Kitted out in overalls, wellies and the bare-faced cheek to refer to the day as ‘work’, I accepted an invitation to take part in ZSL’s ‘Zookeeper For A Day’ experience.
My first responsibility was to shovel a day’s worth of rhinoceros business into four considerably large wheelbarrows. It was to serve as a precursor to my intimate acquaintance with half-a-dozen of Africa’s most magnificent beasts.
The amount of involvement I had with the animals took me by surprise. When I was told I would be feeding elephants, I made the assumption it would be through a steel fence.
However, I was led into a field where I came face-to-face with Maya, a magnificent Asian elephant who was more than happy to take bananas off me with her trunk.
Later, I was willingly sprinkled with live crickets to serve as a human dinnerplate for meerkats John, Paul and Ringo. They crawled all over me seeking out their scuttling prey, but soon made off when they were full. It seems that crickets can’t buy me love.
After dinner, I was thrown to the lions. Separated by just a fence, I fed these magnificent regal beasts chunks of raw meat with a small pair of tongs.
One swipe from a hungry lion’s shovel-sized paw would have surely been deadly, so to be that close was an experience as exhilarating as it was enriching.
I also helped to look after wolverines, penguins and giraffes. I even saw an as-yet-unnamed week-old giraffe, who was no taller than myself. It won’t be long before he’s three times my size!
To round off my day I fed a rabble of rowdy chimpanzees and watched them go ape in their ‘gym’. I even had a swing on the monkey bars myself as I climbed to find a good hiding spot for their nutritional ‘packed lunches’.
I spent the whole day like a kid on Christmas, wide-eyed with a constant grin. I love visiting the zoo on a normal day, but this hands-on experience was incomparable.
Exhausted but totally enriched, I proudly donned my new Whipsnade T-shirt before declaring: ‘I want to be a zookeeper when I grow up.”
> ‘Keeper For A Day’ packages are available from www.zsl.org/experiences, and are ideal presents for animal lovers everywhere.