Hannah's taking us to the zoo

01:12, Feb 26 2013
On the job at the Zoo
Taranaki Daily News reporter Hannah Fleming spends a day at the Zoo
On the job at the Zoo
Taranaki Daily News reporter Hannah Fleming spends a day at the Zoo
On the job at the Zoo
Taranaki Daily News reporter Hannah Fleming spends a day at the Zoo
On the job at the Zoo
Taranaki Daily News reporter Hannah Fleming spends a day at the Zoo
On the job at the Zoo
Taranaki Daily News reporter Hannah Fleming spends a day at the Zoo

It doesn't take long to realise animals are exactly like humans, but with less of a conscience.

Their behaviour is unpredictable, they enjoy being entertained, thrive on variety, and never look past a good meal.

During a day with Brooklands Zoo's head zookeeper, Louise McKenna, the similarities quickly became apparent.

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Taranaki Daily News Reporter Hannah Fleming spends the day with staff at Brooklands Zoo

It was a brisk summer's morning and all that could be heard from the zoo's gates were the squawks and sounds of its residents clearly hanging out for brekkie.

On arrival, assistant curator Eve Cozzi performed a quick health and safety induction outlining its importance.

"Animals' personalities change from day to day, just like humans.


"They may look cute and fluffy, but we do have to remember they are dangerous animals."

Hello anxiety.

Task one involved preparing meals for the otters, meerkats, cotton-top tamarins and the Bolivian squirrel monkeys.

It soon became clear zookeepers double as chefs, and between $200 and $400 is spent on fruit and vegetables each week.

Each animal has its specific dietary requirements meaning the food, and its weight, must be carefully prepared.

"We like to mix it up too so they're not just having the same thing. That way it makes it more interesting for them," Mrs McKenna said.

"We do get fussy animals. They're the same as we are; they've got their favourites."

Grapes are the most sought-after product, demonstrated during breakfast time at Bolivian squirrel monkey headquarters.

Despite my best efforts to spread the fruit and vege mix evenly along a table to avoid any fights, one cheeky fellow had other ideas.

He motored through the mix, claiming each grape before any of his room-mates had a chance.

Fair play to him; he's got it sussed.

Mrs McKenna said the six monkeys got on well, as they were all active, social, and male.

"There's no females to cause any arguments."

A slightly different menu was prepared for the meerkats, which involved collecting unattractive, squirmy mealworms from the insect department.

It isn't an ideal job, but the sheer delight as we sprinkled the treats over the meerkats' enclosure made it worthwhile.

The cotton-top tamarins were next. Excitement brewed as I anticipated how they'd take to the tropical fruit salad I'd prepared.

It turns out they weren't very excited at all, apart from Lorenzo, who tucked straight into the kiwifruit. He instantly became my favourite.

Feeding time isn't always about serving up food without a purpose, and when we arrived at the otter enclosure, Mrs McKenna described the importance of scale training.

Food is used to bribe animals on to weighing scales so their health can be monitored.

As we waited for the otters to comply, a bird-like warning came from the tamarin enclosure.

Mrs McKenna told me it was due to the black wheelbarrow parked outside.

"We don't quite know why they don't like wheelbarrows," she said.

"Nephrite's the one who's never liked them and she seems to have passed her irrational fear on to Lorenzo and Inca."

Although it's a strange fear, I once knew someone who was scared of buttons, so shrugged it off.

Having been a zookeeper for almost 12 years, Mrs McKenna said it was a job that didn't feel like a job.

"I can honestly hand on heart say the whole time I've been a zookeeper I've never had a day where I've thought "I don't want to go into work today".

"It's more a way of life because it's not a 9-to-5 job; you don't walk away and stop thinking about it. The animals are on your mind constantly."

Working with exotic animals is a privilege she will never take for granted, and the enjoyment and demands their personalities provide is priceless.

"It's quite challenging at times because you have to try and keep one step ahead - which is nearly impossible by the way. You always think you're thinking the way they are then they do something completely different."

When she's feeling down, they never fail to pick her back up.

"You can go into an enclosure and they'll do something silly, or funny . . . And they can often pick you out from other people when you're out of uniform, just by your voice or the way you walk, which is neat."

After a small break it was time to roll up the sleeves and give the meerkats' enclosure a clean.

It delighted me to hear they were classed as "tidy animals".

There was very little excrement to dispose of, with more focus put towards rearranging furniture and switching their activities to keep them entertained.

Now bored of the balls they had been playing with, we replaced them with small drums full of parsley, which disguises the corn and meal worms inside.

Mrs McKenna said it was important to challenge the animals during feeding so they didn't gobble it up at once and sit there waiting for the next lot.

It prompted me to think twice about my own eating habits.

Rotating activities is also important to keep them stimulated.

"With some of the things they'll be like, ‘Oh great, she's put those blimmen balls in again', so we try to change it up."

Following the clean-up, I ventured over to the farm yard where zookeeper Emma Ries and volunteer Sarah Upson were gearing up to take resident alpacas Cinnamon, Liquorice and Ricotta for their daily stroll.

I was in charge of Ricotta who, sensing the amateur, attempted and succeeded to gnaw every leaf off every tree we passed.

To this very moment I pray everything he ingested was edible.

A former zookeeper at Paignton Zoo in Devon, England, Mrs McKenna told me she has been bitten only a few times during the years.

Having worked with lions, tigers and black rhino, she said strict guidelines were always followed because if a mistake was made it could mean death.

"Other animals you go in with that aren't classed as being ‘dangerous' are often the ones who can bite you, scratch you or kick you. I've been bitten by a bat and a maned wolf, and had my knuckles broken by a barbary sheep - just silly things."

Although she has a passion for big cats, Mrs McKenna said if there was one animal she'd like to see at Brooklands Zoo, it was a rhino.

"I didn't have a huge opinion on them until I started working with them and you soon realise that this massive animal you don't think would have a personality, is actually really cool.

"They're tactile, they love being scratched, and they love hanging out with you."

The remainder of the zookeeper's day involved more cleaning and feeding, as well as filling out a daily report sheet which records any observations.

Food preparation for the next day is done before the gates close for the night.

When she leaves, Mrs McKenna looks forward to arriving again in the morning. It's her favourite part of the day.

"I come out into the zoo and have a walk around to make sure the animals are where they should be and everybody's accounted for.

"There's nobody here and the animals are just waking up. It's quite neat."

Taranaki Daily News