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Zookeeper for a Day

- Awesome Not-so-spontaneous Shit to do in London series, part 1

One great thing about London is that, if you know where to look, with a bit of planning (and, admittedly, a bit of money to spare), you get to do a range of incredible things that’ll stay with you for life. Say, for instance, that you fancy hand-feeding tigers. Or having a cuddle with a penguin. Or even, if you’re a bit weird like me, feeding live bugs to baby meerkats (Hakuna matata, people). Well, your endless search for a zoo crazy enough to let you do that is over. London’s the place to be, baby.

The London Zoo runs a programme called Keeper for a Day. It’s all in the name, really. You buy your space online (see at the end of this post for details), book a date, and off you are for 7 hours of intense animal fun. I was lucky enough to book a session with only one other person, during one of those (typically British) understaffed days which the very experienced Head Zookeeper was running.

I’m told what species you get to entertain depends on the season and requirements for the day, but here’s a not-so-little sneak peak at what I got up to:

• Mucking Out the Zebra Cage


Well, since you’re going to be zoo-keeping for the entire day, might as well start off getting down and dirty. Although, really, cleaning out poo and old hay from an empty zebra enclosure is really not all that bad. In fact, some might argue it’s even fun. You get to meet the people you’ll be sharing your day with – nothing screams ‘bonding time!’ more than getting stuck together in a cold, wet enclosure without a clue as to what to do – and you get to take fun cringey shots to send to family and friends. “Is that shit you’re shovelling?!” Yes Dad, yes it is. Don’t believe me? It doesn’t matter, because by the time you’re free to reflect on what on earth you’re actually doing, it’s time to move on to the Giraffes!

• Giraffes

At least once in every person’s life should there be that jubilatory moment where you encounter a “Restricted Area – No Visitors Allowed” sign, and a man in uniform lifts up the chain to let you through. You feel like a badass. How much more awesome could this get?, you think. Well. Your day just started. You’re about to feed giraffes.

Now, what, exactly, does a giraffe feeding consist of? It’s all beautifully simple, really. You hand them long, leafy branches. Excited about the prospect of breakfast, they’re already waiting for you by the time you make it up the steps and onto the bridge. Steps? Bridge? Heh, giraffes are tall. Since you’re standing on a bridge, you get to see eye to droopy eye with them.


They’ll wrap their mysteriously strong, muscly purple tongue around the branch. And pull. And chew. And chew again. It’s fascinating to watch. Unfortunately you’re not allowed to touch them, because they can get a bit too eager and you don’t want them anywhere near your fingers. Still, an incredible experience.

8070665883_9e342cae4a_s.jpg 8070665131_b411ff9e63_s.jpg

• Backstage in the kitchens

Ever wondered what a pig’s kitchen looked like? It’s surprisingly clean:


There are several kitchens at the zoo, all designed to cater for different species. This one caters to monkeys, hippos, camels and pigs, amongst others. Fruits, vegetables, spices, knives, cutting boards, individual menus… To be completely honest, better equipped than most student kitchens. Probably cleaner, too.


It features complex menus (sometimes meal-specific) for each species – determined, I’m told, by trial and error – as well as an “animal enrichment board”, which suggests interactive activities for the animals and keeps a record of their individual preferences.

Who knew hippos liked to cross-dress?

Who knew hippos liked to cross-dress?

After a short guided tour, we were able to lend a hand by cutting up a meal – a delicate blend of bananas (with skin, obviously), apples, oranges, carrots etc. into a bucket. Then we grabbed some coconuts and were on our way out.

• Coconuts for the pigs

Bearded pigs – a mysterious appellation for pigs with moustaches to compete with Colonel Mustard’s – are, as it turns out, coconut-lovers. As their enclosure was next to the kitchen, we decided to treat them on our way to Penguin Beach.

Pigs are very clever creatures. They have the strength to pierce open whole coconuts with their teeth. But, why bother? Instead, most of them opted for the lazy way, rolling them down the hill of their enclosure until they smacked the wall and smashed open.


Can I just point out that throwing coconuts at pigs without hitting them on the head is much trickier than it sounds?

