ZSL London Zoo ‘Keeper for a Day’: dreams do come true

‘Stick together and don’t split up,’ warned specialist keeper Mick Tiley, as we entered the penguin enclosure. ‘The penguins get suspicious if you split up.’

The penguins cautiously eyed our group as we walked slowly round Penguin Beach and started to scrub the sides of their spacious pool. Waddling up to investigate, a couple of nosy blackfooted penguins decided to help out.

Being accepted by the penguins was only one of the highlights of ZSL London Zoo’s ‘Keeper for a Day’. I fed a tiger, got licked by a giraffe, pawed by a spider monkey and climbed on by lemurs. This amazing scheme offers ordinary members of the public, like me, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a zookeeper for the day. As part of a party of five, we were assigned to an experienced keeper, kitted out in overalls and given various tasks from mucking out enclosures, preparing food and devising enrichment activities.

'Oh yeah'

'That's good'

'Jealous'

'Nice welly. Cath Kidston?'

I have wanted to be a zookeeper since I was nine, so going behind the scenes and meeting my favourite animals was a dream come true! Sitting in the sand playing with penguins, I wondered, does it get any better than this?

Our group was led by Mick Tiley, specialist keeper, who has worked at London Zoo for over 30 years. Mick shows groups round several times a month and I soon realised how privileged we were to have him as our guide. It was clear that Mick loves his job and has a wealth of knowledge about the animals, which he was keen to share.

‘I lose very few people,’ said Mick, as we shovelled zebra poo and laid out fresh hay and sand in their stables. He was pleased by our willingness to get stuck in. ‘Some people are given the day as a gift and arrive with no idea what to expect.’

I certainly didn’t expect this…

'It's unsanitary!'

Feeding the giraffes slices of white bread for their mid-morning treat, Mick told us, ‘They don’t like brown bread’. The giraffes were incredibly polite and waited patiently as we tore off bits of bread, daintily wrapping their long tongues round each morsel.

'They are so cute from a reasonable distance'

The ‘Keeper for a Day’ experience helps ZSL London Zoo to fund conservation programmes in Britain and over 50 countries worldwide. The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is a charity devoted to the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats.

However, this was a behind-the-scenes adventure for me. Have you seen those staff-only entry signs? We went past all those points! At ZSL London Zoo Aquarium, Mick took us through a door only for zookeepers and down a narrow walkway eerily lit by tanks of mysterious sea beasties. Giddy with excitement, my fish-fear was forgotten until I saw we were standing above a tank with a yellow warning sign for dangerous animals.

Piranha don't swim round the tank like other fish. They hang there, watching, waiting...

‘Some species of piranha are vegetarian,’ said Mick, explaining that putting our hands in would not result in a feeding frenzy – unless it was the dry season when they get aggressive. These were not the veggie-eating sort and I didn’t fancy a fish manicure.

It was feeding time and we were handed a bag of squiggling worms and crickets to feed the piranha. Scooping out a generous handful and throwing them in the pool, they were gone in 60 seconds. As a beekeeper, I felt I should be on the side of the insects. So when a couple of worms fell on the floor, I didn’t say anything and let them escape the massacre.

Feeding frenzy!

Our next task was to prepare lunch for the bearded pigs from Indonesia, who enjoy a healthy five-a-day bucket of fruit and veg. The keepers’ kitchen had whiteboards on the walls showing personalised menu plans and particular dining preferences of the animals. There were quite a few fussy eaters, I noticed.

Me Love Gorillas

No training, no banana!

As we chopped apples, oranges, carrots, potatoes and bananas, I was starting to get hungry and worried that there would be no training and no banana for me. Fortunately, that rule doesn’t apply to higher mammals. The day’s experience included a generous free lunch in the ZSL staff canteen with a delicious hot and cold buffet on offer, although I was more excited that we were sitting to eat with real zookeepers!

A dinner fit for a keeper. So happy.

Mick had no chance to rest and eat while we interrogated him for insider information. One of our group asked, ‘Do you think animals should be kept in captivity?’ Mick’s answer gave us food for thought. ‘Of course, we would all love to see animals living in the wild and many of our breeding programmes are about conserving species in their natural habitat,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, in many cases the wild isn’t there.’ As a beekeeper, I understood this only too well. Loss of natural habitat is a major cause of insect pollinator decline – no forage, no bees – and it seems that humans are increasingly encroaching on the habitats of other species too.

'The wild? Are you nuts? That is the worst idea I have ever heard!'

The zoo was now getting busy with visitors and our afternoon ‘enrichment’ activities were attracting attention, and some envy, from onlookers. While the zoo isn’t the wild, the keepers like to encourage the animals’ natural behaviours such as climbing, digging, foraging and problem solving. This is called ‘enrichment’. An assortment of handmade objects such as feeding apparatus and challenging toys are used to encourage exploration, while herbs, spices and even perfumes help to stimulate scent marking. ‘The tigers go silly for chili,’ said Mick.

The spider monkeys were not so easy to please. As we held out our hands with an offering of pumpkin seeds, they were more interested in what we were wearing.  ‘Don’t get too close,’ warned Mick. ‘They will untie your shoe laces.’

'Here come the people! Oh, I love the people!'

'It's fun people fun time!'

'If you have any poo, fling it now'

Mick teaches the spider monkeys to tell time.

