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Loving London – Zookeeper for a Day at ZSL London Zooo

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Surely, it is every little kids dream to get behind the bars at the zoo and help out the zoo keepers? From feeding the monkeys to stroking snakes, it is probably on the bucket list for a lot of grown ups too. It has definitely been on ours ever since we heard that we could be a  zookeeper for a day at ZSL London Zoo.

ZSL London Zoo.

London Zoo is housed in Regent.s Park. This beautiful, big park in North London is bordered by roads on three sides, and the Regents Canal on the other.

You can read all about the walk along this canal in our blog post: Walking the Regents Canal from Camden to Little Venice

There may be some of you who are a little unsure about the idea of a zoo, and we would agree that there are some zoos around the globe that fail miserable at animal welfare. However, ZSL (the Zoological Society of London) does huge amounts of work to make sure their residents are as happy as possible. Huge amounts of research goes on and is implemented both here and across the world in their numerous conservation projects.

Some small but important examples of this are:

  • The policy of weighing the animals. It takes patient training to allow this to become a natural part of the animals routine. How much nice to have the animals hop onto the scales feeling comfortable and knowing that a reward is forthcoming, than having to tranquillise them. Monitoring the weights allowed keepers to keep a close eye on the animals health.
  • Every animal also goes through a wellbeing audit every year. Are they behaving normally, do they have the space and activities to keep them comfortable?
  • Finally, ZSL London Zoo is pioneering huge programmes of enrichment. You will hear more about this later, but I think it worth mentioning that this research is world-leading and they are sharing their knowledge with other zoos in conferences and seminars globally.

It felt really nice to be a temporary part of this team during our time at London Zoo.

Why not take a peek at the short video we made of the day?

Beyond the Gate

On the morning of our zookeeper for a day experience, we were running a little late. As always, we had forgotten that everything takes a little longer in rush hour. After a mad dash past it, we backtracked and made it to the east service gate just a little late.

Our keeper for the day, Tom, greeted us right at the gate and showed us up to a small office. He we signed a waiver and got our “zookeeper for a day” gear on. Everyone was given a black T-shirt and the option to also wear a boiler suit. We opted to just stay in our jeans and hoped not to get too messy.

Dress code for the ZSL london Zoo zookeeper for a day experience:

  • Clothes you can move in and don’t mind getting mucky
  • Closed toe, comfortable shoes
  • Layers, just in case the weather turns

Breakfast

From the office, we descended spiral staircase and walked across to the Terrace Restaurant. Here we grabbed a very welcome coffee and a pastry. Both Mr Fluskey and I love a pain au chocolat so it was a lovely start to the day. Tom gave us a rundown of the day’s structure and we had a general chat about the role of a zookeeper at ZSL London Zoo.

First order of business: Clean out the animals and get them fed.

Mighty Mongolians

Our first task of the day was to meet the two resident Mongolian camels, Ghengis and his half sister Naomi. If you have met camels in the Middle East, it is most likely you were introduced to a ……. with one hump. These beauties are much larger and have two. These tall humps hold fat reserves that help the camels survive for long stretches of time with food or water.

We found out that Mongolian camels are actually critically endangered and have almost been wiped out as humans shoot them to protect grazing grounds and other human activities disrupt their natural migration routes.

Mucking About with Camels…or is that Mucking Out the Camels

Yes, that’s right, be prepared to scoop some poop! Being a zookeeper for a day is not all glitz, glamour and pastries.

We were given some rakes, a couple of brushes and a spade, and set about cleaning up the paddock. Scoping out all of the…leavings… and hay that had fallen from the feeders, we scooped it all up and popped it into the bins. It was mildly physical but I think most people could do it.

Once the paddock was done we got a chance to meet the culprits themselves. As Naomi came over to the fence, I was genuinely a bit apprehensive. She was so large but she had such a soft coat and such long eyelashes. The camels were malting as the warm weather approached and we found out that the keepers sweep up the soft woolly hair and use it around the zoo for other animals to play with, nest in etc. I guess that is the circle of life?

We fed the camels some treats and then they were off to hang out in their paddock as we entered their house to do more cleaning up.

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Gloved up, we began to pick up the poop and sweep up the wet wood shavings. When it was clear, we put down some new shavings and left them to their super newly renewed floor.

Tiger Time

No, we didn’t get into the tiger enclosure as a zookeepers for a day! However, we did wander through and enjoy the view of him sunbathing, legs akimbo.

Later in the day he was up his platform, surveying the enclosure and looking a lot more respectable. I will forever be amazed at how beautiful, strong and terrifying these big cats are.

You’re Having a Giraffe, Nobody Likes Kale!

