Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Flashback: Zoo Keeper for the Day

You might wonder why I'm telling you a story about something that happened a long time ago, but my good friend Caplin in Texas was asking me about my day as a zoo keeper, so I sent him a write up and thought: why not share it with you? My blog didn't exist when it took place (I know - can you imagine life without Britney of Arabia?!) so I didn't record the momentous event. To my close friends - you remember this day well - sorry to bore you with it again. But it is a good story!

Chester Zoo in the North of England has come up with an interesting way to generate some extra revenue: every Tuesday they allow members of the public to become zoo keepers for the day.

You can’t just turn up (oh no!) you have to pre-book (and pay a princely sum of course - 250 quid now!) – and let me tell you – depending on which animals you want to look after, there can be a long waiting list. FYI fact fans: monkeys have a wait of over a year – no idea why as I can’t stand the blighters....and lions come a close second. But none of those were of any interest to me..what I wanted to look after were: capybaras (of course!)!

The way it works is that you don’t just look after capys, you are allocated a whole section of the zoo, and capys are in the same part as rhinos, zebras, all sorts of antelope, meerkats. The capys actually live in the same enclosure as tapirs.

So what’s it like being a zoo keeper for a day? Well, you have to get up very early in the morning – bearing in mind that Chester Zoo is an hour’s drive from my hometown of Manchester….it was still dark when I left the house, and dark when I arrived at the zoo. When you arrive you meet the other lucky individuals who have signed up for the day – although why anyone would CHOOSE to look after bats is beyond me…..

Before I could get to the capys I spent the morning looking after zebra and rhino. Being a zoo keeper means shoveling a lot of crxp, let me tell you, but there’s something strangely satisfying about the simplicity of the job. The other keepers were fascinated by why I would pay good money and take a day’s holiday to do their job – but it was refreshing to zone out, and know that animals are pretty straightforward creatures. Unlike clients or colleagues they don’t argue or debate with you, they’re happy with a clean bed and some lunch.

If something goes wrong or the animals are sick, then the professionals know their stuff, and they’re highly skilled. But for the most part, they’re cleaning up after the animals, and of course feeding them. And because it’s such a popular job, even the most menial job demands a degree…..I left the day with a new found respect for zoo keepers.

Anyway, after lunch (in the special zoo keeper’s canteen: the excitement) it was off to the capy enclosure! Because they’re in with a couple of (very large) tapirs, there was a lot of food to prepare. Apples, carrots, cabbage, and some sort of pellet things which didn’t look appetizing at all to me but hey what do I know. Apparently they contain lots of useful medicine and nutrients.

As I’d briefed by mentor zoo keeper that capys are my all time number one favourite animal, she let me spend a lot of time with them – and it didn’t disappoint. Apart from a bit of a charge at the start (tapirs get very excited when they’re hungry) everyone was very polite and took their turn eating.

As a special treat I was allowed to feed the capys sliced bread – apparently it’s not part of their usual diet and a treat only. (Caplin, do you eat bread? I’ve heard about the yoghurt and the popsicles, but don’t recall bread!) They bring it out for the guest zoo keepers as it means they can pet the capys and get really close to them.

It was an amazing experience, and as you can probably see from my photos, I was VERY excited. I could have stayed with them all day. They did show me their enormous teeth a few times but I’m assured this was just as they got the measure of me – once they saw the sliced bread they were all over me, and happy to be stroked and petted. And I can report that capys DO feel a bit like a coconut! I can’t recommend the experience enough and can’t wait to pet another capy. One day…..

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