So, on Friday just gone I headed to Whipsnade Zoo near Dunstable to take part in my birthday present from Sam: a ‘Keeper for a Day‘ experience. I was very excited. I was in a group of five plus Rosie, our ‘guide’, who is also a keeper in the Asia section of the park. We met just inside the zoo at 8:45am, before the zoo was open to the public and we went through our itinerary over breakfast – it was jam packed!
After donning our ‘Keeper for a Day’ t-shirts, we started our experience as a keeper by getting truly hands on – clearing out a couple of houses belonging to the white rhinos. Yes, you’ve guessed it – this involved shovelling dung! I tackled one of the two houses with two of the women in the group – it took 5 wheel barrow trips to get all of the dung out of the house! They are very neat animals though and pile it all in one corner. We then swept the yard whilst one of the others hosed down the inside of the house.
As a reward for our hard work clearing out the rhino house, we then got to hand feed all of the white rhinos. We started with the male of the group – Hugo. It’s quite intimidating putting a small piece of apple in to the mouth of a huge rhino, but he was quite gentle and just keen to get the grub! He also liked having a little rub on the nose once he’d been given the food. We then went round the rest of the herd which included a 3 year old very greedy male and little baby Jamil (22 months I think) who was only knee high and very cute!
After our close encounter with the rhinos, the usual K4D timetable would have feeding the tigers. This was not possible on my day though because the male and the female had just be re-introduced in to the same enclosure. They had been together previously but things turned nasty so they’d been apart for a couple of months. Rosie took us up to see them for a quick view and we expected about 10 mins of lazy sleeping tigers. But as we arrived, it all kicked off and the female went for a wander. We got to witness a bit of semi-playfull bickering which involved a little bit of jumping and growling. That is the most active I have ever seen two tigers!
In awe of the tigers, we then went along to feed the giraffes some maple branches we had collected on our drives. The moment they saw us, they all came wandering over, except for the three year old male who was chilling out on the grass. Rosie told us they loved maple but it appeared they were having a fussy day as they only ate specific leaves and even some they did eat got spat back out! So, it wasn’t even lunch time and we’d been covered in both rhino and giraffe slobber.
To ‘make-up’ for the tigers, we got to feed the sloth bears. I have never really seen sloth bears properly but I was extremely happy that we got to do this ‘extra’. The three sloth bears are foragers so we needed to lock them out of their enclosure so we could hide the food. To keep them active they get fed about 6 times a day, but only small amounts at a time. Their diet consisted of blueberries, sultanas and live meal worms, amongst other things!
After we’d put the food out, we let them out to go and find the grub. They really moved fast! When they were originally brought to the zoo, they were very overweight. So after some careful control of their diet by the Whipsnade keepers, they are now able to sprint to the far end of the enclosure!
Before lunch there was more dung shovelling, this time by cleaning out the ‘bachelor pad’ of the male Asian elephant. He was less considerate than the rhinos and left it everywhere. We also had to clean up any general mess he had made with branches and leaves. Whilst doing this I got stung by a wasp (boo) but some swift action by Rosie meant it went down very quickly! Whilst we were finishing the cleaning, we got to see two of the female elephants and one of the babies heading off to warm-up for their lunch time show!
Our last stop before lunch was the otters. I love otters so this was an exciting stop. However cute they look though, they don’t really get handled. We picked-up their beef and headed to their pen – we could hear their squeaking for lunch when we were 50m away! Because one of them was particularly greedy (nicknamed ‘Fatty’) they had to be fed each piece simultaneously.
By now we were famished ourselves but we were able to go and eat. We got our pick of the food in the cafe, all included, so I loaded up on fresh salad and salmon. There was also an amazing cake offering so we all got a piece – it would be rude not to! Plus, it was an extension of my birthday – the same for many others too!
After lunch we popped back to the sloth bear area to prepare food for the wild boar, red river hog and the hippos. This consisted of apples/parsnips, sultanas/bonios and cabbages respectively!
The wild boar live at the zoo during breeding season and whilst they raise their young. After that, they go back to the nearby farm when they are originally from. The enclosure is left to recover over winter and then new breeding females come the following year.
The red river hogs were super cute and an animal I had never really paid much attention to before. The parents were quite young, only three years old, and this was their first litter. The babies all looked really healthy though and it was funny watching their Dad boss them around!
Our next stop was then the hippos who were, typically, wallowing away. At the sight of cabbage they became more active though. Lola, the young female, even had a trick; She would open her mouth and catch a whole half cabbage! Sadly our throwing was a bit average…
By this time, it was almost 3pm and energy levels were starting to flag. But we all perked-up with the anticipation of the next activity: meeting the elephants! Obviously elephants are big and dangerous animals, so we couldn’t just wander freely amongst them. But we did get to feed one of the female elephants under the watchful eye of one of their head keepers. It was such an odd feeling as her trunk sucked the apple up off my hand and whipped it in to her mouth! She was eating quicker than I could get the next piece of apple ready.
After everyone had taken their turn, we chatted with the keeper to find out about the elephants. He likened being an elephant keeper to being the owner of a rottweiler. Not everyone can handle the animals and if you can’t, it’s too dangerous to work with them; They will always be bigger and stronger so you have to have the psychological control over them. We then spent some quiet time watching the females and young elephants playing on the hill side – it was a wonderfully peaceful time.
Unfortunately we had to leave and move on to our final task. But it was a good one…lemurs!
We cleaned out their indoor enclosure when we first arrived. Almost all of the ‘gang’ were indoors at the time so we had to all squeeze in with lemurs lurking above our heads and tails in our faces. We cleared up their mess and washed their windows, then we headed outside to give them their snacks. Their treat was sultanas and they went crazy for them. We each went in turn and we were clambered all over. Not only that, but we also got jumped and snapped at by ‘Dave the Duck’ who lives in their outdoor area and has decided he likes sultanas too!
At that point, our day came to the end. Exhausted but happy, we were given a certificate and a ‘Keeper for a Day’ bag for life and headed off home. One of the best experiences ever!