Keeper for a day at Auckland Zoo

By Hannah Sarney

Splashed by a sea lion, nudged by a lemur, growled at by a pacing tiger, urinated on by an elephant and stalked by cotton top tamarins - it's all in a day's work for a zookeeper and now visitors can give "the best job in the world" a go too.

Auckland Zoo's new "Keeper for a Day" experience allows visitors to work alongside keepers and step into areas of the zoo and childhood dreams that were previously kept out of bounds.

It's an expensive outing at $550 per person, but the fee goes back into the zoo to support the conservation work that runs both on-site and out in the wild.

Our day began with a greeting from a senior zookeeper, Courtney Eparvier, who was eager to lead us through the many surprises she had in store.

"We never have the same day twice here at the zoo, so each person's experience will be very different," said Ms Eparvier.

"It's nice to show it off."

We weren't given an itinerary so the day could be open to the whim of the animals, the needs of other keepers, the demands of Mother Nature and unexpected opportunities.

However, we were given well-branded official "Keeper for a Day" work shirts to make us stand out as beacons of privilege to the other visitors - they were our all-access passes.

AVIARY

We strolled through the unopened zoo to the kitchens where we collected food and cleaning equipment for the Aviary. We were then invited to climb off the usual visitor trails, change the food stations and encouraged to help wipe away the evening leftovers dropped from above.

LEMURS

As other visitors began to flood through the gates, we slipped past "no entry" signs and headed for the ring-tailed lemurs. It wasn't a glossy version of a keeper's day - we were expected to get dirty too. We helped clean the lemur's overnight dens but were rewarded with entry into their enclosure to set up their enrichment breakfast.

Paw paw, carrots and peaches were divvied out into hanging baskets amongst the eager lemurs - a few sneaked snacks while we organised ourselves on the grass.

It was a lovely way to spend the morning - sunbathing with the striped ladies - but there was a lot more to be done over in the Aussie Walkabout.

AUSSIE WALKABOUT

I tentatively walked past the emus trying to give off an air of confidence. I only breathed out again once we were on the other side of the enclosure and we set about the surprisingly therapeutic task of raking up the little brown balls of poo littered everywhere in-between the wallabies and joeys.

ORANGUTAN

Finally it was time for Ms Eparvier to introduce us to her personal charges - the orangutan. Auckland Zoo is home to six Bornean orangutan - living in groups of two and four. We were lined up to observe training with the pair named Gangsa and Isim.

The majestic, flaming gold creatures took a fair bit of coaxing, but they soon came up to the fence to show off their incredible intelligence and the dedication of their keepers. They lifted their arms, opened their mouths and turned around on gentle commands without a fuss (although, some carrot was spat at our camera).

Ms Eparvier has spent time working with orangutan conservation efforts in Sumatra and passionately warned us about the perilous effects of palm-oil driven destruction.

"It's all about education," said Ms Eparvier as a big family group quizzed her on the location of particular monkeys in the zoo.

"It's also important to get in touch with the non-sexy animals," she said. "They are in just as much danger, so they deserve just as much attention."

LONG-FINNED EEL

Her case in point was the long-finned eel and it was our turn to feed them.

While "Keeper for a Day" participants won't be forced to do anything they don't want to do, the real keepers will encourage people to step outside their comfort zones to have some unexpected fun.

I can't say I found hand-feeding sprats to a tank of hungry eels very enjoyable, but it was fantastic to share the experience with a keeper bubbling with enthusiasm for the slippery, threatened creatures.

The keepers made all the activities look easy, but they are the finished products that come from countless hours of positive-reinforcement training.

ELEPHANT

Burma the elephant squeezed between native ferns, stopped to have her feet checked and navigated crowds of children without any trouble thanks to her keepers. I had to quicken my pace to keep up as we walked her around the zoo and she earned more adoration than a rock star.

"We'd love a child to see Burma, fall in love, and be inspired to care about elephants," said Ms Eparvier.

I stood behind Burma and caught her faeces in a plastic bag as she relieved herself - she knew how to make a lasting impression somehow.

COTTON TOP TAMARIN AND TIGER

Our day finished off with the unlikely pairing of tiny cotton top tamarins and enormous Sumatran tigers. We smeared banana around the tamarins' enclosure to keep them occupied for the night, then move across the zoo to smear bloody bones and meat over trees for the tigers.

While I stood next to the real keepers as they checked and double-checked the locks, it will be the only time I ever willingly walk into a tiger's enclosure armed only with meaty treats.

For those who can afford it, the "Keeper for a Day" experience is about having fun, walking on the wild side and helping out all at the same time.

- nzherald.co.nz

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What: Keeper for a Day Experience
Where: Auckland Zoo
When: Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday from 9-3.45pm each week during the months of September to May
Cost: $550 per person. Maximum group size is two people 16 years or older

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