Getting up close to animal magic at London Zoo

PUBLISHED: 12:13 11 December 2014 | UPDATED: 12:13 11 December 2014

Sara with a Galapagos giant tortoise at London Zoo

Sara with a Galapagos giant tortoise at London Zoo

Archant - Taken by Sara

Kitted out in blue overalls and spade in hand I’m ready to shovel some poo. This might not sound like much fun but the poo in question is rather exotic - it came from a group of zebras.

Feeding the giraffes Feeding the giraffes

Myself and four others (who appear equally excited by their upcoming mucky task) are taking part in ZSL London Zoo’s Keeper for a Day.

The experience gives you the chance the get up close to a variety of furry and feathered creatures, and learn more about the day-to-day jobs of a zoo keeper.

One of those tasks is of course, cleaning out the animal enclosures. The zebras it turns out, hadn’t left much of a mess behind them, so our shovelling is over within ten minutes and it’s time to feed the giraffes.

London Zoo has been home to giraffes since 1836, and the original giraffe house, built in 1839 and now listed, is still in use.

London Zoo has been home to giraffes since 1836 London Zoo has been home to giraffes since 1836

While showing us around the kitchen where their food is prepared, our guide for the day, Mick Tiley, tells us how

the Keeper for the Day experiences help prepare the giraffes for veterinary treatment.

“Being treated by vets and nurses can be really stressful for the giraffes,” he says, “and it’s very difficult to anaesthatise them, so we try and avoid that. With Keeper for a Day, the giraffes regularly get to meet a group of strangers and because they are being fed it’s a nice experience for them. This means that when they do encounter vets its not stressful.”

Mick, who has worked as a London Zoo keeper for 33 years, leads us up to a raised platform and from here everyone gets the chance to hold out a carrot, which the giraffes gently take from us using their 18 inch tongues. Being this close to such fascinating animals feels pretty awesome and I doubt a similar opportunity would offer itself on a normal zoo visit.

Other feeding stops include bearded pigs, meerkats, black and white colobus monkeys and ring tailed coatis. The latter sees us sitting on the ground as the coatis run over our legs looking for the treats Mick has thrown them.

The second cleaning duty of the day is in the penguin enclosure, where we’re asked to brush away any droppings on the rocks. Afterwards there’s a chance to get a closer look at the birds, who seem very relaxed around visitors. One, a northern rockhopper penguin called Ricky, chirps with excitement at seeing Mick. The keeper smiles and explains that he used to regularly work in the enclosure and the two became firm friends.

Not such a big fan of Mick it seems, is Perry the llama. “Perry, doesn’t like me for some reason,” Mick says as he leads us into the llama and alpaca pen, “I have no idea why.” Looking over to the pack I see a llama staring at Mick with a definite glint of suspicion in his eyes, and am not surprised to learn it’s Perry I’ve spotted. Any animosity seems to disappear however once he sees Mick comes bearing food.

Our last animal encounter at the zoo is with three Galapagos giant tortoises. Here we’re given the rather unusual task of scratching the tortoises legs, which apparently recreates the enjoyable sensation of birds picking parasites off their skin.

Keeper for a Day costs £280 (including lunch, afternoon tea and cake and a Keeper for a Day T-shirt to take home), while Junior Keeper for a Day (for 11 to 15-year-olds) is £170. It’s not cheap, but we all agree getting so close to the animals felt pretty special and is probably worth the money. I also found it fascinating to learn about the huge amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to ensure the animals are as happy, stimulated and stress-free as possible.

If you don’t fancy doing a whole day, there are a number of shorter, cheaper experiences such as Meet the Penguins and Meet the Ardvarks. For more information go to zsl.org/experiences. To receive vouchers in time for Christmas order before December 19.

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