Born To Be Wild

Jaideep Patel speaks to Nikolas “Nicky” Cassimon on how he ended up answering the call of the wild within the leisure and hospitality sector.
Jaideep Patel, publisher

Nikolas “Nicky” Cassimon has a CV that many people could only dream about. Stage Master for the Siegfried & Roy Show in Las Vegas. Stunt Show Coordinator for Universal Studios in Orlando. Small World Manager for Disneyland. It really reads like a ‘best of’ list.

Having worked in 32 countries around the world, this Belgian now calls Malaysia home. Knowing that I would need countless hours chatting with him to fully understand the scope of his work in the leisure and hospitality sector, I decided that the best starting point would be to find out how he embarked on this topsy-turvy journey across continents, working with all sorts of people (and animals).

Feeding time

‘It has always been my dream to become a veterinarian.’ Nicky recalls. ‘In 1975 I had the opportunity to do part-time work at the Zoo in Antwerp, Belgium. That’s where I fell in love with working with animals. I worked there mostly on weekends and school holidays for four years. However, fate decided otherwise, as I was to follow my father in his footsteps. He owned a construction company called Challenger Group at the time, and when he passed away, I took over.’

Such a dramatic turn of events would have deterred most people from chasing their dreams, but not Nicky. In 1984, he made two life-changing decisions: sell his company, and leave Belgium to see the world. It would be the start of a life-long romance.

'I travelled around the world and took it upon myself to accept different positions such as entertainment manager, operation manager, security manager, and hotel manager, among others. My employer at the time was a global hospitality company that filled part-time positions in the hospitality service worldwide. I travelled from country to country, continent to continent, and gained a lot of experience during that period. From the US to the Caribbean, to South America, Europe and Africa and then to Asia. I was posted in 32 countries, all in all.'

Love at first bite

Nicky’s voyage, like all great adventures, had its own share of memorable events. In 1999, he set foot on Malaysian soil. As luck would have it, he met the girl of his dreams and decided to settle down. His big break came when he was appointed Director of Wildife at Bukit Gambang Resort City in 2010.

'Being Director of Wildlife wasn’t an easy task. I had to take all necessary steps to keep the animal population healthy. I was in charge for the safety of not only the animals, but of the staff and the guests too. The difference with an animal park compared to any other amusement park is that in an amusement park you can close up and go home. An animal park is a 24-hour undertaking because animals are always active, day and night. They are always giving birth, fighting, escaping, and falling sick.'

Having the privilege to work with animals on a daily basis comes with its perils, too. ‘When working with animals, you will feel the love that’s been returned to you by these lovely creatures. Each day is a blessing, especially when you enter the park and the animals recognise you and start calling you. But let’s keep in mind the fact that animals are animals. The scars that I have on my legs and hands prove that you can never let down your guard when working with wild animals.’

This carer of beasts of all shapes and sizes has a lion’s share of close encounters. ‘I’m missing two fingers, bitten off by a nasty alligator at Gatorland in Orlando,’ Nicky quipped. ‘I also have a four-inch gap in my leg during my time working with a bear in Holland. Once, a friendly orang-utan came to me for a hug and broke my arm in the process.’

Although Nicky has left the animal kingdom behind for quite a few years now, he has plenty of fond memories to cherish. ‘Being at the age I am at right now, I leave it to the youngsters to take over where I have left off. I do miss working with animals a lot, and still make it a point to see my old animal friends as often as I can.’

Something tells me the animals miss working with Nicky too.