korintomichi: (Dune)
[personal profile] korintomichi
A little while ago we celebrated C's birthday by doing a Big Cat Zookeeper experience at Dartmoor Zoo. Dartmoor Zoo is famous for being that zoo from the film We Bought A Zoo starring *adopts Team America World Police voice* Matt Damon. We hadn't seen the film on the basis that we had seen the trailer about a thousand times (a small exaggeration) but the story of the zoo sounded interesting and we discovered that they offered zookeeper experiences.
Our day started really early as we were given a safety briefing and advised not to be too squeamish. Good advice - you come into contact with raw meat that was most definitely formerly part of an animal as well as copious amounts of poo. We met our keeper, Holly, and volunteer George, who we would be shadowing throughout the day. They had prepared and portioned the meat for all the animals we were to encounter. We were impressed to see that local farmers donate carcasses of farm animals that have died or been killed which are used to feed the carnivores, which strikes us as being a very sensible approach. Similarly, local supermarkets donate unsold food, some of which can also be used to feed the animals. As soon as we were wearing appropriate clothing (old clothes with wellies and gloves), we set about doing the morning rounds to make sure that all the animals were still in their cages and in good health. We had a wheelbarrow full of meat and an empty bucket and shovel for cleaning enclosures (read: poo collection).
Our first stop was the lions. There are two lions, an enormous male, Jasiri, who weighs about 200kg and Josie, a female. They were being kept inside for the day of our visit because the zoo was constructing an enclosure that would allow them to interact with each other. They have been kept separated (although in adjacent enclosures) and staff felt that a new system whereby they could meet could be good for them as well as any future breeding programme (neither of these lions is able to breed). Just as our domestic cat was mightily disgruntled at being kept inside for a few weeks when there were some poisonings in our area, the lions were none too chuffed either. Still, the zoo had left a couple of Christmas trees inside Jasiri's pen to keep him occupied.



We visited Josie to feed her. She snarled a little, unsurprisingly, and a grumpy lion is a pretty scary thing.


But she soon settled after her protest and was happy to wolf down the food presented to her by Holly.

Next stop was the jaguar. He's a 4 year old male called Chincha who is very curious. He was in gorgeous condition and had the most amazing fur coat. Jaguars are sort of the perfect combination of all cats - they excel at climbing, jumping, swimming and running.


We followed the same feeding/cleaning routine for all the animals we attended. They were lured inside their indoor enclosures using a piece of tasty meat, then locked in using a counter-weighted metal gate system. We were then free to enter the main enclosure. We had to search for poo and discarded bones, which we removed, and then provide some food for each animal. We tried to present a challenge for them, hiding the meat in various locations so that each animal would have to search for it - something that provided them with a good deal of stimulation.
On release, Chincha completely missed the obvious meat C had laid out on a rock (right hand side of the picture)...


...but managed to find some delicious ribs that we had hidden under a log. We watched him for a while and when we decided to move on, he put down his meal and accompanied us to the edge of his enclosure until we were out of sight.

We then moved onto meet the bears. Hayley is a European brown bear. At 38 years old she is probably the oldest bear in the world. She's certainly the oldest bear at any zoo (there is a database) and animals in captivity have longer lifespans than those in the wild. Her companion, Fudge, a Syrian bear, is no spring chicken at 30 years old. They were waiting for us.


We cleaned out their enclosure and can safely announce that the bear poo was the most disgusting we had to deal with - truly gag-worthy. Having cleaned the enclosure we provided food. We also set them a challenge - we hid some meat and fruit around their enclosure but also put a couple of eggs and some pellets into a container, then stuffed it with an old Christmas tree to see if they would work out how to get the food. Hayley knew there was food in there, but took some time to work out how to get it.

Then it was on to the tigers. Vladimir and Stripe are brother and sister, about 16 years old.


They were born at the zoo, hand reared, and the previous owners apparently used to allow them to be petted when they were cubs. They are utterly gorgeous creatures and very sociable. Stripe willingly comes inside and was happy to pose for us. She also rolls around like a kitten. We were struck by how many mannerisms we see with domestic cats can be seen with the big cats. It was marvellous to be able to get so close to them.

It was our day to feed the tigers as one of the zoo's attractions. Holly managed to lure both inside, then we went into the enclosure, performed poo duty and set up some food for both tigers. Holly's plan was to ensure that Vladimir was occupied with the obvious meat which would enable Stripe to find her meal without her brother dominating her. Vladimir would be released first and hopefully spot the easy pickings...



...then Stripe would find the meat that we had hung on a chain for her to enjoy.

Is it up there?


No, down here?


There it is!


It was kinda odd being inside the enclosure cleaning it up and preparing the food as lots of visitors watched on.
And finally it was the turn of Sita the Cheetah. Sita is a grand old lady, 19 years, an incredible age for her species.


She clearly looks her age, but we were impressed at how the staff at the zoo monitor her health. They have a highly experienced keeper who has worked in safari parks for many years who is called out to observe her if any of the keepers have concerns and they have no hesitation about calling the vet. However, despite her advanced years she is... a cat. And a princess at that. We followed the usual routine of enticing her indoors and Holly called her into her indoor enclosure. Despite knowing the drill, she wasn't ready to eat and certainly wasn't going to be coerced into doing anything she didn't want to.
Any cat owner will recognise this look:
Holly said that feeding usually happens on 'Sita time' and she adjusts her schedule to accommodate the cheetah. Eventually Sita made her way into the indoor room, was given meat and medicine (she takes it straight from a syringe) and, once locked in, we went inside the enclosure
to do final poo duty. We didn't hide the food for Sita, but simply left it right outside the door for her.
It was a fantastic day. We were so impressed by the zoo - particularly by the animals' good condition. Apart from Sita, who is very old, their fur is amazingly glossy, they are clearly in good health and also (lions being grumpy about being kept indoors aside) they all seemed to be happy. We drove back home to be greeted by our little cat... and a litter tray that needed to be emptied.

Date: 2016-04-02 05:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pennski.livejournal.com
How wonderful!
I have a vague theory that carnivore poo is worse than vegetarian poo but I don't know if your experience bears that out.

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