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Being a zoo keeper on a really wild day out

PUBLISHED: 17:11 30 April 2012

Ben Woods being a keeper at Africa Alive, Kessingland.

Ben Woods being a keeper at Africa Alive, Kessingland.

Archant © 2012

One small scoop for a reporter; one giant clean-out for animal kind... BEN WOODS mucks in as a zoo keeper for the day at Africa Alive. Plus get up close to wild animals.

I step into the enclosure with a broom in hand and a growing sense of trepidation. I am not work shy, and I can command a brush, but this is a clean-up operation like no other.

In front of me is the unmade bed of Bud — an African white rhino — and I am playing zoo keeper.

With broad sweeps, I put myself to task, eager to earn the respect of Africa Alive’s lead qualified keeper, Sarah Kelly, who casts a hawkish-eye over my work.

For an amateur, this is a tiring and difficult job, and it doesn’t get any easier when I see handfuls of bedding fall back on the floor as I struggle to load it onto the truck.

But when Sarah hands me pitch fork and points me towards a mound of dung, I realise its about to get a lot harder.

I take a step forward and plunge it in to lift a bulk, reeling a little from the smell.

I turn dump it into the truck’s flat-bed and go for another, and then another — I feel like I am finally getting somewhere when Sarah stops me.

With little or no fuss, she takes the fork back and gathers almost half the pile in one swift motion. When she hands it over my arms give a little under the strain. “Now that is a real scoop,” she said with a smile.

Later, Sarah told me she was used to seeing people like me: enthusiastic animal lovers who think being a zoo keeper is a charming way to make a living. At present, the Africa Alive African Animal Adventure park — home to sum 83 species — is looking to employ two new keepers after seeing some workers departed on maternity leave.

“I will be looking to see how good they are with a brush,” said Sarah, who is assessing the applicants on how well they clean out an enclosure as part of their interview.

“We have lots of people with zoology degrees who apply, but some of them just aren’t geared up for the physical work.

“A lot of people think being a zoo keeper is just about feeding the animals and having a bit of a play, but to be honest it is not like that.

“We have keepers that haven’t lasted long at all, it is a real hard graft. Each day we have a big animal bed to change, then we have to meet members of the public and take them on tours, and if someone is off then the work load increases.

“To be a good zoo keeper you need a bit everything,”

“You need to be a nutritionist, a horticulturist, an enclosure designer, and you need plenty of patience, because if a rhino doesn’t want to move, all you can do is keep trying.

“The hardest time is during the winter when you have to get up early in the cold and try to break the ice in the animal’s troughs.

“But although this physical work is hard, the job is very rewarding. Coming in the morning and finding a baby ring-tailed lima or a baby lion are truly memorable moments.”

My visit to the park came on a sun-kissed morning when these “memorable moments” were within touching distance.

From the lips of a giraffe delicately collecting fruit from my fingers, to the nose of meerkat rooting around in my ear, it was impossible to ignore the progression zoos had made in the last few decades ago.

The distressing sight of animals pacing their cages seemed to have gone, and there is an increased effort to let the public step beyond the fence and experience the smaller exotic animals for themselves.

But with the recent government decision to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses, I asked Sarah whether she felt enough had been done to improve standards and prevent a damning finger pointing at them next.

“If it wasn’t for zoos a lot of animals would be extinct,” she said. “People need educating about the good work zoos do, we are certainly a different operation now then we were in the sixties and seventies.

“Zoos provide a service to the people where these exotic animals come from. Some farmers in Africa may trap and kill a cheetah deemed a threat to his livestock, but if you can teach them about the animals, and move them away from the farming area, then you are helping both the people and the animals.”

The argument about whether or not animals should be kept, and bred, in captivity will continue as long as zoos exist.

But Africa Alive boasts a number of success stories to provide an ample defence against the critics.

In 2003 and 2006, they managed to produce a number of cheetah cub, while they have also bred Addax - a critically endangered screwhorn antelope.

Negotiations are currently under way to bring a new white rhino to the park this Easter to try and inspire a courting pair.

The desire to breed exotic animals in captivity is an aspect which binds many zoos across the country, and the world.

Each animal is registered with a studbook keeper who can decide to move it from one zoo to another if there is a chance they may produce young.

The measures are put in place to increase genetic diversity and ensure endangered animals have the best chance of survival.

The most high-profile case came late last year when two pandas were flown from China to Scotland – although the move was not strictly made to help breeding.

But for zoo keepers like 34-year-old Sarah — who has spent 11 years working in the trade and lives on site at Africa Alive- it also means that her relationships with these beloved animals can be lost at any moment.

“You grow close to these animals,” she said. “It is even harder when they pass away.”

“I had a close relationship with our chimp Jimmy. He was more like a friend to me. I know it sounds stupid, but it was heart-breaking to lose him.”

■ Africa Alive is at White’s Lane, Kessingland, open daily 9.30am-5pm, £15.95 (£13.95 cons), £10.95 children, under-3s free, 01502 740291, www.africa-alive.co.uk

■ The Keeper for a Day experience is available to those aged 14 and over. Full-day experience 9.30am-3.30pm £180/half-day experience 9.30am-12.30pm or 1.30pm -4.30pm £99. Places must be pre-booked on 01502 740291. Activities may be subject to change.

■ Junior Keeper for a Day half-day experience are available for budding zoo keepers aged 8-13 years, £99 per person.

■ Specialist Keeper For The Day half-day experiences are now available for those who have a specific interest working with either primates, carnivores or some of our hoofed mammals.

WHERE ELSE TO BE KEEPER

BANHAM ZOO

Kenninghall Road, Banham, Norfolk, open daily 9.30am-5pm, £15.95 (£13.95 cons), £10.95 children, under-3s free, 01953 887771, www.banhamzoo.co.uk

The Norfolk zoo runs a Keeper for a Day scheme with the opportunity to experience a day in the life of a zoo keeper. Though activities vary depending on the needs of the animals and weather conditions, you may be put to work cleaning the colobus monkey house and preparing their night feed or monkeys into their outside enclosure or feeding the giraffe or lemurs.

Alternatively you could end up cleaning out and feeding the meerkats or feeding the Australian paddock animals, including red kangaroos and emu.

Standard full-day experiences from 10am-4pm are £150 and include admission to the zoo for the ‘keeper’ and a guest, a framed certificate and a photograph of you with the animals. Half-day experiences, morning or afternoon, are £99.

OASIS CAMEL CENTRE

Orchard Farm, Linstead, Halesworth, open daily 10.30am-5pm, £7.95 (£7.45 cons), £6.95 children, under-3s free, 07836 734748, www.oasiscamelcentre.co.uk

With an array of animals both big and small there are plenty of creatures to care for here — but of course the main attraction is the camels.

A typical day will include working in the pet’s barn, feeding the aviaries, helping with the cuddle-a-pet sessions and grooming camels, meeting some llamas and alpacas and learn about the camelid family.

Then there will be health checks for the goats and taking anything that needs exercising for a walk.

Standard full-day experiences from 10.30am-3.30pm are £89 and include admission to the zoo, lunch and drinks and a photograph of you with the animals.

Half-day experiences, 10.30am–1pm or 1pm- 4pm, are £49.

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