A wild day out behind scenes at the zoo

Nina meets the Meerkats'.
Nina meets the Meerkats'.
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Have you ever wondered what it is really like to be a zookeeper, looking after some of the biggest animals in the world? Well Nina Swift found out and you can too by bidding in our Christmas auction.

It was a crisp winter morning when I arrived at Flamingo Land in my scarf and wellies ready to start my day as an honorary zookeeper.

The park was still and swirls of mist clung to the empty rides as I ventured behind the scenes to meet my new colleagues. It is business as usual for the zoo’s team of dedicated staff who lovingly care for hundreds of animals throughout the busiest of summers and toughest of winters.

Within minutes of meeting 24-year-old keeper Abi Summers, I was ushering a team of ducks towards a pond in Muddy Duck Farm, before being handed a shovel so I could get stuck into mucking out the cows and sheep. Each keeper has their own section of the zoo and most of them rotate around the park every six weeks so they can gain experience of working with different animals.

Abi, who has worked at the park since June 2013, said: “The best thing about this job is the animals. It’s everything I hoped it would be. It’s nice to enjoy coming to work in the morning. It’s different everyday.”

After a quick cuddle with a guinea pig, I was then introduced to Christine de Cunha, 31, who was looking after the Children’s Planet section, home to some very cute otters and meerkats.

“Are you squeamish?” she asked, as she handed me some huge shrimps, which I then fed to the hungry otters who made short work of the crustaceans, despite their rock-hard shells.

Ten minutes later I found myself sitting in the meerkat enclosure with a handful of live mealworms on each leg. In no time I was surrounded, as the meerkats clambered over me and gobbled up their elevenses. Christine has worked at the park for three years and loves watching the animals go about their daily business. “They are just like us and have their own little lives and friendships, it’s really sweet watching them.”

Next I was whisked away to the primates section to feed the lemurs with Brian Rowlinson, 36, who has been a keeper for 14 years.

“We have 16 ring-tailed, three red-bellied and two mongooses. Ruth is our oldest female at the age of 18, I think the world record is 22,” he said. Admittedly it was hard to take anything in by this point, as there were lemurs climbing all over me.

The carnivores section was next on my rounds and I was introduced to Matt Scragg, who is one of the senior keepers. “For me being a zookeeper is not so much what you do as who you are,” he said.

Obviously it would have been too dangerous to cuddle up to the lions and tigers, but I was able to see them up-close.

It was amazing watching the park’s three eight-month-old Sumatran tiger cubs, Mentari, Kuasa and Bulan, playfully cajoling each other while their mother, Surya, looked on.

“It has been such a privilege to see these guys the day they were born and be able to watch them grow up. Having these cubs is a huge boost for the population as there are fewer than 300 left in the wild,” said Matt.

After a welcome coffee break, zookeeper of 21 years Jamie Tapper, 37, took me to the paddocks section. I was introduced to hippos Godzilla, Ernie and Betty, who waded over with their mouths wide open after being tempted by the fruit we threw for them.

After more mucking out and bedding down, I met some of the giraffes, who wolfed down cabbage leaves from my hands using their impressively-long tongues. Jamie, who has worked at the park for 13 years, told me to watch out for their long necks which could easily knock you sideways.

“As a zookeeper you often get bitten, kicked and scratched. It’s all good fun though and I wouldn’t do anything else. I love my job,” he said. “One of the hardest parts is when animals pass away. If you are working in a zoo, you see more of the animals than your own family so you do get attached to them.”

I then went to check on the two white rhinos, Balu and Zimba, with keeper Dace Vitola, 37, who has been zookeeping for almost 20 years. I couldn’t believe what gentle giants they were when I stroked their tough armour-like skin – a real highlight of the day. Dace told me that rhinos were poached and killed for their valuable horns, with some species close to extinction, and I could feel anger bubble up inside me, incredulous at the thought someone could hurt these placid animals.

She was clearly passionate about rhino conservation, which reminded me that zoos like Flamingo Land have an important part to play in raising awareness in this area. An Indian rhino building is currently under construction and will be completed for the next season. It is planned to be a breeding facility for the critically endangered rhinos and will be one of only four in the UK.

My busy day was then rounded off by feeding the Humboldt penguins, who gathered around eagerly before gulping down their fish. Veteran keeper Linda Neil, who has worked at the park for 33 years, told me stories about the penguins, including tales of wife-swapping and adultery that were reminiscent of a soap opera.

She said: “My favourite animals are the parrots and the penguins. They are so mischievous, they make me laugh.

“You grow quite attached to them. I just love being with the animals.”

As an animal-lover, being a zookeeper for the day was a truly unforgettable experience. There aren’t many people who can say they have stroked a rhino or fed meerkats and giraffes – even cleaning out the hippos was a highlight.

n The zoo at Flamingo Land is open on weekends and during half terms.