At the Zoo

As you may recall my birthday present from the family was to be a keeper for the day at Colchester Zoo.  That day was Friday.  As Colchester is quite a distance from home then part two of the birthday surprise was a couple of nights at the nearby Five Lakes Golf, Country Club and Spa.  Therefore we headed to Maldon after morning rush hour on Thursday to take full advantage of the facilities.  This was also Éowyn’s first mini-break away.  She has stopped at Nanny Fran’s but not since her new awareness has developed and never in a hotel without all of her familiar things.

So after unpacking and settling in we headed to the spa facilities to take Éowyn swimming for the first time.  She has grown to like the bath especially since she has discovered splashing but we were unsure how she would take to a swimming pool.  This was probably the best introduction since the swimming pool was all but empty so there were no waves from the other people and more importantly there was little noise.  Swimming pools can be extremely noisy places especially when they are busy, and we were conscious that this could be a problem when we first took her swimming and we hoped that this would not put her off.  Another benefit was that we could take our camera in to capture her first swim, something that public swimming pools will certainly not let you do.  As you can see from the pictures below she thoroughly enjoyed it.

She did not enjoy sleeping in a strange cot in a strange room however and awoke in the middle of the night screaming.  It took us a while to calm her down, hopefully we didn’t disturb any of the other guests.

Friday was ‘Zoo-Keeper for the day‘ day!  We arrived early at Colchester Zoo in the middle of an icy downpour.  The day had started brightly but soon deteriorated into a real winter shower.  This meant that the zoo was quieter than usual as a day at the zoo is usually a fair-weather day out.

As you can see from the Colchester Zoo website there are three different schemes for the ‘Keeper for the day‘ experience; Lucinda had booked scheme B – the Carnivores, she knows me so well.  There were two of us on the scheme, myself and a lady called Jane.  We were to report at the Customer Services desk at 11:00am sharp ready for our first task with zoo-keeper Carrie.

We headed straight to the meerkats where we were to feed them live mealworms.  We were warned not to pet them (as with most animals at the zoo, they are not pets) as they will bite and have needle sharp teeth, as well as long claws on their forefeet.  Meerkats have a varied diet but the mealworms encourages them to forage, since the mealworms when scattered on the ground attempt to burrow into the soil (and who can blame them).  However, meerkats have an acute sense of smell and can smell invertebrates up to a metre below the surface.  What did surprise me, what that they were smaller than I expected, only about the size of my foot.  They were very inquisitive but when they realised that we were out of mealworms they headed back to the warmth of their ‘caves’.

Another tub of mealworms (poor mealworms) in hand we headed to the squirrel monkey cage.  Very cute but highly mischievous we were not allowed in the enclosure with them but fed them through the bars of their cage.

The next stop was to an animal that most people have never heard of.  The Binturong is a relation of the civet that lives in the forest of  Asia.  It is also known as the bearcat although it is neither.  It is has a thick long prehensile tail with which it can support its own body weight and big strong claws that it uses for climbing trees.  As we walked into the cage it came up to greet us, somewhat like a dog and you had to resist the urge to bend down to stroke him.  It is amazing how friendly an animal can get when you have a big bowl of its favourite food, it this case fruit, animals pellets and sprats.  He definitely had his favourite food: bananas, followed closely by grapes and turned his nose up against anything else until they had all gone.  A very cute animal that I recommend that you all go and visit when you next visit a zoo.

We then headed from the small mammals to the carnivores and from Carrie to Vickie.  The first carnivore on the list was the Fossa.  A very agile relative of the civet that is found only on the island of Madagascar, it is especially adept at hunting lemurs.  As with the next few animals on the list we were unable to enter the enclosure for our own safety but the presence of the keeper (with food) brought her to the front of the cage so that we got a good view of her.

Again, the next beast on the list was too dangerous for us to enter their enclosure.  The Amur Leopard Dende, is one of the 35 or so Amur Leopards in the world.  Probably the rarest big cat in the world, their numbers are threatened due to poaching (both of the cats themselves for Chinese medicine and their skins, protection of livestock in the leopard’s territory and of their prey), deforestation, and genetic inbreeding due to such low population numbers.  Vickie however has built a relationship with the leopard such that they are training him to present himself for medical examinations, so that they can listen to his heart (very difficult because he gets so excited when his is interacting with Vickie that his purring deafens the vet) and take blood samples, all without resorting to anethatising him.  Dende is so happy to see Vickie that when she approached his enclosure he ran to greet her at the glass, pawing it as a large and over-affectionate moggy.  It was great to be so close to such a beautiful cat.

Next on the list was to clean the lions’ bedding.  Ensuring that both lions were in the open the shutter was released so that we could safely enter their indoor enclosure.  We changed their straw bedding and washed down the area so that their bedroom was fit for a king.

Our final stop before lunch was to feed the margays.  Small spotted cats from South America they spend most of their time in trees and so to provide enrichment we hung portions of rabbit from trees in their enclosure hidden in toilet rolls, so that they had to work to get their food and sprayed perfume in the branches of the trees.  We entered their enclosures while they were there but they were far too wary to approach us.  As soon as we left though the male was straight after the food, while the female found an irresistable urge to rub herself against the perfume.  Apparently they like the perfume and rub their own scent into it.

An hour for lunch and we were picked up by Sarah the keeper of the African savanna mammals.  The first task was to feed the Red River Hogs, so called because they are red, live by rivers and are hogs.  Although omnivores,  we fed them their fruit and vegetable course.  They displayed a preference for apples, and would not touch the others until they were sure that all the apples had been thrown.  Due to their unpredictable nature we were not allowed to enter their enclosure but we could lean over the fence and pet them, always bearing in mind that their jaws are strong enough to crush coconuts and they are quick enough to catch rabbits.

We then walked round to the main enclosure and Sarah told us about their giraffes, rhinos, kudus, zebras and ostriches.  Again their unpredictable nature means that we were unable to enter the enclosure.  However we were taken to their bedding quarters where we made a bed for the kudus, then we were handed a bunch of leaves and taken to feed the giraffes.  It is amazing how big a giraffe is.  I think we all accept that giraffes are the tallest animals in the world, but it is not until you are standing next to one that you realise just how big they are.  See the photos below.

The last but not least encounter for the day was with the aardvark.  Famous for being the first noun in the English language, the aardvark (Earth Pig in Afrikaans) is a medium sized burrowing mammal.  Colchester Zoo has the enviable honour of being the only zoo in the UK that has successfully bred aardvarks and their fourth baby aardvark, Draco, was born in January.  Aardvarks are relatively peaceful and so we were allowed to enter their enclosure and were encouraged to stroke them.  The adults seemed nonplussed as nocturnal animals they barely roused from their slumber.  Draco though, as any child was fascinated by the visitors and came over for a sniff and stroke.  Sarah even demonstrated how ticklish he is.  As she tickled his sides he rolled on his back for you to stroke his belly.  What a fantastic way to end a fabulous day.

So if you have ever entertained the idea of being a zoo keeper I thoroughly recommend the Colchester experience, it is without doubt one of the best presents that I have ever had and would jump at the chance to do it again.

Please enjoy the photos below and more on the flickr pages too.

Peace and love