How long have you been working here and have you had other keeper jobs? I have been an animal keeper for 25 years. I started at Highland Wildlife Park (HWP) in February 2009 and before that I worked in major zoos in Singapore, Rome and London and with a private collection of animals in Canada.
What is your role at HWP? I am Head Keeper of the ‘walk around’ area which includes the large carnivores, other animals and a selection of birds. So we’re talking Amur tigers, Polar bears, European grey wolves, Northern lynx, wolverine, red pandas, Japanese macaques, Scottish wildcats, and Arctic fox. Essentially I manage all of the animals that do not have hooves!
What are the most rewarding things about your job? It is always lovely to see babies being born, particularly as so many of the species we hold are endangered. And, it feels good when an animal, which has been poorly, shows improvement under our care. Every day brings new experiences when you work with such a variety of animals, but I do enjoy the adrenaline rush when a new animal arrives, and we have to unload them and get them safely into their enclosures. Arktos the polar bear, and Marty the tiger both arrived on the same evening, so that was very exciting.
What is your idea of a perfect work day? Not too warm; like our animals, I am also cold climate adapted! All the animals would be fit and healthy and I’d spend some time training the polar bears – this enables us to keep a close eye on their health. It’s also satisfying to see our visitors enjoying our animals and the beautiful landscape of the Cairngorms National Park.
And a typical day? An 8am start and the animal staff have a meeting over coffee to ensure everyone is aware of any new situations with the animals. We divide out the work, check all of the animals and the fences, give out breakfasts and start mucking out – an essential part of the job which can tell you a lot about their diet and is a good indicator of an animal’s health. This is quite a fun time of the day when we’re alone with the animals before the visitors start to arrive at 10 am. Between 10 am and 12.00 we finish cleaning and prepare the animals diets for the afternoon. We give the first of several public talks at 11.30 which is when visitors can see the Japanese macaques eating their lunch. In the afternoon, more public talks, incorporating the animals’ feeds, so visitors can see the polar bears receiving some fishy treats, the Scottish wildcats having lunch, the camels eating their browse, the tigers climbing up trees to get their food, and the red pandas munching bamboo. Later, we feed the rest of our animals, refurbish any enclosures that need work, clean our kitchens, check the animals and then ensure all visitors are safely back to their vehicles before HWP closes.
Some memorable achievements? Last year, over 70% of our animals that were in a breeding situation had youngsters. Amongst many, this included Amur tiger cubs, Scottish wildcats, European lynx, and European bison. I love working with native species too, and was delighted when we were part of a project to breed and release water voles back to the Trossachs National Park. The project has been so successful that we no longer have to breed them in captivity.
What is your favourite animal and what does it eat? The polar bears! They have a lot of personality, and are very playful. Their appetite varies throughout the seasons; currently they eat around 20 – 30 kilos each every day, of a mixture of meats, fish, fat and cod liver oil. Although they are the largest carnivore at the park weighing in at around 500 kilos, the Bactrian camels weigh almost twice that amount!!
How do the animals fare in summer? Some people are under the misapprehension that ‘cold climate’ species suggests that they cannot cope with normal ranges of summer temperatures in the Scottish Highlands. However, our seasons generally are remarkably similar to those found in parts of Canada, with a long cold winter, and a short moderate summer. All of our animals are provided with areas of shelter. Apart from a few days a year when it may be a little too warm, the animals do not seem overly concerned about the weather. Because they are all cold climate species they do thrive in our long cold winter. Very few of the animals enjoy the wet and windy weather, and we will often find all 24 Japanese macaques huddling in their house on days like this. The polar bears do enjoy their pool in the summertime, and Arktos likes lying on a cold concrete pad in his den area. We often provide the animals with ice treats if the days are particularly warm. Frozen melons are a favourite with the bears!
How much freedom do the animals have and how do you try to replicate their natural habitat? Several of our species have some of the largest enclosures for their breeds compared to European Zoos. An example is the polar bears, whose main enclosure is 5 acres, and they have an additional paddock which measures 2 acres. They also have an Olympic sized swimming pool to enjoy! Our main reserve, which houses red deer, Bukhara deer, European bison, elk etc. is approximately 60 acres. The landscape is very varied here, with boggy areas, rocky outcrops, natural waterways etc. so this alone gives the animals the opportunity to exhibit lots of their natural behaviours.
Many of your charges are extremely dangerous – any scary moments? With the large carnivores, we work in what is known as ‘protected contact’; this means that there is always a fence between keepers and the animals. We use operant training to encourage the animals to move into den areas where they can be safely closed in, whilst the keepers work in the outside enclosures. We are actually more at risk when we have to catch up some of the smaller animals like the Scottish wildcats – they certainly deserve their fierce reputation!
What is the most popular attraction? Our baby animals are very popular – currently we have young with the European lynx, Japanese macaques, snowy owls, red pandas and many of our hoof stock herds. Last year, we had our most successful year ever for visitor numbers, many of the visitors said they had come to see the tiger cubs. The tiger cubs are now 14 months and full of mischief!
Any new arrivals due? We have pretty much come to the end of our breeding season for this year, as our animals are very seasonal, and the birthing period at HWP generally runs March – July. The red panda babies have not come out of their nest box yet, as they are very helpless when born, and take several weeks to develop before venturing out. We are all looking forward to seeing them out and about in their enclosure in the coming weeks.
Have you always wanted to work with animals? I spent my summers as a child on a farm in Ireland, and loved ‘helping’ with the animals. I became vegetarian at the age of 12, so did not feel becoming a farmer was the right career for me. In my early 20’s I had a seasonal keeper position in a small zoo in London, and fell in love with the job then.
Do you need special qualifications to become a keeper? Entry into zoo keeping has become extremely competitive. Most candidates for positions have at least a degree in Zoology or a related subject. It is expected that all staff will qualify in a professional zoo-keeping qualification, which is recognised throughout the zoological world.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to have a career like yours? Volunteer! Experience and good references help in this career. The zoo world in reality is a very small community, so making a good impression wherever you volunteer is essential. When we recruit, we looking for hard-working, fit, dedicated candidates.
Highland Wildlife Park, Kincraig (7 miles south of Aviemore). For visitor information tel: 01540 651270 or visit www.highlandwildlifepark.org.uk
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