• Penguin Beach!

Officially, our next task was to wash the banks of the penguin pool. But let me let you in on a little secret.
Cleaning the poolside is just an excuse. A legitimate excuse for you to go in and play with young penguins. Because they’re “zoologically interesting”. By which I mean the cutest thing ever to have walked this earth. And if you ever harm a penguin I will personally escort you to the gates of Hell.

That said, the actual cleaning proves to be more complicated than I’d anticipated. It's easy work, but penguins are curious, attention-seeking little things, and wouldn’t let us get on with it.


Before I knew it, it was Meet the Penguins time!! We sat down in the sand and waited for the younger ones to come to us - as it is, young penguins are more playful and less vigilant than their more aggressive adult counterparts, and will come to you naturally. That said, they are attention-seeking, gregarious little thugs, constantly looking for a fight and picking on you. Seriously. Penguins have issues. They remind me of a certain boy I used to have a thing with, but that's a story for another time.

And so we got a short introduction to penguinology. The penguins at the zoo are all Rockhopper penguins, and much prefer the sun to snowy, cold weathers (Madagascar, anyone?). It's impossible to tell males from females simply by looking at them, so each penguin has an identity tag on its fin. The main cause of death in penguins, especially in the wild, is... dun dun dunnnn... Malaria. Who'd have thought, huh?


Penguins are supposed to be monogamous - monogamy amongst penguins is otherwise known as the Great Penguin Soap-opera. They're every bit as dramatic as humans, cheating and domestic rows aplenty. This is very well demonstrated when two young ones start fighting each other for our attention. Penguins act all tough, but, really, scratch them on the neck and they go all silly. See for yourself:


Also, penguins make a loud bonding noise to attract mates that sounds rather a lot like a boat horn. I learnt that the hard way when one of them tried to bond with me. And then proceeded to trying to peak up my shirt for the rest of the encounter.



• Llama llama duck.

I asked them if they could leave me in the penguin enclosure and come back for me when they closed, but they wouldn't let me.

Instead, they dragged me to lunch and then straight into the llama and alpaca enclosure. I'll admit it, I was warned. Our head zookeeper did clearly say "Perry the llama hates me with a passion, he sees me as a rival". But nothing could have prepared me for the llama cold war of doom that I was about to witness. As soon as we got within a 3m perimeter of the enclosure, Perry the big white llama suddenly perked up, and looked him straight in the eye through the crowd. "It's a challenge", that look said. "I dare you to come any closer". So, we did. How else were they going to get fed?

We were each given a bucket of fruit and vegetables cut into little cubes. The moment we got into the enclosure, we suddenly became the most popular llama attraction in London:


The task mainly consisted of receiving all that llama love while placing the food on several nearby stones so that the alpacas, most of them being really shy, did manage to get some food before the llamas ate it all.


Perry, after an interminable stare-off with our favourite zookeeper, eventually opted for food over his llama dignity, and we were on our way to the tiger enclosure.

A deadly stare-off


• Did you just say ‘tigers’? Why, yes, I did.

We approached the tiger enclosure with the excitement of kids on Christmas morning, trying very hard to look responsible. As we reached the crowded glass window, we took a right turn and ended up in front of a green, solid-looking set of metal doors. "Now, we wait", we were told.
Wait for what?

Suddenly, a matter-of-factly man in blue overalls and a ponytail appeared, and hurriedly let us into a small, stone-floored room with a cage lining the walls. We were, in a very matter-of-factly way, briefed about security precautions ("Don't cross the yellow line, or you'll lose fingers. Feed them with the tongs, keep your fingers away, and if you must fall, fall backwards. Or you'll lose fingers"). It was all very 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'.

First thing we saw on our way in... very reassuring


We were told that when people meet the tigers, some of them get very emotional and cry. As the first tiger walked in, I immediately understood why. They were the most graceful, majestic creatures I had ever encountered.
When the male and the female were both in, they let a grid slide into place between them, keeping them apart, as, they explained, their normally peaceful relationship gets tense whenever food is at stake. (Understandable - whoever claims not to get cranky when hungry is a liar.) They started impatiently pacing up and down their cage in a circle, the way I do when my boyfriend is cooking for me.
We were given a pair of metal tongs each, and were passed pieces of raw meat to feed the tiger one after the other - first the male, then the female.


