Working as a keeper might not earn much of a salary, but it has its benefits, namely gaining free entry to other wildlife parks. During this time the four of us (Polly, Cameron, Tyra and myself) got to go to London Zoo, Whipsnade, Banham, Woburn Park, Marwell, Wildwoods and Colchester. We were also lucky enough to have a lot of natural woods in our area so we enjoyed many fabulous walks, searching for snakes, lizards, butterflies, etc.
A type of silent war ensued between me and my ex-wife. As their field-guide-bushwalking father, I was proud of my children’s natural delight and excitement for the outside world. Seemingly their now-cosmopolitan mother was not. Through all our walks on the beaches, parks and woods, my son and daughter always took home something simple, unique and interesting; a bunch of shells or stones, a dead beetle, deer antlers and, once, they even managed to find an old badger skull in the forest near us; how exciting! Needless to say, mom didn’t think so, and they would all get swiftly relegated to the garden shed. In better years their mum and I had shared good times in the bush, and she had done a bit of wildlife rearing so I was disappointed.
Their birthdays and Christmas’s were much the same. I would give them a tarantula shed or a snake skin. Why not? These two had grown up in, absorbed and delighted in, the African bush in all its wild splendor; I was stubbornly on a mission to ensure they continued to feed their natural curiosity. They were thrilled by their mini naturalist collections, and still have them.
I suppose sadly it was just the age old game divorcee’s play with each other.
The kids would also visit our zoos quite a bit and so got to know some of the animals we worked with. They helped me out during peak holidays too as I used to work on the education side at the time, doing VIP tours, a few educational talks, and some work in the educational tent. If they were visiting at the time and I couldn’t get off then I was fortunate in being able to bring them to work with me. They would follow me from talk to talk, sometimes even talking to visitors about the animals which, of course, would always make for a proud dad moment.
On the carnivore section I got to work with Amur tigers, Indian tigers, Barbary lions, grey wolves, African wild dogs, dholes, coati’s, brown hyena and a small but wonderful collection of arachnids and reptiles.
For those that are wondering what an Amur tiger is; it is usually referred to as a Siberian tiger, although this is in fact a misnomer as it was never historically found in Siberia. They are also known as the Assuri tiger. Amur and Assuri are the two rivers bordering the natural areas of these magnificent creatures.
We had an incredible pair to look after and our male, Tugar, was massive. The Amur tiger is the largest cat in the world and it was a great honour for me to be able to work with them. Tugar developed an odd liking for me. I initially worked a lot with him through the educational department spending a fair amount of time around him. I then started on the section as a keeper, doing the talk’s part time.
Working as a section keeper I could now jump the safety barrier and get closer to Tugar whilst talking to the public. He would stalk me a lot but never display any aggression. It was rather funny and, needless to say, the public always got a bit of a thrill seeing his natural behaviour. You see, he did very typical stalking behaviour; he would stalk me while my back was turned and either stop and wait or walk away casually if I turned and looked at him. If I kept looking away he would charge from 10 metres, but never actually hit the fence. The moment he got near the behaviour would turn playful and he would rub up against the fence and make little chuffing sounds at me. He would easily and happily (all I needed to do was lift an arm up high) stand up on his back legs behind me and that was when everyone got to really see just how massive this animal was. What chance do you have against them?
We got to work in the enclosures with all the animals barring the lions and tigers (for obvious reasons) and so it was always a marvellous experience to be at work. Although, if you know your zoos, Port Lympne is one of the many that used to allow their keepers full access inside the enclosures with their animals; some zoos still do today and this is not a very clever thing to do.
Make no mistake, these are extremely dangerous animals and you have to be at your best all the time. Even then, all it takes is for one animal to have a grumpy moment…
For all my experience working with animals like lions and elephants in the wild, it took a full months training by the head keeper himself, before I got a set of keys and I was entitled to work with the cats myself. I was fully aware of the danger of these animals still; too often one sees articles in the papers of errors that occur and keepers that very sadly get killed by their animals.
The saddest part is that it stirs up the anti-zoo folk as well. It has nothing (more often than not) to do with the zoo being bad or the animal being mistreated. Sometimes mistakes just happen. I can proof this blog as much as I want, I can write it all truthfully to the best of my ability, but at some stage I will miss an error, write a piece of information incorrectly, and people out there reading this will jump on that to tell me. I can apologise and fix it. Make one mistake with an animal, and there is no second chance, simple.
