Animal magic for Andrea when she becomes zookeeper for the day at Whipsnade Zoo

PUBLISHED: 14:06 07 October 2016 | UPDATED: 14:18 07 October 2016

Herts Advertiser reporter Andrea Pluck holds a butterfly at Whipsnade Zoo.

Herts Advertiser reporter Andrea Pluck holds a butterfly at Whipsnade Zoo.

Danny Loo Photography 2016

Mucking out gaur droppings is par for the course when you’re a zookeeper at Whipsnade, as our reporter Andrea Pluck found out first hand...

With a shovel in one hand, a wheelbarrow to the side of me and the smell of dung in the air, I was unsure if this was going to be the exciting experience that I had anticipated.

Ahead of International Zookeeper Day, I visited ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, in Dunstable, to become a zookeeper for the morning.

As I passed through the entrance gates, I couldn’t help but notice how large the animal enclosure was. It is home to more than 2,500 animals and covers 600 acres of land. So, it was no surprise when I was taken to different parts of the zoo by car with Jake Kendall-Ashton - press officer at Whipsnade, who was showing me around for the morning. Our first stop was the Asia section.

My first job was to clear up the droppings of a gaur - the largest species of wild cattle in the world.

Herts Advertiser reporter Andrea Pluck helps replenish the food for the butterflies at Whipsnade Zoo.Herts Advertiser reporter Andrea Pluck helps replenish the food for the butterflies at Whipsnade Zoo.

Adam Davinson, who looks after the animals in the Asia section, demonstrated how to best shovel the manure. I didn’t realise that there was tactic involved in a simple task such as clearing away animal droppings.

Adam scraped the sloppy mess off the ground with one scoop of the shovel, making it look effortless. Now it was my go.

As easy as Adam had made it look, I was struggling. The dung was heavy and it was difficult to transfer the mess into the wheelbarrow, which was less than a metre away.

The muck was a similar consistency to cement mix and splattered across the ground as it fell off the spade during my terrible attempt at cleaning the pen. This was not how I imagined I would be spending my day.

Herts Advertiser reporter Andrea Pluck and park bird keeper Mairee Vincent feeding the penguins at Whipsnade Zoo.Herts Advertiser reporter Andrea Pluck and park bird keeper Mairee Vincent feeding the penguins at Whipsnade Zoo.

Afterwards, I was introduced to two greater one-horned rhinos called Bali and Behan. Now the unpleasant task of shovelling manure was over I was looking forward to feeding them.

I was handed a bucket filled with chopped-up banana, carrot and lettuce. As I edged closer to the enclosure, their stumpy bodies and wide mouths made me apprehensive. Behan’s teeth were sharp and I was unsure how much closer I could force myself to get to her. Adam reassured me that they wouldn’t harm me and encouraged me to throw a piece of banana into Behan’s mouth.

With each piece of food, I moved closer to the animals and eventually I managed to build up the courage to stroke them, to which Bali, the youngest of the two, proceeded to slobber all over my hand. Despite the rough exterior of Bali and Behan, I realised that I didn’t need to be afraid of them. It was a fulfilling task looking after two animals that were completely alien to me before taking on the role of a zookeeper.

I then made my way to visit Ringo and Paul, not The Beatles band members, but two meerkats. I was led inside the small enclosure by Mark Holden, team leader of the Africa section. I perched myself on a log in the centre of the pen and Ringo, who has a tail that resembles that of a platypus, climbed up my leg and sat calmly on my lap.

Herts Advertiser reporter Andrea Pluck feeds the Blackfooted Penguins.Herts Advertiser reporter Andrea Pluck feeds the Blackfooted Penguins.

I was surprised at how trusting the meerkats were as they were so comfortable around a complete stranger. Ringo and Paul ate cat biscuits from my hand and continued to climb all over me until it was time to go onto the next task of the morning.

Moving into slightly different temperatures, it was feeding time at the penguin enclosure. Mariee Vincent from the bird section greeted me at the gate, leaving a bucket of fish positioned by the pool that the penguins were swimming in. As her back was turned, the group of African black-footed penguins took advantage of the situation and began helping themselves to as much fish as they could indulge in before Mariee would notice.

They reminded me of The Penguins of Madagascar - a television programme about four penguins that often get themselves into mischief - and I couldn’t help but laugh. I grabbed a handful of fish and began throwing them into the water, watching the penguins chase after the food.

Rockhopper penguins live next to the enclosure but Mariee explained that I couldn’t enter their section because they were not well-behaved.

Herts Advertiser reporter Andrea Pluck feeds the Blackfooted Penguins.Herts Advertiser reporter Andrea Pluck feeds the Blackfooted Penguins.

She said: “They’re just so naughty but that’s just their character and charm.”

The Rockhopper penguins were born in a biodome in Vienna and experienced their first moments in the outside world at Whipsnade Zoo. They were then taught how to swim and eat by the zookeepers.

Our last stop was the butterfly house. A range of colourful butterflies were fluttering around me as I entered the humid room. I was worried I might accidentally hurt one of the creatures, so I took a gentle stroll around the enclosure, admiring the vibrant flowers and the different species of butterflies.

My job here was to replace containers filled with sugared water and pollen, which were placed around the room for them to feed on. I followed trainee keeper, Thomas Maunders, around the room cleaning hidden tables and putting out fresh food.

Team leader of the African section Mark Holden and Herts Advertiser's Andrea Pluck meet the meerkats of Whipsnade Zoo.Team leader of the African section Mark Holden and Herts Advertiser's Andrea Pluck meet the meerkats of Whipsnade Zoo.

I was also lucky enough to watch the team leader of invertebrates, Alex Cliffe, feed the crocodiles in an adjoining habitat - something that is only done once every three weeks.

Stepping into the shoes of a zookeeper for the day left me contemplating a career change. The passion the staff have for the animals with which they work was clear from the moment I walked through the gates.

It was an interesting experience, but I don’t think my skills at shovelling dung are advanced enough to get me a permanent position, so I’ll leave it to the professionals.


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