We mounted some steps onto a high viewing bridge that overlooks the giraffe area. All three of giraffes, all females, were out and happily stripping the browse. They are given branches full of delicious leaves that are hoisted to tree top level. These gorgeous grazing girls then get to munch on them all day. However, we had bought some “delicious” kale as a special treat. Tom told us that sometimes they really aren’t bothered about it, but today, two of the giraffes came to visit us.

We gingerly held out large kale leaves and watched in fascination as the giraffes used their long, black tongues and big, floppy, furry lips to take the food. The giraffes really did enjoy the kale, much more than I ever have, and when the tub was empty they wandered back over to their trees.

They are such beautiful creatures and it was so cool to see their heads up close. They are normally pretty far away and I am normally at ground level!

Next it was time for some Meerkat enrichment.

Oh So Enriching

When I first heard Tom use the term “enrichment”, it made me think of extra-curricular lessons at school. I guess that’s kind of what it is. ZSL London Zoo are very passionate about training and enrichment to ensure that their animals are healthy and happy.

Training takes many forms, for example:

  • Getting the animals used to weighing scale pads in their enclosure. This means keepers can keep a close eye on the weights of animals, an early indicator of something being wrong.
  • Getting them used to the idea of injections and other medical procedures. This means that if the animals do fall ill, help can be administered with as little distress to the animal as possible.
  • It could also be as simple as knowing that if they move to one side of their enclosure, the keepers can safely feed them.
  • They even do training that keeps up the animals skills set. The keepers set the Wild African Dogs, challenges to keep them working as a team, just like they would in the wild.

Enrichment is slightly different. This is all centred around keeping things interesting, more comfortable or more enjoyable for the animals. For example:

  • Using the camel hair as nesting material for the briefs elsewhere in the zoo.
  • Adding some of their very favourite foods into their daily diet. Did you know that bearded pigs live monkey nuts and enjoy snuffling they out?
  • Introducing new toys such as boomer balls in with the animals.
  • Running food on zipwires for predators so they can enjoy their hunting instincts.

It is the creative little things that the keepers can do to make sure their animals are as happy as possible.

Alongside this, the animals are all given welfare assessments every year. ZSL are leaps and bounds ahead of most zoos when it comes to these extras and they are spreading the good word to other zoos and safari parks around the world.

Making Meerkat Toys – Simples

To give the meerkats something to do, we were given rubber pots. Into these we put some moss and lots of exciting bits and bobs. We could add spices, perfume and powdered insects. They were all different so all exciting for the cute little critters.

We threw them into the meerkat area and they went mad for them. Mine was more popular than Mr Fluskeys. I mixed a combo of oregano and perfume with lots of insects. It was like an sexy pizza worm.

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Monkeying Around

Our last stop before lunch was to meet three red-faced spider monkeys. In this family group (mum, dad and son) their was a striking resemblance to something you’d recognise from every day life. Mum and Dad were just trying to get their share of cucumber sticks, but their teenage son wasn’t all that happy about sharing them. Apparently he is a very cheeky chap and is always messing about with his mum and dad.

The spider monkeys have the most amazing tails. They are really thick and have beautiful long hair, that is until you get to the end section. This has a long section on the underside that looks like a paw pad. This has much better grip, and the monkey uses this, along with its prehensile skills to hang onto branches and swing between them. It is like a fifth limb.

Tom told us about the research that discovered captive monkeys need ropes and other flexible things to swing from. Without this, if they only have fixed branches, their backs and shoulders don’t get enough of the right kind of exercise. That is why they always have ropes and other fun things to hang from.

Greedy Pigs, and Other Creatures

London Zoo’s old elephant house is no longer home to pachyderms. Instead, down a ramp, you will find a big kitchen. It is here that we prepared some delicious dinner for some of the animals.

We were each assigned a dinner bucket to prepare. Every animal had a blackboard and we set about sourcing the ingredients and chopping them to the desired size. I was most jealous of the pigs, as they had some tasty looking crayfish in their buckets and I do love my seafood!

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Tom grabbed some monkey nuts from the feeding room and we threw them into the enclosure for the bearded pigs. These guys love to forage them out, just the way they would find their food in the wild. My aim started off quite well but then I lost the knack and the nuts kept falling into the lower area. I was quite upset until Tom said they could get down there too.

Flutter by the Butterflies

On the way to lunch, we took a short trip through the butterfly enclosure. Poor Tom was trying to teach us all about the life cycle of the butterflies but I was completely distracted! I could have stayed in there for hours. It is warm, the butterflies are beautiful and there are gorgeous flowers everywhere too. Dreamy!

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Feeding Time at the Zoo – (Our Lunch)

After the monkeys got their lunch, it was our turn. As we were zoo keepers for the day, we were fed in the staff canteen. We were given a card that covered either a main meal, two sides and a drink or a main meal, side dish, drink and dessert.

It was a pretty good canteen selection and I took the opportunity to have some chips. (We never have chips at home so this is always an eating out treat).

