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Walking In a Zookeeper’s Footsteps

Guest blog: Jenny Tennent and Adam Spragins, Calgary Zoo inspire members.

Adam and I have been regular attendees at the zoo for years, participating in almost every Inspire tour and member morning; however, nothing could have prepared us for the experience that awaited us on May 29 when we did the Destination Africa Zookeeper for a Day program.

At 7 a.m. we received our outfits and headed to the African Savannah building. After easing into our jobs by hand feeding the giraffes, we got to work. Our first task was one of a zookeeper’s more laborious, but very important, jobs – to clean the hippo enclosure with mops and hoses. We also got to touch these incredible animals, discovering that their skin produces a foam which is a natural anti-bacterial and a ‘sunscreen’ coating.

Then came the dreaded question: “Are you OK with bats, bugs and snakes?” Skeptically responding yes, we moved to the TransAlta Rainforest and visited the boas, tarantulas, slugs, and then started work with the straw-coloured fruit bats, discovering how gentle and often misunderstood these animals are. After cleaning their enclosure, we were able to hand feed them. This style of feeding was also training for the bats, teaching them to present themselves for inspection by opening their wings to show their bodies. We were warned to watch out for the bats flipping right-side up to poo or pee. We had a few close calls, and each time a bat spat out a grape skin on us, it resulted in a moment of panic!

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Once our work with the bats was complete, we witnessed the feeding of the African dwarf crocodiles. To stimulate hunger, a hose is turned on to simulate prey in the water, and then warmed food is thrown to them from a safe distance. Despite the danger they posed, we witnessed one very peaceful looking crocodile enjoying being sprayed with water.

Next, we cleaned up the aviary area and fed the birds. Adam had to quickly overcome his queasiness of putting his hand into a squirming bucket of mealworms!

After the aviary we escorted Sheldon, the leopard tortoise, to his outdoor enclosure, while the zookeeper filled us in on all things primates. Unfortunately, due to the tragedy of Kakinga’s passing, our day did not include the western lowland gorillas. This was a humbling reminder that the animals come first at the zoo.

Then it was back to the hippo habitat for the mid-day cleaning (they poo A LOT), and on to the African lions! After checking the door locks, the lions were let inside so that we could enter their outdoor habitat to set up enrichment: some interesting toys and food. After we left and re-checked the locks, we witnessed the majesty and power of these animals as they ran outside to retrieve their food.

Sadly, the lions were our last stop for the day. Exhausted, we returned our outfits and received our certificates of completion.

The day was a truly amazing and remarkable experience, and one that we will treasure for the rest of our lives. From the friendliness of the keepers, their willingness to answer questions and explain the various aspects of their jobs, to being able to spend time with the animals and contribute to their care and quality of life; this was by far the most in-depth, interesting, and full eight hours we had ever spent at the zoo. The day also gave us a better understanding of the care and effort that goes on to ensure that the animals are well taken care of.

We are looking forward to doing another zookeeper for the day experience sometime in the future, and in the meantime we will be back soon to visit Sheldon, Norman, Aslan, Sparky, and all the other Destination Africa animals!

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