Wednesday 29 April 2020

Experience: I live in a zoo

Every morning I wake up at 7am when our gibbon, Jimmy, starts singing. But under lockdown, it’s always quiet

live in the keepers’ lodge in London zoo. It’s a big shared house on site where eight zookeepers run a rota to care for the animals and man phones overnight. My mum loves telling people I live in Regent’s Park. I grew up in an animal-loving household. At one point there was me, Mum and Dad, two cats, two dogs, two rabbits, a hamster, a tortoise and a cockatoo, so it is normal for me to be surrounded by animals.

After studying marine biology at university, I worked for the RSPCA, taking in injured seals and ducklings near the Norfolk coast. But I had always had my sights set on London zoo. For two weeks, I went there every day, handing out my CV to anyone in a suit until I got an interview. I started work as a zookeeper in November 2001.

Eleven years later, I applied for it to become my home, too – a select group of experienced keepers are allowed to live on site in the lodge. It’s an experience like no other, and one every zookeeper wants. There’s a competitive interview process which includes vetting, problem-solving, and an assessment of your housemate credentials. It took me three attempts, but I eventually made the cut.
‘These days, I truly consider it home’: Lucy Hawley by London Zoo’s penguin pool. Photograph: Courtesy of ZSL

The responsibility was scary when I first moved in. Tiny noises startled me. I didn’t sleep for a month, even with security on site. 

These days, though, I consider it home. Every morning I wake up at seven when our gibbon, Jimmy, starts singing loudly. I take a coffee into the garden and chat to the harrier hawks and the ibis in the aviary behind the house. We’ve hand-reared baby animals in our lodge. We took turns to feed our sloth, Edward, through the night when his mother couldn’t, and built him a jungle gym from broom handles. Beanie, a newborn giant anteater, lived with us, too.

The best time is sunset, when the gates have closed. I’ll take a walk around and hear Bhanu, our male lion, roar and the ringtail lemurs crawl out and relax; it sounds as if they’re chuckling.

A keeper will say they don’t have favourite animals, but it’s a lie. Mine are small monkeys called emperor tamarins. I helped a pair breed a family of 10 by playing Barry White when I worked in the rainforest house.

I’m on overnight duty three times each fortnight, which can involve sleepless nights: answering building alarms, administering medicine to animals or taking calls from the public. Sometimes they’ve found injured animals, which we refer on to the RSPCA. Occasionally someone says an animal has escaped but I’ve never known it happen. Once, the police called for advice when a bag of snakes was dumped outside a tube station.

In normal times, I’m allowed to have friends over – as long as they don’t wander off – and we’re close to central London so I can go to the pub when I’m off-duty. My wife of two years lives down the road. When I’m not on duty, I’ll go to her or she’ll be here with me. When we got married, we took our guests around the zoo before opening time.

Coronavirus has changed everything. On 21 March, the zoo closed to the public for the first time since the second world war, so it’s always quiet now. Some keepers moved into our overnight visitor experience lodges and about 50 staff are still working shifts. I miss answering visitors’ questions and showing off our animals. The pygmy goats miss being petted and are getting extra massages from staff. We’ve hidden food for the meerkats to find, and puzzles for the squirrel monkeys. The big cats are less fussed and enjoy the spring sunshine.

We wear personal protective equipment to prepare food and activities. Colds have passed between humans and primates; we’re unsure if coronavirus can, but it’s important to be safe.

The animals are being well looked after but this is still a worrying time. The zoo is a charity, so entry tickets fund our conservation work, which filters through to scientists in the field. That’s all dried up now.

Living and working here is an unusual existence but, at 42, it can’t get any better for me. I have animals in my back garden that are threatened or extinct in the wild. Even though we’re in lockdown, if I feel low I can stretch my legs and have a chat with a lion or an okapi. It’s a dream job. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

(Source: The Guardian)

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