The working day has barely begun and I have fish guts on my clothes and herring oil in my hair.
And the only thanks I have received for my troubles is a swift peck on the leg.
Having said that, the sight of 20-odd Humboldt penguins clamouring, waddling and flapping their wings in a comical manner is reward enough.
It’s feeding time at the zoo and this is my first experience of working at Marwell.
I’ve signed up for a Keeper For The Day experience – the chance to shadow the wildlife park’s employees and find out just what it takes to look after wild animals.
‘Yes, you have to watch Jupiter, he’s quite keen,’ says Anna Bacon, an assistant section manager at the park. She’s not kidding, he seems to think my jeans are fodder. But a nifty underarm of a herring sends him waddling off. The others shuffling around my legs are far more polite.
Anna has an amazing knowledge of the colony, recognising them not only by their coloured tags but the chest markings too. Eva is extremely placid and hangs around the keepers whether she’s hungry or not. Others can be a bit more snappy.
And she has plenty more useful advice as I try to push my hair out of my eyes with bits of herring over my plastic gloves. ‘You don’t worry about things like that. You soon get used to having muck all over you.’
Some of the penguins are looking after chicks and we have to take their breakfast to them. The fat silver chicks stay in their nesting holes, while the parents take the food.
A few of the herring are cleverly concealing anti-malarial and nutritional tablets which we stuffed in the gills earlier. Our last stop with this feast of goodness is Hugo, who is a little confused. He recently lost his partner and has been trying to incubate a stone ever since. Hugo reaches forward for some food but carefully protects his stone.
‘Bless him,’ says Anna, who clearly loves the charming creatures in her care. But she says zookeeping isn’t all enjoyment. ‘People seem to think we spend most of our time feeding and cuddling animals but we spend most of our working day cleaning.’
One of the highlights of the day is joining the keepers on the big cat feeding round. Their section also includes the meerkats as they look after all meat-eating mammals.
With the merchandise and advertising worlds going crazy over them, it’s no surprise that these creatures have become the park’s celebrities.
‘I get two main questions,’ says one keeper. ‘Where are the toilets and where are the meerkats.’
So it might surprise some that they aren’t quite the cute, comical creatures of the greetings card and garden ornament worlds.
Assistant section manager Marc Fox gives them dead chicks which they proceed to rip apart. Still, all they need is a plate of meat and fruit and they help themselves. Simples!
We’re going up in size and after handing dead rats to two hungry sand cats I enter the tiger’s den with Marc and keeper Claire Sweeten. After they leave horse meat in the shelters the shutters go up and in comes 40 stone of Amur tiger.
There’s a wire door between us but we’re only a metre or so away and Gamin the male is roaring hungry, snarling and keeping his eye on us. Whether he sees us as a threat or dessert, I’m not sure. But from the sound of his rasping tongue on the horse meat, I’m certain he could take away a layer of flesh without taking a bite.
The cats at the park are among the rarest creatures on the planet. There are only a few hundred Amur tigers left in the wild and the Amur leopards number only about 35.
Marwell conducts breeding programmes for its endangered species and is involved in conservation programmes. Many animals are transferred between wildlife parks to prevent inbreeding and the dream is to swell numbers in the wild. But the destruction of habitat means it will take decades for some species to be introduced in greater numbers.
Babies at the park include scimitar horned oryx’s, ring-tailed coati and month-old snow leopard cubs.
The mother is incredibly tolerant as we watch her and her cubs curled up in their shelter. They haven’t yet been promoted by the park as visitors won’t be able to see them until the end of August.
Workers spend many years caring for the same animals. Marc says: ‘We really build up a relationship with these animals. I’ve been working with the older female snow leopard for over 10 years now. You’re with them through all their life stages, births, death the lot.’
The last cats on the round are the cheetahs and Marc has to go in to retrieve a bottle. They’re the only big cats the keepers can safely go in with.
But still Marc must read their behaviour. ‘In the wild they eat much smaller animals so they don’t see us as prey. But I wouldn’t go in before we’ve fed them.’
Reading behaviour is important in another part of the park where we’re feeding the bongos with vegetables.
These are beautiful antelopes with large horns. ‘We don’t go in with some of the antelope unless we have to but these are fine,’ says keeper Rebekah Kendrick. ‘They could do some harm with their horns though so we have to watch them.’
She adds: ‘I don’t think reading behaviour can be taught. To a certain extent it comes with experience but I think it’s a natural thing that not everyone has. You have to be five seconds ahead of them.’
But the bongo simply thank me with a few licks on the hand.
Another thing a zookeeper needs is physical fitness. Rebekah says: ‘We’ve had one or two people who’ve come to work here and left after three days. It’s pretty hard going at times.’
Laura Kitcher may be looking after the lovely lemurs but she agrees that it isn’t all about fun. ‘I feel very lucky to have this job,’ she says. ‘And I love the fact that we can go in with most of the animals on this section but the work never stops. We’re very busy.’
Of course, nobody ever thought this job was glamorous and the fact that I’m only a zookeeper for the day doesn’t preclude me from a spot of poo-picking. Luckily I’m on dung clearing duty in the wallaby enclosure so I only have to deal with the small stuff.
My only rhino duties include scratching these creatures behind the ears. But they manage to keep the staff on their toes. Keeper Sharon Hall says they clear away between two and four wheelbarrow loads of rhino dung a day. But she gets to spend time with the animals too.
The staff form enrichment teams, assessing the behaviour of the animals and ensuring their mental welfare.
And the keepers should never forget they are wild animals. ‘There’s always unpredictability,’ says Sharon. ‘But that’s what makes the job so interesting. There’s always something new to learn about them.’
So Zookeeper for the Day is a wildly differing experience, but always a fun, fascinating and eye-opening one.