When the alarm shattered my cozy unconsciousness at the ungodly hour of 4:30 am, I could already tell that the public’s perception of what keepers do isn’t entirely true. They don’t just frolic through grassy fields with animals all day. They wake up at the crack of dawn, they sweat all day in the hot sun, and they get their hands very dirty to take care of the animals we all love. After a day shadowing keepers at the Safari Park, I have renewed respect for the role they play in protecting and preserving the precious wildlife of our planet for future generations to enjoy.
When I arrived at the Safari Park at 6 a.m., I met up with Lead Keeper Jane Kennedy. Jane has been with the Park for a whopping 26 years. When I asked her what her favorite part of the job is, she said it’s working with rhinos. In fact, she’s the vice president of the International Rhino Keeper Association, and she’s helped organize conferences around the world about rhino husbandry. Aside from rhinos, she also enjoys the variety. Keepers at the Safari Park are expected to be jacks-of-all-trades and are constantly transferred to different areas to keep things fresh. “Two years working here is like ten at another place,” Jane said.
After a brief chat, Jane handed me off to keeper Jen Minichino, whom I tagged along with for the first half of the day. Jen has been a keeper for about two years and has loved (almost) every minute. “I love love love my job. I feel so fortunate. We have the best crew in the world.”
Jen and I loaded up the truck with food and drove off into the Park just as the sun was rising and the animals were beginning to stir. I was struck by how certain animals reacted differently to our presence. Some came running up eagerly, others kept their distance, and others were somewhere in between. This is because some are hand raised, some are practically wild, and some are, well, somewhere in between. “Getting to know the animals as individuals is my favorite part of the job,” Jen said.
Jen and I made our rounds counting and feeding the different animals in the Asian Plains exhibit, including a group of pushy greater one-horned rhinos that had a mean hankering for some apples and carrots. Then it was time to transport a Nile lechwe. However, transporting a wild animal isn’t as easy as dropping the kids off at school. It involves a tranquilizer gun, just the right dosage of tranquilizer, two trucks, a trailer, six keepers, and an experienced veterinarian. Considering all of the variables, the procedure went surprisingly well—a testament to the considerable skill and experience of the Safari Park crew.
After lunch I was handed off to Keeper Matt Gelvin, who has been a keeper for seven years. Matt took me under his wing and showed me around all the unseen nooks and crannies of the Park, including a tour of our state-of-the-art animal hospital. Now that I was better acquainted with the Park, it was time to head out and feed some giraffes. Matt surprised me by how well he knew the giraffes’ names, and I asked him how long it took him to memorize their markings to tell them apart. “A long time,” he said, “a long time.”
Feeding the giraffes was hands down my favorite part of the day. They’re just so darned charming! Even when they’re sneaking bits of browse from the bed and cab of our truck, it’s hard not to love ‘em. If you’ve ever been on a Caravan Safari tour then you know what I mean.
At the end of the day I was caked with dirt, covered in rhino and giraffe slobber, smelling of eight different kinds of feces, sunburned and drenched in sweat—but my face hurt from smiling. While a keeper’s job isn’t frolicking through grassy fields with animals all day, it’s pretty close. It’s just that you have to pick up after the animals, care for them when they’re sick or injured, and do everything in your power to nurture them and help them thrive. I’d say that’s a fair trade.
Check out the rest of the pictures from my day as a Safari Park Keeper on flickr.
Matt Steele is the social media planner for the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Fall Members Appreciation Dinners.
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