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‘People don’t know the half of it’ - A day in the life of a zoo keeper

PUBLISHED: 15:57 05 September 2020 | UPDATED: 08:33 06 September 2020

Zoe Nunn, senior keeper at Africa Alive! Picture: Victoria Pertusa

Zoe Nunn, senior keeper at Africa Alive! Picture: Victoria Pertusa

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While the nation was stuck in lockdown, many were forced to work from home. But when your job is to look after three fully grown rhinos, home-working isn’t an option. EMILY THOMSON spent a day behind the scenes at Africa Alive...

Behind the scenes at Africa Alive!: Picture: Victoria PertusaBehind the scenes at Africa Alive!: Picture: Victoria Pertusa

Come rain or shine, zoo keepers are expected to carry on with their duties, even during a pandemic.

From feeding and mucking out to enrichment and conditioning, it’s all in a day’s work for Africa Alive’s staff, who worked tirelessly to carry on providing vital care for their animals.

Zoe Nunn, senior keeper, said it’s been a difficult few months for the zoo, run by the Zoological Society of East Anglia, which had its main source of income stopped after it closed its gates to visitors during lockdown.

MORE: Banham Zoo and Africa Alive! on verge of collapse because of coronavirus.

Behind the scenes at Africa Alive!: Picture: Victoria PertusaBehind the scenes at Africa Alive!: Picture: Victoria Pertusa

And while staff were furloughed, with zoo keepers down to a team of 10 from around 25, Ms Nun said they “just got on with it”.

She said: “It was difficult because we were on a skeleton crew and split into two teams, but we had to carry on caring for the animals to the same high standards.

“It’s always hard work, but we have a really good team and I love my job.”

Ms Nunn said the highlight of the year has been the birth of two Red River hog piglets, and walking around the zoo her passion for the animals shows.

Behind the scenes at Africa Alive!: Picture: Victoria PertusaBehind the scenes at Africa Alive!: Picture: Victoria Pertusa

Her biggest task right now is crate training Rhino Tootsie, who will soon be moving to her new retirement home in Slovakia. With the incentive of food, fresh hay and encouragement from keepers, she is slowing coming around.

But the task Ms Nunn said keepers do most of the time is shovel poo - of all shapes and sizes.

MORE: Government set to give region’s zoos a ‘fighting chance of survival’.

Fellow keeper and team leader, Louise Knock, who has been at the zoo for more than 20 years, said there is a lot more to the job than loving animals.

Louise Knock, team leader. Picture: Victoria PertusaLouise Knock, team leader. Picture: Victoria Pertusa

As she sat in the office, surrounded by paper work as she renewed her firearms certificate - which is required at zoos with category one dangerous animals - she explained just how much work is actually involved.

Ms Knock said: “We have people say they love animals and they really want to work in a zoo, but they don’t know the half of it.

“We have had many apprentices who come here and realise it’s not the career for them.

“It can be amazing, I have got to hand-rear a giraffe and I have had a baby aardvark at home with me, but you have to do really want to do this.

Behind the scenes at Africa Alive!: Picture: Victoria PertusaBehind the scenes at Africa Alive!: Picture: Victoria Pertusa

“When it is chucking down with rain, we still have to go out there and get the job done.

“Christmas Day and Boxing Day, we are still here and working.

“You have the highs and lows - animals are born but we also lose animals.

“You also have to have patience. There is a lot of admin behind the scenes and if we are moving an animal to a new home, it takes a lot of time and planning. It’s never ending.”

Terry Hornsey, animal manager at Africa Alive! Picture: Victoria PertusaTerry Hornsey, animal manager at Africa Alive! Picture: Victoria Pertusa

Terry Hornsey, is Africa Alive’s animal manager, who has been working at zoos for more than 40 years. He said despite reopening to the public on July 4, they are “not out of the woods” financially.

“I thought I had seen everything, but this has never happened before,” he said.

“It is quite frightening and it has affected us financially in a big way.

“People have been very kind, we have had donations but the amount of money we need to operate, I think people would be shocked to find out how much it costs to run a zoo.”

Behind the scenes at Africa Alive!: Picture: Victoria PertusaBehind the scenes at Africa Alive!: Picture: Victoria Pertusa

Ms Knock added: “The support we have had has been awesome. For the public to go out of their way and think about us is truly heart-warming.

“Throughout lockdown we had a lady turn up every Sunday. She would come to the gates and gives us cakes and treats, and boxes of fruit and veg from her garden and that was so lovely and its things like that which kept the keepers going.”

Without the zoo keepers, there would be no zoo and throughout the pandemic, many realised just how much they give to ensure the animals are cared for.

Mr Hornsey added: “At the end of the day without them we couldn’t have kept going.

“The team were scaled down to the bare bones and that core group had to work even harder than they would normally, which is quite phenomenal.

“A lot of people don’t understand what it actually entails, they have this vision of going around and cuddling fury animals all day and not the hard graft that you have seen.

“You can’t not be proud of them.”


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