Hanging around at the zoo

Animal management used to be all about suppression and violence, according to a second generation keeper at Dublin Zoo. Now, it’s about caring and a bit of pampering


M y first feeding time at the zoo is going rather well and a large, appreciative crowd has gathered to watch me expertly throw assorted pieces of fruit in the direction of three hungry gorillas when I suddenly and unexpectedly hit the largest and meanest one in the face.

A murmur of disapproval goes up from the crowd, as if I’d meant i t . Given a th ousand years and an infinite number of apples in my bucket, I doubt I could ever hit a moving gorilla right between the eyes from a distance of 40 metres again.

Lena, Dublin Zoo’s matriarchal primate, glowers at me and my instinct is to drop the bucket and run. But I’ve been warned explicitly against this course of action by the zoo keepers. I have been told that if things get hairy with the animals, I should stand my ground with my arms by my side and my hands gently flapping like Tinkerbell looking for lift-off.

Then Lena looks down at the apple, scratches the spot where I hit her, gives me a stare of sad-eyed confusion before picking up the fruit and eating it in a single bite. I quickly disperse the rest of the gorillas’ breakfast – apart from their morning Miwadi which someone else is going to have to give them – and head for the safety of the elephants’ beauty salon where a pregnant cow called Yasmin is waiting patiently for her pedicure.

Luckily the man behind the nail file isn’t going to be me. Gerry Creighton is the zoo’s operations manager and, as a second generation keeper, knows just what his elephants want. He is proud and passionate about his job. “In 2006 we were at a crossroads,” he tells me, as three elephants lumber into the giant pen for their morning ablutions. “We had an elephant house designed in the 1950s and it was no longer fit for purpose so we re-imagined everything.”

A key part of this reimagining was, quite simply, sand. In most zoos, elephant houses have concrete flooring which is easier to clean and to maintain and so the preferred option. At least for the humans. The elephants are not so keen.

“There’s this myth that elephants like to sleep standing up,” Creighton says, as he pushes buttons on two large yellow remote controls which open and shut the gates to various pens. In between shouting instructions to his staff, he explains that elephants “just couldn’t sleep comfortably lying on concrete. We were one of the first zoos to put down sand. Now they all sleep for seven or eight hours a day. And they are much happier for it.”

Yasmine lumbers towards us. She certainly seems content. She is due to give birth before the end of May and is well up for her pedicure. On Creighton’s command she pushes a foot through an opening in her pen and we file her toenails, each of which is larger than a basketball and harder than a Tupperware dish. We use a thick metal nail file more than two feet long and then scrape a tough leather coating from her feet with an implement which looks like an apple corer.

Well, I say “we” but Creighton does the precision work and I shovel elephant stools the size of watermelons from the sandy floor. I notice some glitter in the mix and marvel at the animals’ ability to produce these giant, stinking disco balls. Creighton tells me that indigestible glitter is routinely fed to them. It’s non-toxic and colour coded and allows keepers identify exactly what has come from whom so the animals’ well-being can be monitored in the most unobtrusive way possible.

Once Yasmin’s nails and feet are done, we give her a shower and rub some moisturiser on to her tail. “This ritual is great for us because we get to work up close with our animals and bond with them,” Creighton says.

Polished and primped, Yasmin wanders outside, giving us time to bury fruit and vegetables in the sand pit. Everything has to go at least half a metre into the ground so the elephants have to work hard at digging the treats out. The hide and seek is not mean, Creighton assures me. The stimulus is good for them.

“In the past elephants were box-office but that came at a cost and it was them who paid the price,” he says. “The way zoos managed them used to be based on suppression and violence.” Not any more. “Our main focus is their welfare. Yes, they are in a confined space but it is not quantity of space but quality of space that matters. If you gave an elephant 40 acres and nothing to do, they’d spend their days beside the zookeeper’s house because that is where all the action would be.”

