Keeper for the Day!

Last Saturday I participated in the Keeper for the Day program at the zoo. I had the privilege of helping to look after the elephants and seals. What a wonderful experience!

I met Nicole, one of the keepers, at the zoo at 6:45am. She gave me official zoo coveralls to wear and brought me over to the elephant’s night lodgings. The zoo has 7 elephants, all female.

My first chore was to help cut up their “treats”, which consisted of carrots, apples, kale, onions!, and garlic! And yes, elephants get garlic breath if they give them too much garlic. Then Nicole and Vernon (another keeper) began the complicated procedure of moving elephants around from one pen to another so that they could maneuver one of the elephants, Ingira, to the proper pen for her manicure.

They manicure one elephant foot each day. The elephants are trained to place their foot through an opening in the pen. Then one keeper feeds the elephant treats during the manicure, which can take as long as half an hour. The nails are filed down with a huge metal file (much like the files one would use on wood), and the pads of their feet are peeled.

I missed watching the elephants being put out on display because Sarah (another of the keepers) brought me out to the Seal pen to help there. Sarah told me that one of their seals, Nelson, had suddenly died only a few days before. His lungs had been filled with some sort of infection. It was very sad.

We prepared and doled out breakfast for the seals. The females got squid, which had capsules tucked into them. Timo, the male, got herring. The capsules consisted of vitamins and minerals and salt. The salt is necessary in order to replace the salt they would be getting while feeding in the salt seas in the wild. After showing me how to read their menu chart, Sarah entrusted me to prepare their lunch. They got herring and capelin. The herring had to be cut into chunks. Winnie, one of the females, seems to be picky — she doesn’t like heads. So I gave her herring heads to Timo. Their lunch was left in the fridge in buckets, ready to be given during the “Meet the Keeper” talk at 12:30.

Sarah and I returned to the elephant pens just in time to start cleaning them out. This chore takes quite a while, as you can imagine. Elephant poo looks much like wet hey. Did you know, they only digest 40% of what they eat!! Perhaps it was for this reason that I didn’t find the smell to be as bad as I expected. I was very happy to have the coveralls, as I got quite messy.

We used big squeegees on poles to make piles of elephant dung, then used shovels and wheelbarrows to haul it all out. Then the pens got hosed down. The walls got hosed down, too — elephants like to throw their dung around! I helped to clear the drains as they would get clogged up with the undigested hay, and got splashed in the face as a reward!

I was exhausted part way through the day. We only had one short break in the morning and a very short afternoon lunch break. The lunch break was cut short because Nicole asked if I wanted to see a hippo up close. “Yes!!”

So she brought me to Samson, who was off display for the morning. She picked up a honeydew melon on the way. He was in the pool section of his pen. Nicole called to him, like one would call to a baby… “Sammy!!! Come ‘ere!!! Come on, boy… ” She says he’s a real sweetie. Hard to imagine a hippo as a sweetie!!

When he finally dragged himself out of the pool and lumbered over, he opened his mouth very wide for us and we rubbed the inside of his mouth. She gave him the melon, whole, and he crunched away at it. You know, he really was a sweetie!!

The day ended at 3pm and I came home smelling of elephant. All in all it was a tiring, but amazing experience.

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