By BEN WOODS
Saturday, March 31, 2012
I STEP INTO THE enclosure with a broom in hand and a growing sense of trepidation.
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 the task, eager to earn the respect of Africa Alive’s lead qualified keeper, Sarah Kelly, who casts a hawkish-eye over my work.
But when Sarah hands me a pitchfork and points me towards a mound of dung, I realise it’s about to get a lot harder.
I take a step forward and plunge it in to lift a scoop, reeling a little from the smell. I turn to 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 says 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 at Kessingland – home to some 83 species – is looking to employ two new keepers after seeing workers depart on maternity leave.
“We have lots of people with zoology degrees apply,” She said. “But some of them just aren’t geared up for the physical work.
“But although it is hard, the job is also very rewarding. Arriving in the morning and finding a baby ring-tailed lemur or a baby lion are truly memorable moments.”
My visit 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 a meerkat rooting around in my ear, it was impossible to ignore the progress zoos have made in a few decades. But with the recent government decision to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses, I asked her whether standards had improved enough to prevent the damning finger pointing at them next.
“If it wasn’t for zoos, a lot of animals would be extinct,” she said. “We are certainly a different operation now than we were in the Sixties and Seventies.”
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 around the world.
Each zoo animal across the country is individually registered with a studbook keeper who can decide to move it from one zoo to another if there is a chance it may produce young.
But for zoo keepers like 34-year-old Sarah – who has spent 11 years working in the trade – it also means that her relationships with these beloved animals can be lost in a moment.