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A day in the life of an animal keeper

Logo: Bristol Zoological Society

We join the animal team for Love Your Zoo Week to appreciate zookeepers’ expertise, hard work, contribution to the charity’s conservation efforts and general passion.

By Emma Smith, Bristol Zoological Society’s Marketing Manager

Bristol Zoo Project is owned and run by the conservation and education charity Bristol Zoological Society. The zoo is home to animals from around the world including giraffe, cheetah, red panda, zebra, deer, ostrich, gelada baboons and lemurs.

At Bristol Zoo Project, 78% of the animals are both threatened and part of targeted conservation programmes. The Society’s aim is for this to rise to 90% of species by 2035.

I spent the day with two of our amazing hoof stock animal keepers, Ellie Adams and Laura Spooner. I joined them after they’d finished their early morning shift, which involves animal health checks (including additional care for some of our older animals, including those with conditions such as arthritis), preparing animal feeds and mucking out to ensure habitats are clean and comfortable.

Red river hog in a small enclosure while it is being cleaned by keepers through the bars
Ekundu the red river hog (Bristol Zoological Society)

11.30am

First off, we went to check the red river hog Ekundu, who is 11 years old. As soon as Ellie put out the food, Ekundu came trotting over to his paddock. His food consists of omnivore and browser pellets, starchy vegetables, lettuce and mealworms and he is fed three to five times per day.

The life expectancy of a red river hog in human care is typically up to 15 years. The animal team have spent many months training Ekundu to walk in and out of a special training area. This approach has enabled our vets and keepers to take voluntary blood samples from his ears as part of his routine preventative care, as well as administering vaccinations every six months without causing distress.

The animal team has also made adjustments to further improve welfare and help manage the hog’s symptoms of arthritis. For example, keepers changed the substrate in the house to allow for more cushioning, and increased the indoor temperature, especially above the bed areas. The team also created a special diet plan to help Ekundu lose weight which has made an improvement to his mobility and health. Creating enrichment is another important part of the team’s role as it provides low impact exercise and stimulation for the animals.

Before we said goodbye to the hog, Ellie made his enrichment by adding pellets into a ball, which he would have to work out how to extract – a great mental exercise. We left him enthusiastically chasing the ball around his paddock.

12pm

Next stop was the eland – Arron.

Keeper pouring feed into a trough with the eland watching
Feeding time for Arron the eland (Bristol Zoological Society)

Firstly, Ellie showed me the cameras they use in the yard which allow them to monitor the eland and their zebra companions and quickly spot any issues, and to undertake research. For example, they used the cameras to research the sleeping patterns and resting behaviour of the two species when mixed together or separated overnight. The results indicated that both species spent more time resting when mixed together, which has helped the team make informed decisions about their management.

Ellie then prepared their feed – a type of browser pellet, spread into multiple feeds throughout the day to aid their digestion.

We watched the screen and saw the eland rise and stride over to his feeding paddock. When up close, I was immediately captivated by how majestic this species is. Standing at an impressive 1.8m tall and weighing around 550kg.

Part of the animal care the keepers provide the eland is observing them each day for any signs of illness or lameness, and severity, which can then be communicated to the vet team. Keepers also regularly weigh all the animals, which can highlight any changes that may indicate a health issue.

12.30pm

Next, we went to feed our pair of Endangered Philippine spotted deer. They were much shyer and elusive than the other species I’d seen that day. Pandora and Eugene are both one-year-old. With fewer than 700 of the species left in the wild, the pair are part of a critical breeding programme. I felt very lucky to spot Pandora as she very quickly ran around her paddock and poked her head out for some food.

Two giraffes browsing on some leafy branches tied to a tall pole
The giraffe tucking into some fresh browse in their paddock (Bristol Zoological Society)

1pm

Our last but by no means least animal visit of the day was the giraffe. Laura showed me how they carefully prepare the browse for the giraffe feeds. There is a fine art in tying them together and each bunch is hosed down to remove any dirt. Our giraffe, Tom, Dayo and Tico each eat around five big bunches of browse per day. They are also given a browser pellet fed throughout the day in enrichment feeders. This prolongs their feeding time, aiding digestion and providing mental stimulation.

The team have been working hard to train the trio using positive reinforcement techniques, which enable them to carry out crucial health checks and x-rays. It has taken a number of years to build Dayo’s confidence, and he is now much more relaxed. This has enabled the keepers and Veterinary Nurse Teresa Horspool, to take voluntary blood samples and carry out hoof care, which requires Dayo to place his hoof on a block for staff to access it safely.

The team are so proud of Dayo, and their commitment and passion shines through in all the work they do.

Conservationists from Bristol Zoological Society also undertake work in Bénoué National Park, Cameroon, to help protect Critically Endangered Kordofan giraffes as part of the Society’s mission of Saving Wildlife Together.

Passion for their work

It was inspiring listening to Ellie and Laura talk about their roles and how rewarding it is to have a direct impact on animal welfare. They said the initial excitement of working alongside animals at the start of their career has never worn off.

Ellie said one of her special memories was working with and breeding Endangered okapi. She will always treasure working with the okapi calves and knowing that they have gone on to have calves of their own in other zoos as part of the breeding programme. Laura spoke fondly about her memories of hand rearing a penguin from two months old.

So how do you become an animal keeper?

If you are considering a career as an animal keeper there are different routes you can take.

Ellie studied Animal Science at Aberystwyth University and did a year’s internship at Chester Zoo where she obtained a lot of practical experience. Since then, she has had several zookeeper roles in different zoos across the UK and completed a Masters in Anthrozoology at the University of Exeter.

Laura took an Animal Care course locally at South Gloucestershire and Stroud College for two years. She then went on to get a Diploma in Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals (DMZAA) from Sparsholt College in Hampshire, which took another two years. After this, Laura volunteered for four years with Bristol Zoological Society whilst working part-time at a store, before becoming a qualified animal keeper for the Society. She was a bird keeper for eight years before moving across to care for hoof stock.

If you’re interested in pursuing a career as an animal keeper or in conservation, Bristol Zoological Society runs a number of higher education courses in partnership with South Gloucestershire and Stroud College, UWE Bristol and the University of Bristol. For more details visit: https://www.bristolzoo.org.uk/schools-and-education/higher-education

For more information about Bristol Zoological Society and for the latest job and volunteer roles, visit: https://www.bristolzoo.org.uk

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Posted On: 17/05/2024

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