Anytime I return to London Zoo for press events, it's like my worlds are colliding. I worked at the zoo for a few years before starting at Londonist so I know my way around the place pretty well, and still have plenty of friends who work there. When I was recently offered the chance to try the Zookeeper For A Day programme, I was pretty excited to get up close to some of the animals. Here are five things I learnt:
There's all sorts of oddness going on in bactrian camels' mouths. For a start, they're rocking some sort of weird split lip. Plus, their tongues physically can't extend outside their mouths. No wonder they've got the hump.
Giraffes are freakishly strong. I've fed giraffes before, but there's a difference between allowing one to gently lick some pellets out of the palm of your hand, and going full on warfare with one of the gentle giants over a particularly leafy branch. Their necks are strong enough to disembowel a lion, so when you've got one end of a branch and they give the other end a tug, you're best off just letting go.
Colobus monkeys are extremely human-like. One of our activities was to feed the troop of colobus monkeys through the wire of their fence. Seven of us took on the troop of 15 or so of them, poking pieces of fruit though the wire into waiting mouths, making sure everyone got fed. The first thing I noticed was their human-like fingernails, as they held out their hands for food. It reminded me a bit of this. Then, one of them, politely but firmly, reached out and poked me on the shoulder, as if to say "excuse me, don't forget about me please". He got the biggest bit of food.
There's a secret basement below the Casson Pavilion (the building better known as the old elephant house, a place that most people will mention when sharing their memories of visiting the zoo as a child). Alright, so the basement isn't strictly 'secret', it just fascinates me because in my 5 years of working a the zoo, I never knew it existed. There's no reason I would have done - it's used as a food preparation area by the keepers. But once you get inside, it's fascinating, like a time warp. Vintage zoo posters line the walls, and the building's rich history as the elephant house is maintained.
The people of the zoo are just as fascinating as the animals. One keeper who I spoke to began his career when, aged 13, he used to visit the zoo on Sundays. Being short-staffed, the zookeepers let him get involved in cleaning up after the elephants. The rest, as they say, is history. He must be in his 50s now, so it was clearly a few Sunday afternoons well spent. (The zoo press team would probably like me to point out that health & safety rules - and a lack of elephants - mean that you can't do this now, so don't try. Also, the zoo is now sufficiently staffed that it doesn't have to rely on unpaid child labour.)
Read my full article about my day as a zookeeper here.