This year I started my training to become a Zookeeper at Taronga Zoo in Sydney. It is a two year course (Certificate III in Captive Animal Management), and as well as attending one class a fortnight, I have been going down to the Zoo every Saturday to do my practical intern days to get experience working in the Zoo. For the first sixth months, I will be helping out in the Australian Mammals division, and I’ve done six full days at the Zoo so far. Here is a taste of what I’ve been getting up to.
Taronga Zoo was officially opened on its current site in North Sydney in 1916, although the Zoo was originally founded in 1879 and operated on other sites before it moved to where it is today. The original entrance building still stands, though its been spruced up a bit:
The Zoos position on Sydney’s North Shore (Mosman Bay) means that the backdrop is stunning views of the Sydney city centre, including the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, and the ‘Rusty Bucket’ to the left (I have no idea what its really called!). The Zoo is situated on a hill (I am getting fitter!), and there is a gondola system that flies you over the exhibits back to the top (or down to the bottom if you’re catching the ferry back to town). It’s a really beautiful Zoo.
My first three Saturdays at the Zoo (9, 16, 23rd Feb 2013) were spent helping out the Koala keepers in their daily cleaning and feeding tasks. Koalas are very picky eaters. I was introduced to at least 20 Koalas, one of whom I was told to watch out for because he occasionally takes out his aggression on the keepers if his female has been mean to him that day. He was a sweetie when I met him though, and he greeted me with a nose-to-nose-bump, much like a Maori ‘hongi’ (except Maori people don’t sniff you at the same time!). I learnt that the baby Koalas love to cuddle up to other Koalas once they are removed from their mothers, so the Keepers provide soft-toy Koalas (the ones from the gift-shop) for the wee ones to hug. This would work great, except the little Koalas aren’t stupid and know that a toy Koala is not the same as a real Koala, so they are still continually clambering onto the backs of the others in the exhibit, much to their frustration.
In my breaks, I get to walk around the zoo at my leisure of course. And first thing in the morning is when all the animals are out and about (must bring my camera in the morning next time!). Here are a few photos from around the Zoo:
Sometimes the Keepers working on the other animals in the division need help for a while, so I am often shuffled about where help is needed; this suits me because it means more variety and experience! One day after finishing up with the Koala work, I was sent to help out a Keeper who is in charge of the Tasmanian Devil Breeding at the Zoo. I picked his brain about Devil biology and reproduction, and it just so happened that the breeding was happening that week because the two females were in oestrous and had been paired up with a male each. One female had come out of oestrous the day I was there, and so had returned to being aggressive towards the male (she becomes submissive when in heat, because otherwise she wouldn’t let any male near enough to mate!), and the boy had a gash on his face from getting too close. He just wanted to make sure she was ok and that no other males were after her! The Keeper had been in the enclosure moving the male into the neighbouring exhibit – a task which apparently involved a shovel (because the Devils will attack something: better a shovel than your legs!), and a tug-of-war with a piece of meaty bone on the end of a long wire. Have you heard a Tasmanian Devil scream? They are terrifying! Once the Keeper had successfully dragged the male into the next enclosure and left, he surveyed the exhibit to check everything was in order and said, “Damnit, he’s got my hat!”. In the effort, his hat had come off and fallen victim to an angry Devil – he had to go back in and retrieve it.
I learnt that the Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease that has wiped out 60-90% of the wild population (hence why breeding in captivity is so important) all began in 1996 when just one female had a genetic mutation that made her susceptible to the disease. Her genes have spread to the vast majority of the current population (genetic diversity is very low). Since the disease is highly transmissible and Devils bite one another often, apparently all individuals in the wild are susceptible to the disease. The Nation-wide breeding program aims to breed an insurance population against extinction, and to release individuals who are genetically robust against the disease.
That day I also helped feed and rearrange the browse in the South American Agouti enclosures (somehow the Australian Mammal team is responsible for them). They are like giant Guinea Pigs, and are just as skittish. The Francoir Langurs (monkeys) in the exhibit next door had a field day when we disturbed them.
