As the only zoo in Oxfordshire, we had visited The Cotswold Wildlife Park several times, but this visit was a little different. That is because on Wednesday we accompanied someone who had been given, as a birthday present, the chance to be a zookeeper for the day.
Many zoos nowadays are trying to raise extra funds by offering more diverse experiences, and one of the most unique is to shadow a zookeeper. During the experience, recipients can feed, stroke and even clear up after a range of animals and are allowed far closer proximity than is normally permissible.
The recipient has exclusive access to the keepers as this is a one-to-one experience. Her boyfriend was allowed to accompany her and got a free entry into the zoo but could not feed the animals. Other family members visit the zoo in the normal way with plenty of opportunities to meet up with the couple and take pictures or join them for lunch.
Zookeepers have to start work at 6am but the birthday girl was allowed to arrive at a more acceptable 9 o'clock. Met by one keeper, she was whisked off to the children's farm where she mucked out the goats before moving on to feed lemurs, penguins and meercats. She was shown the fruit preparation room and took out buckets of food to throw to the various animals inside their pens. At one stage, she could be seen sitting on a rock surrounded by a group of ringtail lemurs playing round her feet like any family of domestic cats.
There was meant to be a tea break but with so much chatter and excitement she was late in the staff room and her tea was too hot to drink before she had to leave and be handed over to the reptile house keeper. As a snake and lizard owner herself – and the main reason this zoo was chosen, as some do not include reptiles in the experience – she received a great deal of valuable advice that she could later put into practice, and was taken to the innermost sanctum – the breeding rooms – to find out how things are done professionally.
The day covers lunch and so she had a voucher for her free chicken and chips. After the meal, she went off to feed the giraffes their tree branches; pass skewers of meat to the lions and pat a rhinoceros through the heavy bars.
Whenever there was a pen containing non-dangerous animals, she was able to enter and get to meet the inhabitants such as the giant tortoise, and she could also go behind the scenes of enclosures including the bat house and the red pandas. With each keeper a font of animal wisdom, she learned a tremendous amount during the day, including how the very kind and friendly staff all managed to get such sought-after positions.
Her September visit was well timed as all the baby animals were old enough to be up and about and the large mammals were out all day, so mucking out was at a minimum!
The day ended at 4.30pm with the gift of a goody bag containing souvenirs and even a voucher enabling her to adopt an animal.
This is not a cheap gift, as zookeeping experience days cost between £100 and £200 but you could never get this close to wild animals in any other way.