Once happily full, the tigers lied down for a rest, and we - gasp - were allowed to cross the yellow line to take pictures, while being told anecdotes about switching female tigers with the Whipsnade zoo so that it could get pregnant. Unlike London zoo's peaceful individual, the Whipsnade female is very playful and kept mock-attacking the male here, who got annoyed and bit a hole through her tongue. Several stitches later, the female got sent back and the couple reunited. That said, the tiger keeper also pointed out that unlike lions, who form genuine 'couples', tigers must be considered as two individuals cohabiting.


• Spider monkeys like popcorn

Following this highlight of excitement, we were headed to give the Spider Monkeys a little surprise snack - popcorn!

Spider monkeys, so-called because they use their tail as a 5th limb, are extremely friendly, curious little creatures. Sadly we weren't let into the enclosure, but instead got to feed them by hand through the railings. Gloves had to be worn as a precaution, not so much for us as for them, as human bacteria and diseases can easily be passed on to monkeys. IT was very fun, but it's disconcerting how human they look. See for yourself:



• Compare the meerkat .com

After all this emotion, we deserved a moment of rest. Right? Wrong. We arrived to the meerkat enclosure, feeling jolly and expecting another penguin-like petting session. Boy, were we ever wrong.

Before we knew what was going on, we saw ourselves being handed a plastic bag, containing an old box of eggs and... live bugs. That's right, a big bag full of creepy-crawlies. What, have you not seen the Lion King? What else are meerkats supposed to eat?
My partner in crime for the day categorically refused to do it. After a long moment's hesitation, I decided to do it, for posterity's sake. Hey, it makes for a good story.

I took a deep breath, and plunged my hand into the fuzzy bag of horror. Not going to lie, I had to fight the urge to take my hand straight out and run away. I grabbed a handful of beetles, and threw them into the pen where the meerkats were looking up expectantly. Well, I tried. But they were hanging on for dear life and I had to violently shake them off. Again and again, I repeated the process, a crowd of visitors forming around me to cheer on a baby meerkat too slow to catch its food on time. To tell the truth, it was actually a really really fun experience. And, well, hakuna matata.


• I like to move it move it...

Finally, we had time for one more surprise before our day reached to a close. Lemurs!

Once inside the enclosure, everything was a tornado of grey fur and zebra stripes.
We had fruit and salad for them - naturally, they were only interested in the fruits, but it was the salad they needed to be fed.
The trick was to lure them in with a piece of grape, and then feed them a handful of salad before they realized the trickery and left in search of better treats.




I think by this time there isn't much more I can do to convice you of how AWESOME an experience this was. Not only did we get to meet and interact with the zoo's animal population - and visitors - throughout the entire day, but we were personally introduced to every member of staff we happened to walk by - even got to meet some important peeps! We got to ask questions and find out some fun bits of trivia about all the animals we passed by on the day, even those we weren't working with, as well as a fairly detailed introduction to current issues in animal care and conservation for those we did encounter. Altogether I can honestly say I'm very satisfied with how the day went, and happy to know that the cost of the program goes towards their conservation projects.

Included in the price: an unforgettable experience + a t-shirt + a bag + a certificate + breakfast, lunch and snacks. When you're done with the day's work, you can wander about the zoo for free until closing time, which is nice, and you get 20% discount entrance for any spectators you might want to bring along.

That said, you might want to have a bleach bath when you’re done.

Info: London Zoo – Keeper for a Day programme. (Similar program also running in Whipsnade Zoo). Book here. Cost: £280, advance booking required. This one’s expensive, but worth every penny, believe me. In fact, I’m considering going back for another taste of penguinery. Don't hesitate to comment if you have any questions!

Posted by Hachiko 07:00 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged animals london penguin monkey elephant zoo tiger activities pig giraffe lemur meerkat

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