Being an Elephant Keeper
I'm sure we've all watched the elephants' bath-time at the zoo, but have you ever wondered what it would be like to scrub Nellies for a living?
Of course the job of elephant-washer doesn't really exist. The people with the brooms and brushes are actually highly-trained Elephant Keepers and they do a lot more than just splash around having fun in a pair of Wellingtons.
In fact, Pat Cade from Chester Zoo says that "Elephant
Keepers consider themselves the top of the trees in the zoo-keeping world".
All the animal keepers at Chester have to pass a City and Guilds written exam in Animal Management (which can take up to two years) and the zoo only assigns the most highly professional and experienced staff to their elephant-keeping team because they have two bull elephants - and bulls can be notoriously unreliable. In fact only last year in France, a bull elephant ran amuck and killed a member of the public during a show.
At Chester however, there is no danger of this. One of their bulls, Upali, is still only five years old and they have built a special bull pen for their other, mature, bull elephant, Chang. He is the most successful breeding elephant in the country, and as part of their conservation work, Chester are inviting other zoos to send their females for mating. As a result of this, two baby elephants have already been born (at Twycross Zoo in August 1998) after their mothers came to stay at Chester for a year.
This captive breeding programme is important because there are only 35-40,000 Asian elephants left in the wild and the increasing human population in that part of the world puts their survival in ever increasing danger. (For the moment, African elephants are less endangered.)
Apart from the boys, there are six female elephants at
Chester: three of whom, Jangoli, Kumara and Sheba, are known as The Mother's Union, because according to Pat Cade "they always have their heads together, putting the world to rights!" Thi-Hi-Way is on long-term breeding loan from London Zoo and her daughter, Sithami (meaning "Hope" in Singhalese) will be three next New Year's Eve, which makes her the baby of the group.
At the time of writing, Thi-Hi-Way was expecting a baby in the autumn and Jangoli was expected to calve any day - so the elephant team were taking turns to stay all night at the zoo. Not a nine-to-five job then, keeping elephants.
Apart from staying up all night, Keepers start the day at about 7.30am with cleaning and mucking-shovelling. A messy, smelly job at the best of times. The elephants get hosed down and their feet need regular attention; their nails need clipping, and hard skin has to be filed away. They also have blood samples taken from their ear lobes to check for disease and pregnancy, and regular check-ups by the vet.
Not surprisingly, Keepers spend a large part of the day on food preparation - every elephant has its favourite titbits - and as if that wasn't enough, there are "Meet The Keeper" sessions during which the public can ask questions and find out more about the elephants. During the summer months, the team also run Elephant Experience Evenings, which are always a sell-out.
So if you're thinking about working with elephants, you'd better not be wedded to office hours. You'd also better be prepared to go home smelling like a herd of them. You'll need to be 100% dedicated, physically strong and have good interpersonal skills as you'll have to deal with lots of interest from visitors to the zoo. You'll also probably need a degree in zoology or a similar subject.
"There's hot competition for these jobs," warns Pat Cade, "and we mostly recruit graduates. And even they can't join our Elephant Team until they've had some practical experience with other animals first."
Chester Zoo currently has about 50 undergraduates working on various projects within the zoo, but there are only four Elephant Keepers so job opportunities are rare.
However, some zoos will take on volunteers (mostly doing things like collecting rubbish and mucking out domestic animals) so if you are truly dedicated, if you can show a solid ability with animals and are prepared to work hard, pass exams and learn from other people... and perhaps if you believe just a little bit in miracles... it might just be possible to become an Elephant Keeper without having a degree. Get reading, get researching and
volunteer immediately at your local zoo - even if they haven't got any elephants and even if the only job available is cleaning out the mice.
You've got to start somewhere if you want to climb to the top of the trees.
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