Today’s zoo is almost entirely unrecognizable from the one conceived in the Rotunda Hospital in 1830 when a group of medics and scientists formed the Zoological Society of Ireland. Their motives were not as animal-centric or altruistic as 21st century zoo folk and the 19th century zoo was largely for the entertainment of wealthy Dubliners, with the entrance fee set at an eye-watering six pence – or nearly €100 in today’s money. The hoi polloi were allowed in on Sundays if they paid a penny.

The zoo’s other aim was to provide easy access to animal corpses for doctors not mad on grave-robbing. Once animals – specially the primates – had outlived their usefulness as spectacles, their cadavers were much sought after for research purposes.

Paul O’Donoghue is the assistant director of the zoo and I disturb him in his office. He is staring intently at a computer screen. “Here, have a look at this,” he half whispers in an Australian accent. It is a map of England on which a little orange dot is flashing. The dot is a hippo who has just been transferred out of the zoo and is on her way to a new home in Rotterdam. A pan-European stud book – kind of like Tinder for exotic animals – found her to be an ideal genetic match for a Dutch hippo so she’s going over to make friends. And maybe more.

The animal traffic is two-way and recent arrivals in Dublin include some red capped mangabeys from Barcelona. The zoo wants these primates to share its “rain forest” with the gorillas. It can’t happen overnight and the mangabeys are now living in a compound next door. The two species have met but through a metal grill and only when the zoo is happy the two groups won’t tear strips off each other will they be allowed come together.

“I don’t know if it will work but this is the perfect habitat to try it,” O’Donoghue says. “And I think the company will be good for the gorillas.” So far the gentle introductions are going well and the Don of the gorillas, known as the Silverback, has shown little interest in his new neighbours, while his children are more interested “but seem very relaxed, very chilled.” The mangabeys haven’t hit any of the gorillas in the face with fruit either. And that can only help.

As we walk through the zoo checking that all is well with the 700 animals under his care, I ask O’Donoghue what is the main purpose of the zoo? “Conservation,” he says without a pause. “That is why we exist.” He shows me an App on his phone, similar to a baby monitor. It streams live footage from all the cameras dotted around the zoo. “If I wake up in the middle of the night I pick up the phone and check on them. It is very reassuring.”

His impossible-to-miss love of the animals here should be reassuring for anyone who has ever wondered about the role this place plays in protecting scores of endangered species. At every turn, the zoo’s concern for the welfare of its animals is impossible to miss. Some European zoos appear less concerned about the well-being of animals in their care.

Early this year, a young and perfectly healthy giraffe was killed at Copenhagen Zoo and fed to the lions because his genes were said to be well-represented among the captive giraffe population. There was global outrage at the decision. Months on and O’Donoghue’s anger is still simmering close to the surface. “I was shocked by it, to be honest,” he says. “It is not what we are supposed to be about. We were very vocal in our criticism at the time. In response to what we were saying, some people suggested we need to respect other cultures. Well what about respecting our culture? And the culture of other zoos?” He shakes his head and falls silent. His concern is repeatedly echoed by staff throughout the day.

I slack off for a while and wander aimlessly through the zoo past the crouching children, sleeping tigers and a flock of pink flamingoes some of whom arrived here when the Beatles were breaking America and smell like they’ve not had a wash since.

I meet Ken Mackey who looks after the rhinos and the hippos in the African Plains – 20 acres gifted to the zoo by the President in the 1990s. Mackey saw me hit Lena with the apple. He tells me she is the most dominant of the females and was having breakfast with her son Katuba and an unrelated female called Kafi, the lowest ranked and most nervy of the gorillas. Kafi carries wood wool with her as a comfort blanket everywhere she goes.

In the Learning and Discovery centre, I am introduced to a horny corn snake called Milo. He is three years old, native to Florida and a star of the zoo’s education programme. As he’s been bred as a pet, he is allowed come into contact with people – policies here are very strict and even the zoo keepers try to keep their distance from the wilder animals to better replicate their natural habitats.