I had a breaded turkey piece, chips and a cupcake and Mr Fluskey had the the turkey with chips and beans. I wouldn’t say it was gourmet but it was tasty and filled me up.

The Grand Old Ladies is the Galapagos

After lunch we met three lovely, but grumpy, ladies. These old girls were Galapagos Tortoises, and it was our job to take the temperature of their enclosure. We were each given a laser thermometer and we had to take a few readings to ensure their enclosure wasn’t too hot, or too cold. In the summer, they can go into their outside area but it’s just too chilly in the UK for most of the year.

One of the tortoises was particularly stroppy. She clearly wanted all of our attention and she bashed and hissed at her two buddies the whole time we were in there. Tom explained that this may be due to the lack of male attention they are getting at the moment. They were paired with a stud but he has gone to meet some new females in other zoos now.

Get Your Coatis, You’ve Pulled

Have you ever heard of Coatis? Neither had I! These South American mammals are related to raccoons and these little critters cause just as much havoc, if not more! They have long, flexible noses which they use to sniff out their dinner. These guys live seven years on average in the wild, but more than double that in captivity.

The keeper put some fruit around us and gave us a good sprinkling with meal worm, then it was feeding time. The coatis scampered across our legs, snuffled under our knees and played around us. They were so cheeky and very cute. I really enjoyed this encounter, being up close and personal felt like a really exclusive treat.

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Feeling Prickly with Porcupines

Our next experience was with three more special ladies, the porcupines that are resident at ZSL London Zoo.

We were each allowed to feel a porcupine spine. First, as the coarse hair t grows as, and then as the sharp spine it thickens into. It was quite beautiful, and I would love one as a pen (once it has fallen out naturally). Porcupines love to cover them in poop though, so we had wash our hands thoroughly afterwards it’s in case. This clever tactic means that if they leave their detachable spines inside a predator, the muck will cause a bad infection. Viet Cong soldiers tipped their booby trap spikes in the same way for the same reason.

I never thought I’d find a porcupine cute, but these hilarious girls changed my mind. As we chatted with their keeper, one decided to hunt out some extra food and we all had a giggle as she attempted to break into the kitchen. Who knew they were so smart? Just as long as they don’t learn how to pick locks with those lovely, long spikes.

C-C-Clean Up The Penguins

I was SO excited to enter the penguin enclosure. I’m a sucker for a penguin, even though they are slightly stinky. It was laying season and so they had lots of nesting boses on the beach area. They asked us not to get too close, but it was still super exciting to be a little closer.

The old penguin area is a gorgeous Art Deco space, but its good looks have created a problem for the zoo. It is listed so they can’t change it at all, and it is unsuitable for pretty much everything else! I really hope they figure out how to turn it into something cool because it looks so awesome.

But back to the penguins…

As we entered through a gate, two curious penguins waddled over to see what we were up to. Some of these guys are very friendly, and others will give you a little nip. I got to stroke a penguin, at hat was my day complete! We each took a broom and learned that it was our job to scrub the stones on the edge of the pool. The inhabitants had left big white dropping and we had to clean them off. When I am cleaning other people’s spaces, I can be a bit of a perfectionist and so I was going all guns.

They were so small and so cute, and so distracting! Mind you, the guy above was very angry with my broom. He wouldn’t leave it alone! I guess he liked his poop just where he has pooped it!

The DeBrief

At the end of the day, we went for a chat over some more goodies at the Terrace Cafe. We could pick a cake and drink. I opted for two profiteroles (and mango and one raspberry) and a can of wine. Now, I know a can of wine doesn’t sound all that classy but it wasn’t half bad. I figured I deserved it after my long day of zoo work. We talked all about being a zookeeper for a day and learned even more about the amazing pioneering work ZSL are doing within the zoo.

Final Thoughts on Being a Zookeeper for a Day at London Zoo

If you are considering trying out the Zookeeper for a Day program for yourself, here are some things you may want to know:

  • You can book the zookeeper for a day at ZSL London Zoo experience through the ZSL London Zoo website. A full day costs £280. You will have time to have a look around the zoo at the end of the day, so don’t panic if you aven’t seen your favourite animals.
  • You can also try zookeeping at their sister zoo, Whipsnade, on the Duncstable Downs. £295 gets you a whole day.
  • There is a also a junior zookeeper experience for teenagers aged 11-15. This costs £170 and takes half a day.
  • These days are not just a wander around the zoo, you will be asked to do a little physical work and maybe get a little dirty. Embrace it and you will find it an incredibly rewarding experience.

We loved our day at ZSL London Zoo, and I wish could be zookeeper for more than just one day! If you love animals, want to learn more about the amazing work ZSL does and want to roll those sleeves up, then this is for you. Being a zookeeper for a day is a unique chance to get involved, so jump in!

Rosie xx

 


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