At the moment, I am working on the Platypus round, which also includes the Common Wombat named Giddi Giddi, and the Spinnifex Hopping Mice. My job has been to rake out the Wombat yard while Giddi is locked in her den. I’m so glad there is a locking system – the last time I tried to clean a Wombat yard at Blackbutt Reserve in Newcastle, I ended up being chased round and round a big rock by an angry Wombat with large teeth, which she wasn’t afraid to show off. We leave grass clumps with the roots on in her yard to help wear down those teeth. Giddi was clawing at the door the whole time trying to get out to me. She likes to sit in her den and dig at the corner where the viewing glass meets the wall – which means that she wipes dirt all over my freshly cleaned windows every time!
The Spinnifex Hopping Mice are in the same dark building (they are nocturnal) as the Platypus, and are extremely inquisitive. I was warned to be very careful where I put my feet when in their exhibit because they are not afraid of hopping around you (see photo). When I went in there to clean the internal windows, I discovered that they like to sit on the front of your shoes, and will even sniff the undersides of your soles while you’re kneeling. So I cleaned the window without moving my feet, which made me look ridiculous. Unfortunately, on my second week on that round, a mouse ran out from under a log and dove right under where the Keeper’s foot was coming down. The mouse didn’t make it, poor thing, they’re so delicate. *sad face*
The Platypuses are sleek and gorgeous, but super shy. We feed them different things throughout the day, including meal worms, fly pupae, earthworms (yes, I had to dig them out of a tub of soil), and live yabbies (freshwater crustaceans). The Platypuses have a tunnel system that leads from their dry wooden nest boxes to the big pool to swim in, and they don’t like to be watched making their way down the ramp into the water (the boy waited in the tunnel for me to leave before he came out). The boy, however, is much more active and interesting to watch than the girl, who sits in the dark corner. He dives about and preens himself out of the water on the rock. I recently learned that the male Platypuses are venomous! They have a spur on each hind leg and can dig the spurs in to something behind them – apparently it’s excruciatingly painful, but not deadly.
I have also been helping with the food prep for the Macropods (Kangaroos, Red Tree Kangaroos, and Quokkas), and the Echidnas. Short Beaked Echidnas eat termites and ants in the wild and have obvious spines all over their body, while the Long Beaked Echidnas eat more earthworms and have spines that are covered with a thick layer of fur. The food we make for the Echidnas includes mince meat, oil, and soil, and is blended to a fine pink soup for them to lick up with their long tongues (Zookeepers are not afraid to get their hands dirty!). I had to babysit a small male Echidna while he ate because the larger female kept trying to steal his food. I wasn’t sure how to keep her away, so I just put my arm out to block her way, and she bristled up against me and snorted like a child in a huff.
Helping out with the Nocturnal House is always fun because there is such a range of species, and by the end of the day, the last task left is to go around and feed them all. I have met Squirrel Gliders, Sugar Gliders, Black Footed Tree Rats, Tree Kangaroos, and Potoroos. I have also hand fed a Tawny Frog Mouth (they eat defrosted baby mice), several Ring Tailed Possums who eat on my shoulder, and a Bilby who went nuts for mealworms. By the way, Bilbys make the cutest little squeak when you disturb them – it sounds like a short puff into a teeny tiny trumpet! The Yellow Bellied Gliders are rather friendly, and will often jump onto you. The thing is, they have razor sharp claws, so there are several Keepers with constant scratches, and you’re meant to cover your face when you visit them. They are incredibly cute, so soft, and vary in colour slightly. Their tails are extra long because they use them as a rudder when they are gliding between trees.
Last Saturday, it was getting hot, so we put the sprinklers on for a while in the outdoor aviaries. A Tawny Frogmouth named Wizard absolutely loves water, and was literally dancing in the rain! He would hold his wings out and pose dramatically, and then shift to a different pose, flipping his wings over above his head like a swooning woman. It was very entertaining. Later, while I was in the kitchen helping with food prep, a small group of people came through on a tour to see what food we give each animal. I had finished by jobs at that point, so I joined in with the tour and listened to the Keeper give his talk about the diets and food preparation, and when he brought out the Feather Tailed Gliders for everyone to meet, I got to play with them all before putting them away. They are small big-eyed marsupials, and their tails really do look like feathers! I could see the membrane of skin between their wrists and feet that flap out and allow them to glide. They eat nectar and will lick the nectar mix right off your fingers. It was the highlight of my day.
So while my days at the Zoo are extremely tiring, I am finding them to be so rewarding, really interesting, engaging, and dynamic. No day is the same at the Zoo, and the animals behave differently every time so it keeps you on your toes. I am learning a lot and loving it!