“These snakes can be quite bitey if they’re not handled enough when they’re young,” says Orla Reddington, one of the zoo’s teachers, as she drapes Milo around my neck. “Don’t worry though, he’s not bitten anyone yet, so you should be okay,” she adds. He slithers up my arms and around my neck “smelling” me with his tongue. He gives my neck a squeeze. “Ah you’ll be grand,” Reddington tells me. “He’s not able to constrict anything bigger than a mouse.”

After a quick slither, it becomes clear Milo couldn’t give a rashers about me. What he really wants is the love of a good woman. It’s mating season and a time of the year he takes very seriously. In recent weeks he has even turned his nose up at dinner – a mouse – in case it slows him down and stops him being the lean, mean loving machine he wants to be. Although potential mates are thin on the ground, Reddington still thinks he might get lucky this year.

Una Smyth has worked in the zoo for nearly 20 years and heads up the education programme. The learning goes from toddlers to the actively retired, taking in secondary school students doing field work along the way, but the bulk of Smyth’s time is spent with primary school children. All told, 28,000 will come through the gates on school trips in May and June alone.

Lisa Minogue is another teacher. She is taking a class of pre-schoolers and teaching them about the animals on the zoo’s farm. “What animals have you seen outside?” she asks. A little girl shoots up her hand and shouts: “I saw a crocodile.” There are gasps of amazement from her classmates and from Minogue. She takes the merry band around the farm to see if they can find any crocodiles.

There are no crocs, but there are goats. The teacher asks the group if they know goats are great climbers? “Yes,” shrieks a little boy. “And I am too.” He starts climbing into the pen to prove it. He is hauled down and we move on to the hens which are, she explains, the closest living relative of the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Leo Oosterweghel has been director here for 12 years and while he’d never admit it, he deserves huge credit for saving the zoo from extinction. He has been the driving force behind its resurgence and under his watch, numbers passing through the turnstiles have doubled from just under half a million a year to over a million.

“For a long time in the past there was very little knowledge of the world these animals came from and people wanted to satisfy a curiosity, so if there were one or two gorillas in a cage for them to look at, that was fine. But that is not how gorillas live and we know that now. Today, everything we do is inspired by the wild and the message has changed. Instead of satisfying visitors’ curiosity, it is about the animals. So many of them need our help,” he says.

Sandra Molloy is one of the key helpers. She is in charge of the stud book which details the sex of each animal, its date of birth and its parents. This information is stored on a pan-European database which is used to decide how animals should be paired to get the best genetic mix to ensure species stay as genetically healthy as possible.

She is also responsible for the zoo’s frozen ark, a collection of DNA from its most endangered animals. There are 144 one millilitre blood samples kept here at minus 80 degrees, with duplicates stored off site and cared for by UCD scientists. There is a back-up freezing system and an emergency call-out in place should the freezers ever fail. “At least the ark will give us options in the future if certain species don’t make it,” she says.

Oosterweghel lives in what must be one of the most desirable homes in the country, right at the heart of the zoo. He knows how lucky he is and says he “could never get tired of it all. The wolves were howling last night and in the early morning the gibbons sing out. Kumar the lion calls out every evening. I watch the elephants as they sleep.” He takes out an iPhone and shows me a picture of a sleeping elephant. He seems so proud. It is like he is showing me photos of his children.

As closing time nears, the zoo keepers sweep the 60 acres and make sure no human stragglers are locked in. Despite their best efforts, it happens sometimes, even with mobile phones, an emergency call-out system and 24-hour security.

The place is then left to Oosterweghel and his animals. “Their behaviour after hours is quite different,” he says. “The big cats will happily ignore everyone when the zoo is open but when it is closed and I’m walking through it alone, they watch me very closely and are interested in what I am doing and where I am going. Sometimes I wonder who is watching who?”

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