Respect for the animals comes first, love for them comes second. It is the same when working with animals in the wild; the errors and deaths come from making the mistake of not showing respect, and getting blasé around your workplace.
Thanks to Richard, my head keeper teaching me at the beginning, and thanks to my training in the wild, I would find myself checking and re-checking any secured gates. I would often lock a gate, walk away to move a lion or tiger through, and then doubt myself and come all the way back round to check that lock again, then maybe again; we all did. Rather sure than dead hey.
Port Lympne also did a ‘face your fears’ programme during the holidays which entailed using a big tarantula, a few Madagascan hissing cockroaches, and a ball python for people to potentially handle if they saw fit to do so. As a result of our section being in charge of these animals, it was up to us to present the programme and, as a result of me being on the educational side as well, it meant I was always involved.
I enjoyed these programmes; they were tiring with a lot of talking and of course handling of these animals for the entire time, making sure that they were never overused was always a priority. You dealt with a lot of genuine fears of these amazing creatures and people would stand in front of my table, shivering while watching me with the spider on my hand. I had a lady that came back to my table 4 times through the morning before she eventually made up her mind and she said that she was ready. She was petrified of the snake and she had finally decided to trust me enough to take it in her hands. She did, and tears were pouring down her face as I put the snake in her cupped hands, but she did it! This was the prize for me, getting people to cross over from fear to nervousness. There is nothing wrong with being nervous or weary of animals, and it usually stems from not knowing them, but there is something wrong if we fear them so entirely and irrationally. It is this that you try to change in visitors. Sometimes you get it right and it makes your day.
The weather, as always, played a huge role in our daily affairs and especially so at Port Lympne. The entire park was on a steep hill and most of the enclosures were on inclines. It was always funny listening to the public complain about walking up the hill. They were coming to a 650 hectare park, situated on a hill, and all they did was complain about walking outside. I had a chap walk past me (on a tar road) pushing a pram, muttering and swearing away to himself that he would never come back there again. Bearing in mind that he walked past me carting a rubbish bin full of muck; my third trip up that same hill! Try walking those enclosures after near on 6 weeks of rain! Even the hardiest of keepers got pretty irate after that period.
It was the old story-line though; you can please some people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all of the time. Working with tourists is a difficult thing indeed and it is never truer than in the zoo world. Of course, the bosses of Port Lympne would be pretty pissed off with me if I called them a zoo; they were a wild animal park. I have just finished working for a place that hates zoos and calls itself a wildlife awareness centre. Down the road from us another place insists that they are an animal sanctuary. Cages are often referred to as pens, enclosures, or camps. We all hide behind these names we create for keeping animals in enclosed spaces. The name is not important; how you take care of your animals in that space, and how good your educational side is, is important, however, and this you must concentrate on.
The irony of working with wildlife is that it takes skilled personnel to take care of those animals properly, and yet it is the unskilled, incapable public that govern what you do. Most of the controlling is being done by animal lovers; most of which, with all due respect, do not even understand animals in any shape or form. They just love them.
We used to get the most astonishing sets of complaints from visitors to the zoo, bearing in mind that this is a massive park, with some of the biggest enclosures available to the animals in the UK. “The cages are too big, we can’t see the animals”, “the cage is too small, the animal is unhappy”, “why isn’t the animal doing anything, can you make it stand up?” Still, without the public, we have no one to educate, and so you smile, nod, apologize, and move on, thinking about what you wish you could say to that person who has just complained about the pacing lion, after you just arrived with its food.
Working for Port Lympne as a keeper is when I truly realised what being a keeper was all about. I have to say that I genuinely enjoyed it and look back upon it with fond memories. The keepers of the large carnivore section were amazing to work with and I thank them all for a wonderful time together.
By now, thanks to a combination of Polly’s help, distance apart, limited time, and just enjoyment of moments; the kids and I had built up a great relationship. Although I only saw them for about a week every two months and, at the time I thought that was pretty tough, I wouldn’t have complained had I known what was to come. We were, however, just battling too much financially. With both of us as keepers we could not make ends meet and we were slipping slowly into permanent overdraft.
We started making plans to make a move to South Africa, to try and get into the nature reserve work.
And so ends part IV, but I will return with the next chapter in our lives; moving to South Africa and working in and around the famous Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest wildlife reserve…