This is a slight departure from my usual blog posts but it does involve a review, a restaurant and preparing a lot of food - but not for me. I was lucky enough to spend my birthday this year on the 'Zookeeper for a day' experience at London Zoo. It was an amazing day - hard work but great fun and for an animal lover such as myself, the perfect present. My boyfriend did good!
It was an early start, as I needed to be at the zoo for 8.45am, so left home at 6.30. It took me a couple of attempts to find the correct side entrance and as I was early was invited to sit in reception until the keeper was ready for me and the other two participants on the day. At 8.45 sharp we met senior zookeeper Karen, who would look after us all day. We were offered the choice of putting on zoo overalls or a black t-shirt saying 'zookeeper for a day' - no prizes for guessing which we chose - and since I had dressed for the occasion in jeans and trainers I wasn't too worried about getting messy.
We were taken to the giraffe house, handed shovels and forks and told our first duty of the day was cleaning! The three giraffes strolled around outside in their paddock (is that the right word?), occasionally sticking their heads through the door to check up on us. We had to put on face masks as there was so much dust, and sweep hay, sand- and yes, giraffe poo - then shovel it into huge bins. We had to then sprinkle fresh sand over the floor and break up some fresh hay, and try to put a bale of clover in a high-up feeding trough, which involved swinging a fork and flinging the bale upwards - the trough was at least ten feet off the ground - something none of us managed! It doesn't sound like much but this was exhausting work and we got covered in straw and dust. I was glad of the mask!
As our reward we went outside to meet the giraffes and up onto a walkway so we were eye-level with them. We fed them carrots which the giraffes took with their tongues - quite a different experience to when I fed llamas last year and they snapped off the carrots with their teeth (making me a little worried for my fingers!). The giraffes seemed such lovely, docile creatures and I really enjoyed feeding them, though we were told not to try to stroke them!
After that we went to the aquarium, which I think Karen said is the largest in the UK and almost 100 years old. We went in a side door and upstairs, and along a walkway that looks down on all the tanks - that's how the fish are fed, of course. We also saw a seahorse breeding programme and got to feed some hungry piranahs!
Next stop was lunch - but not for us! We were told we would be preparing lunch for the zoo's bearded pigs, and went into a large set of store rooms that contained all sorts of fruit and veg and animal feed. There were blackboards all the way around the room detailling what each type of animal liked to eat, with a few comments about their personalities thrown in. It was quite eye opening and interesting to know what kind of diets the animals are on. For the pigs, we had to gather a certain number of apples, oranges, potatoes, carrots and beetroot, weigh them and get more if necessary, then chop everything up into small pieces. I told you this blog post would involve preparing lunch!
Our last task of the morning was to scrub the penguin pool - with some little helpers! We each had a long-handled brush and went around the edge of the pool scrubbing off the (poo) stains. A couple of friendly penguins followed us around to keep an eye on us.
And they were happy to meet us afterwards! This is me saying hello to Ricky the Rockhopper penguin.
Finally we got to sit down and eat our own lunch. The zoo has a number of catering outlets, including a milkshake bar, a cafe and a hotdog kiosk, and this summer will be opening a new Terrace Restaurant. In the meantime it has a temporary restaurant called the Pavillion, which is where we ate. It had a really good choice of food - sandwiches and snacks, and several hot meals on offer, including pizza, pasta, meat and fish. I had fish in a pesto sauce with some roast potatoes (there were also new potatoes), though the only vegetable available was peas (which I don't like). There was a good selection of cakes including a 'tiger cupcake'; I chose a millionaire's shortbread. As with all on-site cafes in places like this, the meals aren't cheap - my main course was around £9 I think. Our meals were included in the cost of the day but Karen the zookeeper had to ring them up on the till - for the four of us, with drinks as well, the cost came to about £60. So I would always recommend to families visiting the zoo to take a picnic, though the food was very nice and I've had far worse for the same sort of cost when I've been out and about.
After lunch we discovered we had finished with the most tiring chores for the day and for the rest of the afternoon were just going to be feeding different animals. Well, 'just' isn't the word for it.... first we went to see the spider monkeys who are cheeky little things, reaching through the bars of the cage to grab us. Members of the public have to stay behind a fence, then there is a gap between that and the actual fence of the monkey enclosure. We were allowed into the gap so we went right up to the monkeys and fed them handfuls of nuts through the bars of the cage, much to the envy of some onlookers!
Our next job was to feed the zoo's two anteaters. While they were shut into their cages we went into the outdoor part of their enclosure and put down a bowl of food - a soup-like mixture that apparently mimics the nutrients they would get from eating ants in the wild. Then we retreated to the viewing platform as Karen let the anteaters out. They didn't seem all that hungry though - one of them stayed inside and the other only had a little food. Which was good news for us, as it meant we had to go inside and feed them by hand!
The anteaters get very messy noses from sticking their snouts in the bowl of 'soup' and they have to be cleaned off afterwards! You can see here that I am gently sponging one of them down! Their reward for enduring this nose-bath is to have a treat... of live mealworms. I'm really squeamish and didn't want them in my hand so they were placed in a plastic bottle. I wasn't sure how the anteaters would be able to get to the mealworms but they have freakishly long tongues, that whip around inside the bottles to get each last worm.
I was a bit disappointed to learn we wouldn't be working with the big cats, as it did say that on the website for the zookeeper experience (which I have suggested they change!). Karen explained it was because a new tiger enclosure had just been built and they hadn't yet assessed the best way of giving people on the zookeeper experience access to a safe part of the enclosure. It was a shame, though I was quite pleased that we were going to see the llamas and alpacas instead as I love those animals - but it wasn't quite the same as lions and tigers!
The llamas were quite friendly but the alpacas were much more shy. I have a bit of a thing about alpacas, I just love their crazy hairstyles! We fed them pieces of fruit and veg - they seemed to particularly like corn on the cob.
Onto the meerkats... I was a bit disappointed we couldn't go inside their enclosure as I know other zoos do offer 'meet the meerkats' experiences (so they can't be that unfriendly) but we fed them by leaning over the side of the enclosure. Don't ask me what we fed them, I still shudder.
Oh, OK. Live mealworms and locusts - the other girls were happy to put their hand in the bag of insects and scoop some out but I couldn't bear to do that. Karen the zookeeper gave me a plastic glove to put on, and put some into my hand, and I have to admit that I squealed and dropped them- at least I dropped them in front of the meerkats who gladly devoured them. I hate insects... think happy fluffy alpaca thoughts....
Our last encounter was probably my favourite, as we went inside the glass-fronted lemur enclosure. The lemurs were really friendly - and greedy! We had handfuls of fruit, peas and nuts and the lemurs sat on our laps while they took food out of our hands. This is me with two lemurs!
They liked the apple pieces best of all, and were quite fickle - as soon as one lemur had eaten all the apple pieces you had, he would spring over to the next 'zookeeper' and see if they had any apple. Only when all the apple was gone did they come back and finish off the nuts! We also placed handfuls of food inside hanging balls that would swing backwards and forwards when the lemurs tried to get the food out, which I imagine provides more stimulation for them. Here I am with another lemur.
Overall I had a wonderful day. I thought the activities and encounters were good and well thought-through in terms of what we were able to do - we definitely took care of some tasks that needed doing so it wasn't all just playing with the animals. Not being able to see the big cats, or go in with the meerkats, was a little disappointing but I loved being able to feed the giraffes, anteaters and llamas, stroke a penguin and have a bunch of monkeys sitting on my lap!
The 'be a zookeeper' day is expensive but an amazing experience and I highly recommend it.