Saturday, 6 July 2013

Day in the life of an Animal Keeper


I am very fortunate enough to have worked both as a Cat Carer for Cats Protection and an Animal Keeper at Seaview Wildlife Encounter. I have always had a passion for felines, but equally enjoy working alongside a variety of different species as well. Both jobs are very close to my heart and I am eager to share with you all the hectic day to day life of an Animal Keeper. 

A lot of people make the incorrect assumption that my job is easy, when in reality it’s far from it. If multi tasking is your forte then you might make a good Keeper! As a Keeper I am responsible for the care of a wide range of animal species and I learn something new every day. It is impossible to absorb all the facts on a species and we’re often asked questions to which we don’t know the answers, however some of the questions I have been asked recently especially by school groups have been rather funny.

“Why do you have penguins?”
“Why are the pelicans so big?”
“Can penguins fly?”
“Is that a turkey?” (It was in fact a guinea fowl. People make that mistake all the time.)
Recent events have made us all realise the potential danger we put ourselves in daily. Keeper Jo was knocked over by Ollie our boisterous Pygmy Goat and now has a broken wrist!

The most dangerous animals in the park are our three male Asian Short Clawed Otters; we actually have to have a special license to keep them, the same that you must have to keep a Lion or a Tiger. We go in the enclosure armed with brooms and steel-toe-capped boots as the otters love to chew at our shoes. The late Terry Nutkins lost two of his fingers to this particular species of Otter!

The parrots feel love, hate and jealousy towards us and we are often ‘dive bombed’ by them in our Big Flight Aviary. Maintaining your awareness of the situation is so important. You cannot afford to be complacent.

Daily tasks are not particularly glamorous but must be completed. To put it plainly we clean up a lot of poo. The work is very physical and includes a lot of sweeping, raking and heavy lifting. There is a daily schedule of presentations to the public. Even though I have done hundreds of talk before I still get nervous. We also now have animal encounters and Keeper for a Day experiences with paying members of the public. 

A lot of our time is also taken up by preparing meals for the animals. We also pre-prepare food for the following day to save time. Some of the food we prepare is not for the faint hearted either. We feed our owls dead day-old chicks, our Corn Snake eats dead baby mice, Priscilla our Bearded Dragon loves live cockroaches and our otters get served gutted Rainbow Trout.

One of my favourite aspects of the job is providing enrichment for the animals. We make fruit kebabs for our parrots, puzzle feeders for our Meerkats and frozen fishy ice cubes for our Otters. It is so important to keep the animals happy and we try to make their enclosures as natural and spacious as possible. 

Working outdoors can also provide many challenges, it can be freezing cold in the winter months and I often come home drenched through when it’s been raining. When it’s sunny it’s the best place to work in the world with the sun on your back and the stunning views of the Solent. However the t-shirt tan I am already developing isn’t a good look!
Perhaps the hardest part of the job is when an animal that you care for dies. Sadly, death is almost a daily occurrence in this line of work. Whether it’s a duckling or a guinea pig, you have more of an emotional attachment to some than others. Unfortunately our worst fears came true recently and poor Baby Roo the abandoned Wallaby Joey we have been hand-rearing lost his fight. The tough decision was made to have him put to sleep. It’s never easy but we take comfort in the fact that we gave him a good chance. Poor little Roo had a hole in his heart and only 10% use of his pancreas. This was why he wasn’t putting on weight and he was unable to digest his food properly. Special thanks must go to the Cats Protection who kindly lent us one of their heated pads for Roo, for use during the colder nights. 

In summary; I think a good Animal Keeper is someone who is dedicated to caring for animals with a passion for the natural world.
It is vital that an Animal Keeper is well organised, knowledgeable about the species in their care, reliable, hard-working, a team player and is confident interacting with the general public.

I hope and try to be all of these things. My top tips when visiting the park are to take your time to explore, remember to bring your camera, go along to the informative keeper talks, have some delicious food in the cafe, feed the ducks down by the lake, and if you’re feeling brave you could hold a cockroach at ‘Bugs and Reptiles’; 1pm in the Tropical House. Hope to see you all soon! 

By Holly Cluitt

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