‘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.
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…
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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!
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 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.’
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.
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.
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)