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Ever wanted to have a go at being a zookeeper? Here at Bristol Zoo your dream can become reality thanks to our amazing behind-the-scenes experiences – the perfect gift for any animal lover!
As well as close encounters with lemurs, penguins, meerkats and more, we also offer spectacular ‘Keeper for the Day’ and ‘Junior Keeper’ experiences for adults and children. But what can you expect? We sent Marketing Assistant Chloe along to find out…
(Please note each experiences varies – and you don’t have to handle mealworms like Chloe did if you don’t want to!)
Breakfast with the seals
Keepers start their day bright and early, so at 8am I head to Seal & Penguin coast to meet keepers Zoe and Imogen. I’m both excited and nervous – though I love animals, I really don’t know what to expect!
The team are super friendly and waste no time introducing me to the zoo’s three male South American fur seals – exotically named Pablo, Juan and Toro.
It’s magical to watch the trio swimming around gracefully in the peace and quiet of early morning; something few people get to see.
As we start the morning feed, I discover the seals have very different personalities. While Pablo and Juan immediately swim to their poolside ‘stations’ to catch their fish (expertly thrown by Zoe), big Toro decides to bob about in the water in the hope of stealing the other boys’ food. Cheeky! Zoe explains it’s important to monitor how much each seal eats, as their weight can change a lot.
Want to have a go? Me too! As I throw handfuls of fish into the pool for a ‘scatter feed’, the seals show off their amazing speed and agility, zooming and twisting through the water so fast I can barely follow them. Within moments the fish has gone.
A fantastic start to the day!
How clean is your hippo?
Time for a bit of sprucing…
I head with Zoe to meet Sirana, the zoo’s female pygmy hippo. Sirana seems to say hello by opening her mouth very very wide, giving me a close up of her teeth – she’s got a serious set of chompers.
My first job is to sweep up all the leaves in Sirana’s outdoor paddock – if she eats them, she could get sick. We then hose down and ‘squeegee’ the indoor areas before putting out some tasty lucerne (a type of hay also fed to horses). Well hippopotamus does mean ‘river horse’ in ancient Greek!
When she isn’t swimming around in her heated pool (she has a trick of vanishing completely in the depths), Sirana watches us through the gate – I think she wants us to hurry up so she can enjoy her meal.
“Piranhas of the trees”
Have you ever stood on the edge of Bristol Zoo’s lake, watching the branches of the island rustling and swaying as mischievous squirrel monkeys scamper about? Ever wanted a closer look?
Today I’m getting just that.
Meeting up with keeper Lauren and mammals team leader Sarah, we wade carefully across the lake’s submerged walkways. One wrong step and I’ll plunge down to my waist in chilly water!
We need to connect two islands with long ropes, so the males can mix with the larger group of females. Sarah explains that in the wild squirrel monkeys live in female-led ‘supergroups’ (fun fact: some of our girls are named after Girls Aloud!), with the males coming and going throughout the year.
Reaching the females’ island, Lauren breaks out the power drill and soon we have an audience: the branches come alive with curious monkeys getting a look at our antics.
“They’re like the piranhas of the trees,” Sarah says. “You spot one, then realise you’re completely surrounded!” She’s not wrong.
A second later I duck as a particularly daredevil monkey makes a leap for the branch over my head, and misses me by inches. I look up and its little face stares down at me, framed by leaves. Adorable.
Fact: gorillas are good at catching
As part of the zoo’s VIP Gorilla Experience, guests help out with the lunchtime talk and feed – and today I get to have a go! I join keeper Jack on the podium, armed with a big box full of veg.
It’s a chilly day, so only females Touni, Kera, Kala and Kukena are brave enough to venture onto the island, fur plumped up against the breeze. (Little Afia and Ayana are far too busy playing on the ropes inside.) Jack tells me who is who, and which veg to throw them.
My first attempt isn’t great – I’m worried about accidentally chucking food into the moat, or throwing too hard and hitting a gorilla. Not something you fret about every day! But I soon get the hang of it, and the gorillas all grab their favourite snacks and tuck in.
Then something amazing happens. Throwing a red pepper towards Kera, her big hand shoots out and catches it perfectly. If I had her reflexes, I’d have aced PE at school …
It’s one of those ‘wow’ moments I’ll never forget.
It’s easy to see why the zoo’s lemur experience is so popular – who doesn’t love these little guys with their cute faces and lively characters? As I step into the enclosure, fourteen ring-tailed lemurs crowd excitedly around me. A black-and-white tail swipes me in the face – awesome.
I’ve joined keeper Beth and vet Richard for a health check on one of the top females, Muriel, who’s injured her hand. We offer Muriel a stick of sweet potato, which she grabs, so Richard can get a proper look. It’s good news: Muriel is healing well!
The zoo’s also home to crowned lemurs, who today are all hiding in their toasty off-show area. It’s too cold out in the walkthrough! I pick my way around the enclosure to put out yet more tasty veg (we don’t feed our animals fruit as it’s too sugary), plus brambles as a special treat.
"How are you with insects?”
I was never going to get away with it, was I?! At the end of the day keeper Beth asks if I’d like to weigh out some mealworms for the macaques, armadillos and ring-tailed lemurs.
“Um … OK?” I reply.
Trying to wear my ‘brave face’, I pull on some latex gloves and plunge my hand into the wriggling tray of worms. I scoop out a handful and start measuring, careful not to drop them all over the worktop and floor.
Despite the ‘urgh!’ factor, I have to concentrate. Each species has a diet sheet which tells keepers exactly how much food they need each day to stay healthy. I keep an eye on the scales, adding some more worms, taking a few away, reminding myself over and over that it’s all for a good cause…
The best day ever!
As my day comes to an end, I have to pinch myself. Every moment has been magical and I can’t believe I’m going back to my desk tomorrow!
The idea of a ‘behind-the-scenes’ experience is always exciting, but when it involves getting up close to amazing and endangered animals from around the world, getting to know them as individuals, and doing your bit, however small, to help care for them … now that’s priceless.
Now I just need to say a big thank you to all the keepers who looked after me and answered my endless questions – you have the best job, and I’m not at all jealous.
And to anyone reading this – what are you waiting for? Book an experience today, either for yourself, family or friends, and get ready for a unique adventure. (You can also feel great knowing your money supports the zoo’s vital conservation work!)
Bristol Zoo offers unique adult and junior ‘Keeper for the Day’ experiences, as well as animal experiences including gorillas, lemurs, penguins and meerkats. They are also available as gift vouchers, perfect for Christmas.
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Book online & save on your admission tickets