The Sumatran tigers had no time for such foolishness as they paced up and down their caged interior enclosure like a domestic cat waiting to be fed. Standing behind the yellow line, we gave them chunks of raw meat using metal tongs. Sumatran tigers are smaller than the Siberian tigers at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, said the tigers’ keeper. They looked huge to me and, as the smallest member of the group, I noticed the male tiger fixed me with his eyes.

The tigers' keeper didn't like my beekeeping wellies...

The tigers didn't seem to mind. Come closer...

'You look delicious'

To be so close to these powerful, magnificent animals was a privilege. They were not tame tigers, but neither were they afraid of us. This makes them even more dangerous than tigers in the wild, explained their keeper.

The Sumatran tiger’s status in the wild is ‘critically endangered’ and their numbers have dropped dramatically below 300 individuals. ZSL has plans to introduce a new breeding programme in 2013.

We were exhausted but we didn’t want the day to end. There was one last animal to visit – the ring-tailed lemurs of Madagascar. The task was an ‘enrichment’ feed to encourage the lemurs to forage. However, as I sat with a lemur on my lap and fed it from my hand, I wondered who was receiving the enrichment.

A lemur is sitting on my lap. A LEMUR IS SITTING ON MY LAP!

'Welcome, giant pansies'

'Please feel free to bask in my glow'

The lemurs had soft little hands that they used to satisfy their curiosity about us before carefully picking out their favourite pieces of fruit. We sat there for a while enjoying being in their company.

It was a day that I will never forget – rewarding and educational, exciting and fun. I got a goody bag with ZSL London Zoo ‘Keeper for a Day’ certificate and t-shirt too! I will be scheming like a spider monkey to do it again next year.

Thank you to my mum and dad for giving this amazing gift for Christmas.

Useful links at ZSL London Zoo
ZSL London Zoo ‘Keeper for a Day’ experience
Meet the Penguins encounters
Wildlife Photography workshops
Adopt your favourite animal
Become a member of ZSL
Donate to worldwide conservation of animals
The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) 

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39 thoughts on “ZSL London Zoo ‘Keeper for a Day’: dreams do come true

  1. How wonderfu! I remember the London Zoo from years ago but I am sure it’s changed since I was there. What a great thing to be able to do – you will have to share with us in another post how you got involved.

    • I am grateful to my parents who bought me the gift for Christmas :) Thinking now of becoming a member of ZSL as they have lots of activities throughout the year. The Wildlife Photography lessons at the zoo look fantastic! Do you remember your favourite animal there?

      • we probably do, but I bet its on the east coast where there’s more money. For some reason getting the opportunity to shovel exotic animal poo is not worth the six hour flight to get there for me… lol

      • lol, i’m fighting with my mom to put a pond in our back yard so the bees have somewhere to drink from. And so we can have some dragonflies and frogs in the yard.
        Besides! I’m doing them a favor by not getting on a plane and using hundreds of gallons of gas!

      • Thumb wars at dawn! I hope you get that pond :) Dragonflies and frogs are great too. In the meantime, I read that even a little bowl of water placed in garden somewhere will help bees collect it for the hive. They drink water from all kinds of things – puddles, bird baths and even damp laundry!

      • Hahaha, I’ll challenge my mom to that and see what she says.
        They love the birdbath we have up by the turnips, but they kept drowning in it so i put a knotted dog toy the dogs never play with in it. There’s always at least 5 bees on it. They also drink from a dog bowl the dogs don’t use, which has a leaf on one edge that they use to crawl down to the water. I have a water iris in a pot flu of water, but for some reason they won’t drink that water. Even if its the middle of summer.

      • I might actually have some… my camera died last week and it’s been refusing to charge, even after all night hooked up to my computer. The light blinks to show that its charging, and it’ll even turn green to show that its done, but it refuses to hold a charge. Let me see if I was smart enough to take a picture before it died…

  2. Ooh, don’t think we visited the spider monkeys when I did it. They look fun.

    Hope the worms you quietly saved got away and are leading successful worm lives!

    • Penguins and lemurs really are like the ones from Madagascar, so mischievous! Hoping to go to London Zoo Lates in June – that’s when the zoo is open for adults only, hurrah! Glad you enjoyed it Deborah! :)

  3. Did you ever think there would be a day in your life when someone would say to you ‘the penguins get suspicious if you split up’ and actually mean it? :)
    It sounds like you had a fantastic day, I am very envious!

    • The penguins were the best! I am still chuckling at the memory of their initial suspicious looks and then later playfulness. Their faces were surprisingly expressive! You may like the YouTube video that inspired my penguin captions:

      • The look of total bliss on that little owls face! :D Wonderful!! I was just waiting for it to fall straight over in complete relaxation.

  4. Oh, wow! That is such a cool gift! Hanging out with lemurs and tigers and penguins…I’m envious. :) It sounds like you had a really good time. It makes me wonder if we have an assistant zookeeper for the day type of program here at our Portland Zoo. I’ll have to check!

  5. Pingback: Lions and tigers and bees… | Miss Apis Mellifera

  6. Pingback: Rain or shine, the otters like it fine | Miss Apis Mellifera

  7. Hi, I ‘ve booked my self and my girlfriend to do this in March (She doesn’t know about it) Is it as amazing a I think it will be?!

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