“Never work with animals or children.”
This old chestnut may be reserved for the world of showbusiness but it certainly went racing through my mind as I was driving to Blackpool Zoo for my shift as a zookeeper for a day.
As it was approaching the end of the school term, not only was the zoo full of a huge variety of animals, the place was also amok with children on class trips gazing with fascination at the different species.
While I love children (well, my own anyway) and am guilty of saying “Ahhhhhh ...” in a soppy voice whenever I spot a cute animal, I have to admit I harbour a slight fear and nervousness around all creatures great and small – mainly because they are an unknown quantity and I am afraid they might bite.
Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I have an irrational fear of dogs and usually cross the road to the other side rather than walk past one, as I have no desire to find out if their bark really is worse than their bite.
So while the thought of getting up close and personal with some of the most endangered animals on the planet filled me with a sharp thrill of excitement, I have to confess I also had my reservations.
But any jitters I held rapidly melted away as I soon realised that I was in the safest of hands with Blackpool Zoo’s numerous zookeepers who all have one thing strongly in common – their passion for the animals they care for and their love for a job that they carry out with dedication come rain or shine.
My dress code instructions for the day were: “Wear something you don’t mind getting filthy or ruined and wear comfy shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty” and I felt extremely official as I was handed a jacket emblazoned with the words: “Zookeeper for a Day” to set me aside from ordinary members of the public.
But I was adamant that I wanted no special treatment from the keepers but to muck in and do all the tasks they would ordinarily do to give a true flavour of life as a zookeeper.
Mucking in was exactly what I got and there was no room for squeamishness or cowardice as I got stuck in entering the enclosures that I was used to from peering into from the other side during a family day out.
Anyone who holds any misconceptions that working at a zoo is like a day out at the ... well ... zoo, is in for a shock. I quickly discovered that being a zookeeper is actually extremely hard work and often a thankless task as animals don’t always show their gratitude!
But for me doing this as a one-off experience, it was tremendous fun but it also gave me real insight into the weird and wonderful world of a zookeeper, where one minute you can be feeding slabs of raw meat to a tiger and the next giving an elephant a pedicure.
My day as a zookeeper was baked in blazing hot weather and it was gorgeous to work in the great outdoors on such a lovely day, instead of being cooped up in an office.
But for those who work at Blackpool Zoo, work takes place all year round, even on cold, dark frosty mornings when everyone else is huddled up near their radiators.
I did stints with different keepers – all of who were extremely friendly, knowledgable and clearly relished their work -– and I got to carry out an amazing array of tasks and meet some wonderful creatures.
I was literally thrown into the deep end when I was told to enter the lemur enclosure armed with a tub of chopped fruit.
Before I even had a chance to prepare myself for the encounter, a gang of lemurs launched themselves at me like torpedoes, desperate to get their hands on my tub of goodies. I have never felt so popular!
Once I got over the initial uneasiness at being a lemur landing pad, I really began to enjoy myself and was filled with fondness for the cheeky creatures.
The attention seeking lemurs seemed to love the experience, too – although it was the food that filled them with joy rather than me entering their enclosure.
However, they did seem to relish the attention and one inquisitive lemur even peered direct into our photographer’s camera lens to ensure we got a great shot of him.
I had lemurs sitting on my head, perching on my shoulders and climbing up my leg and one little rascal even had some fun pulling my hair.
It was hilarious to watch the food selection process, as slices of bananas and grapes were the first fruits to disappear and everything else was guzzled up in quick succession, until only the empty tub remained, which one lemur grabbed off me to lick clean. After such an exhilarating experience with the lemurs, I wondered how anything could top that, but I got to meet many more fantastic animals.
I got to p-p-pick up a penguin when I was given the chance of handling Margo the Magellanic penguin chick, whose sex is not yet known as penguins have to be DNA tested to confirm their gender. Margo was such a sweetie that I was tempted to put him/her in my handbag and take it home.
I also had the opportunity to hand-feed penguins fish, which was great once I stopped fearing for my fingers after they got over their initial thrill at being presented with their bucket of fish.
I even got to lovingly prepare their fish for them, by cutting a slit into the dead fish and inserting a salt pellet inside to emulate the really salty fish they could get in the wild. And I even managed to do it without the slightest bit of queasiness.
My other tasks included giving an elephant a bath. Indra, an elephant who is blind in one eye and has been at Blackpool Zoo for more than 40 years after being rescued from a bankrupt circus, seemed to enjoy being power jetted clean by me and I even gave her a pedicure by scrubbing her nails clean with a brush.
I massaged moisturiser into an aardvark’s back while she devoured a bowl of porridge to stop her skin from getting dry and cracked by the sun.
Some of the other things I did included socialising with a sea lion, feeding apples to three hungry camels, hand-feeding a giant tortoise and flying a barn owl.
All too soon, my day as a zookeeper came to a close and I went home tired, smelling a bit whiffy, but happy and excited to have had the chance to go behind the scenes at such an amazing zoo.