviaries so visitors can go up close and feed some of the birds.
Penang Bird Park
Jalan Todak, Bandar Seberang Jaya,
Opening hours: 9.30am-6.30pm daily
*Think City is currently undertaking urban regeneration programmes for Butterworth, George Town, Kuala Lumpur and Johor. Find out more about Think City and its projects at thinkcity.com.my.