Zookeeper's fishy business looking after sea lions at Chessington
Zookeeper Melanie Wood loves looking after sea lions, but there is just one drawback to caring for the doe-eyed acrobatic creatures – she goes home smelling like the pongy fish she feeds them.
The 25-year-old has been working at Chessington World of Adventures Zoo for just over a year and spends seven hours a day with the sea lions.
She feeds them, cleans them, plays with them and trains them to do all sorts of tricks, such as somersaults, handshakes and blowing kisses to visitors at the zoo.
Miss Wood said: “The sea lions eat fish so I feed them – I don’t always use gloves. Sometimes when I get home and have a shower my boyfriend says I still smell like fish. But my job is great, I love the sea lions, they all have different personalities – they are quick, clever and cheeky. They do really funny and naughty things like stealing buckets of fish from you.”
Animals at the zoo include Grevy’s zebras, the world’s largest rodent capybara, the very rare scimitar horned oryx and meerkats as well as western lowland gorillas, Asiatic lions, Persian leopards, Sumatran tigers and the traditional goats, chickens, pigs and rabbits.
Slippery creatures such as pythons, tarantulas, lizards and frogs also live at the zoo, which houses 200 different species in total.
All the animals have a varied diet and food can range from blueberries to lettuce and fish to chunks of meat for the big cats.
Miss Wood works alongside a number of animals for entertainment shows hosted at the zoo.
She said: “We all need to be quite confident when we do these shows.
“The most embarrassing part about doing presentations with birds is that they often just fly off and you are left just standing there.
“Different animals can take longer to train too.”
Miss Wood also admitted a friend of hers had been left very embarrassed after being pushed into a pool by a sea lion.
At Chessington Zoo there are more than 30 members of staff that look after all the different animals.
Zookeeper Hayley Gray, 26, works across three different sections of the zoo including the African-themed Wanyama Village.
She said: “The scariest thing about being a zookeeper is the fear of messing up and doing something wrong like leaving a door unlocked.”
Miss Gray said working as a zookeeper also involved a number of tasks, such as vetinary duties like taking blood samples that she had not previously expected.
Newest Chessington recruit, Holly Dorning, 22, has been training and shadowing her colleagues for a few months.
She said: “I feel so lucky to get this much interaction with so many wild animals.
“I am looking forward to being signed off and being able to work on my own with the animals – being a zoo keeper is a dream job for me.”
A day in the life
8.30am: Change into uniform, collect enclosure keys and a radio.
8.45am: Head count – keepers check the enclosures in their sections, ensuring all animals are accounted for that nothing has occurred in the night.
9.00am: Food preparation, breakfast and mucking out. A variety of foods, vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and even live foods are prepared. Feeding time is also a good opportunity to check for health issues.
11am: Briefing – the zoo team meets daily to discuss the day ahead.
11.30am: Preparation for any lunchtime feeds and public talks.
Noon: Public shows and talks – nearly all keepers at Chessington will take part in either an animal show or a public feed/talk.
1pm: Lunch for the keepers.
2pm: Animal enrichment – keepers provide a programme to stimulate their animals, this could involve the way they feed or play.
3pm: Enclosure checks – daily checks for security and safety l 3.30pm: Administration – keeping records up to date regarding diet, behaviour and medication.
4pm: Meet-and-greets – The public get to meet a selection of animals up close.
4.30pm: Close down procedures.
It's a tough life
Animals fascinate me. I have always loved to read about all the weird and wonderful things they get up to, but to actually get close to anything other than a domestic cat or dog – that’s another story.
So when I was offered the zookeeper for a day challenge I thought why not? I mean, how hard could it be?
My day started with an introduction to Harley the sea lion. On his stool he towered above me with so much energy. When he neared to kiss me, I wondered whether in reality he was debating whether or not to eat me. I was soon assured I was not nearly fishy enough for his tastes and relaxed, just a little.
As the day progressed I came across the capybara, cute fuzzy-looking things and was in awe when I helped out with the zebras, they are just so beautiful and graceful – but I have to admit, I was a little surprised when a zebra named Phoenix decided to have a little nibble on my finger as I fed him a carrot.
Throughout the day I came across a variety of different animals with differing needs and personalities and it became quite clear how hard zookeepers have to work to care for and understand their animals.
By the end of my experience I have to admit, although I loved doing it for one day, it is just too much like hard work for the likes of me.