“You spend a lifetime with an animal, sometimes more than you spend with your own family,” says Gerry Creighton (54), a former elephant keeper and operations manager at Dublin Zoo. “It’s very hard not to have a relationship with animals.”
I’m meeting Creighton at Dublin Zoo, where he spent 36 years of his working life – and can’t quite seem to get out the gate. It’s a quiet, rainy day and on approaching the two-acre elephant enclosure he greets them all by name, as if expecting a unique response from each.
“For so long we didn’t understand them. These guys that we’re looking at here, they mourn death, they celebrate life, they’re intimate with one another, they’re intelligent, empathetic, compassionate and kind.”
Sitting under a rain shelter overlooking the zoo’s nine Asian elephants, he talks about his new book, Raised by the Zoo . It’s part-memoir of his life, much of which has been spent in and around the zoo, and part-manifesto for the future of elephant care around the world.
Creighton is no stranger to the media. He was the face of RTÉ's series The Zoo, which remains popular for its behind-the-scenes look at the ups and downs of zoo life. He still gets stopped on the street, and is regularly called “the man from the zoo”. Since the show first aired in 2010, Dublin Zoo has welcomed more than one million visitors a year, he says, lamenting that the poor weather over the summer has threatened that milestone.
Gerry, his brother and his father have more than 100 years of experience at Dublin Zoo between them. “I don’t ever remember not being in the zoo,” he says. “My father, Gerry Snr, who was a general curator here and worked his way up from a cat keeper, brought me up here as a young boy when I was two or three years old.”
Gerry Snr worked at the zoo for 51 and met his future wife in the restaurant there, where she worked. One day on his way to feed some animals – bucket in hand – he asked her out, Creighton explains. “She refused,” he says, laughing. “A bucket of mackerel is probably the most unromantic gesture ever – but listen, the rest is history.”
Creighton grew up in Stoneybatter, just off Manor Street. When he was growing up, Creighton’s peers were often engaged in petty crime and fell into substance abuse. Instead of pursuing that path, he put his time into animals and boxing. He was the Irish under-18s middleweight champion at one point in the 1980s.
On one occasion he visited Mountjoy Prison to give a talk on animals. The prison officers warned him that the inmates might be tough on him, he says. “When I walked in all I hear is: ‘Hi Gerry.’ ‘Howya, Gerry!’ They were all guys I knew from school, all high-fiving me ... We were from the same area but [had] very different career opportunities.”
In his book Creighton writes: “Those lads were no different to me – they just didn’t get the opportunities I had.”
As we talk, he stops to get a look at two bulls (male elephants) approaching the water’s edge. “Ah this’ll be great,” he says giddily. “They’re going in now because it’s raining. Elephants actually love rain. It’s a great form of stimulation.”
Sure enough, the two elephant brothers flop into the 5m-deep pool for a splash around. Creighton looks on and is quick to film the moment.
He is married to Leona and has two children, Zach (12) and Mia (17). His eldest has recently joined him on some jobs. “Of course you would love to keep on the Creighton family dynasty that’s made a difference here,” he says.
Creighton’s passion for animal welfare is clear, and not something that has reduced over the years – for him, or his father. Just a few hours earlier he was at the vet with his father where Gerry Snr’s 15-year-old German Shepherd had to be put to sleep. “There he was, a man heading for his 80th birthday, and he cried like a baby as Saoirse took her last breath. Even for all the years he was here in the zoo, it just showed what animals mean to him ... You never lose that compassion in you.”
For any zookeeper, losing an animal is like losing a part of yourself, Creighton says. He has been present for the euthanasia of an old lion, which reduced many zookeepers there to tears. He was present for the death of a chimpanzee in her 50s who both Creighton and his father had cared for over the years. He also shot a rhino dead as it escaped from a transport container in 1996, something he describes as “gut-wrenching”.
“Zoo life is a very emotional life. People often ask me, ‘What’s the mortality rate at the Zoo?’ I say, ‘It’s 100 per cent.’ Everything has to die at some point but it’s how we take care of them.”
In January 2021 he left Dublin Zoo and started his own consultancy agency, Global Elephant Care. He is working on developing elephant care and enclosures in France, the UK, the US, Israel, Australia and the United Arab Emirates, where elephants will have air conditioning to save them from the 50-degree heat.
He is also working on projects to manage the gradual release of elephants back into the wild, but nevertheless talks bluntly about their situation. “There are less than 40,000 Asian elephants left in the world. In the hour that we’re talking, there will probably be five or six African elephants killed for their ivory.”
Despite the stark reality for elephants around the world, amid increasing human encroachment on their natural habitat, Creighton faces it with a smile.
“There’s not one day where I haven’t woken up and not looked forward to going into work. It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride, but it’s a wonderful job.”
Raised by the Zoo is published by Gill Books €22.99