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A Day in the Life of Danielle Hearne – Deer and Antelope Keeper at Whipsnade Zoo

Logo: Whipsnade Zoo - a ZSL conservation zoo

The United Nations have declared 2024 the International Year of Camelids, to highlight how important camels are to the livelihood of millions of households across the world.

a dark brown camel with head turned looking at her calf
Domestic Bactrian camel calf Sally and Mum Izzy at Whipsnade Zoo © Whipsnade Zoo

At Whipsnade Zoo, we’re home to a herd of six domestic Bactrian camels, including baby Sally, who was born in April.

The first camel calf to be born at the conservation zoo in eight years, Sally was born to 12-year-old mum Izzy and four-year-old dad Oakley, after a 13-month pregnancy.

Despite their reputation for being grumpy, camels are actually very patient, nurturing parents and it’s been great for us to see first-time mum Izzy attentively caring for her newborn daughter, and Sally settling into life with the herd.

Whipsnade Zoo’s domestic Bactrian camels act as ambassadors for their Critically Endangered ‘cousins’ the wild camel (Camelus ferus) in Mongolia and China. Seeing them up close, watching how they move and interact helps us to educate our visitors and inspire the next generation of wildlife warriors.

Sadly, there are only around 950 wild camels left in the deserts of Mongolia and China today, due to hunting, water scarcity and predation by the grey wolf. ZSL, the conservation charity behind Whipsnade Zoo, is working to protect Mongolia’s wildlife, and works in the Gobi Desert in the south, where it’s believed there’s only 450 wild camels remaining.

ZSL is part of the Wild Camel Project, working with conservation partners to contribute scientific evidence which will inform a management plan for these critically endangered animals.

Education is an area close to my heart, as before being a zookeeper, I was a primary school teacher. I joined the education team at Whipsnade Zoo in 2019, before becoming a zookeeper during the pandemic. I love sharing animal knowledge and conservation tips with our visitors, and watching their faces light up when they learn something new and exciting about our animals.

While I always dreamed of being a zookeeper from a young age, it can be a difficult path to follow. Whipsnade Zoo is working with local communities and schools to make sure it’s a career which is accessible to anyone and everyone, for example providing free scholarships to the Zookeeper Academy Programme.

Every day as a zookeeper is different. On the Deer and Antelope section we care for a range of animals from the Critically Endangered Visayan warty pigs, Extinct in the Wild Père David's deer (which had calves in May), Endangered Przewalski's horses and so much more.

As keepers we have to use a lot of different skills. From providing specialised care for the animals that meets every individual’s needs, including feeding them, providing stimulus for them, helping provide veterinary care, the all-important poo sweeping, to construction, training, education, public speaking and most importantly being a problem solver.

a person in shorts and wellies leading a camel on a halter on a bright sunny day
Danielle doing some training with the camels © Whipsnade Zoo

Camels are one of my favourite animals to care for and work with. Firstly, they’re so striking to look at - they have broad feet to walk easily on desert sand, their eyes are framed by long eyelashes and their nostrils can be closed to protect them from the sand. They also have great personalities – the herd at Whipsnade are notoriously nosey, they’re always curious to see what we zookeepers are up to.

One of the most interesting things about our camels are their humps. Unlike their Middle Eastern cousins, domestic Bactrian camels have two large protruding humps, which store fatty tissues. Humps are an important source of nourishment in the wild, when food is scarce. Wild camels can go a week or more without water, while they can last several months if food is scarce.

The animals are also able to withstand incredible temperatures ranging from 40C to -30C, they grow a dense shaggy coat that they shed in the spring to keep cool.

I really do feel like I have the best job in the world, especially as I get to spend the majority of my job outside, no matter the weather. Zookeepers work every single day, even Christmas. Spending time outside, along with being among the animals all day, is amazing for mental wellbeing.

I also feel incredibly lucky that through my role, I’m making a real difference for endangered species, caring for these remarkable animals, helping boost the breeding programmes and educating the public.

Working as a zookeeper, I’ve learned that no two days are the same and something different always happens that affects your best laid plans! But that’s part of the fun of the job.

Find out more about the zoo at www.whipsnadezoo.org

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Posted On: 14/06/2024

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