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It’s Springtime at Whipsnade and all over the zoo attentive parents are caring for their young. But some newborns need a little help from the keepers to see them through their first few weeks. At the penguin enclosure a pair of African Blackfoot penguin chicks has been abandoned their parents, so it falls to bird keeper Jamie Graham to step in as surrogate. For two weeks Jamie coaches the young penguins through his crèche, teaching them to feed and swim on their own, always ensuring they don’t become too used to this human intervention. Their eventual transfer to the main penguin flock proves to be something of a baptism of fire as the new arrivals are roundly beaten up by the penguins that were previously lowest in the hierarchy. As Jamie points out, it’s an important rite of passage: “They’ve got a good layer underneath their skin so it’s not going to hurt them. They’ve got to go through this at some stage so it’s best to get it over with then they can become members of the penguin society up here.”
At the children’s zoo, trainee keeper Jo Shirley has also been drafted in to help some baby boarlets. Their mum had too large a litter, so to ensure the survival of all the newborns, three boarlets – Hettie, Dottie and Gertie - are being hand reared by Jo. It’s been a round the clock job: “I had to take them home at night time and feed them every couple of hours night and day. They were running round my kitchen like absolute lunatics.” Jo’s seen them through their critical first few weeks and now the three boarlets are the star attraction at the children’s petting zoo.
One animal whose parenting skills have never been in question is 26-year-old pygmy hippo Flora. She’s already successfully reared one calf, Sappo, and she’s a great mum to her latest offspring, eight month old Georgina. But over the last few weeks vets at the zoo have become increasingly worried about Flora’s health. She’s been diagnosed with cancer in her mouth which, if it keeps getting worse, could mean she’s not around for long enough to see baby Georgina through to independence. A 12-strong team of vets and nurses operates on the cancer, excising as much of the tumour as possible and injecting chemotherapy drugs into the affected area. Flora recovers well from the procedure and keeper Mark Holden is optimistic she will battle on until baby Georgina can make her own way in the world: “With a bit of luck the treatment we gave last time has worked and we may just be able to nip it in the bud. The biggest fear is that it spreads. I think we just keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best.”
Elsewhere in the zoo keepers are going about their day to day animal husbandry duties – feeding, grooming and looking out for the welfare of the animals. At the elephant section, it’s pedicure time as Emmett the breeding bull drops in for a spot of male grooming with keeper Lee Sambrook. Cutting a fully grown elephants toe nails requires a big tool, namely an angle grinder more usually seen on a building site. The nine African elephants are shampooed and scrubbed with wire brushes every day, and they’re taught a range of over 30 commands which allow the keepers to look after them more effectively. Lee’s been working with elephants for 30 years and couldn’t think of doing anything else: “It really is more of a calling to work with elephants. To come into the barn in the morning and you walk in and it’s warm and there’s that nice smell. They’ll rumble and be happy with the fact that you’re with them. They really do define you as a person.”
Also featured in this episode, there’s a feeding time with a difference at the otter island as three Asian short-clawed males must work out how to get their lunch (chopped up rodents and crabs) from some pots attached to a hanging mobile. In keeper Jo Shirley’s words: “it’s our Blue Peter-esque homemade enrichment device. It keeps them busy and gives them some exercise too.” New vet Fieke must treat everything from a foot ulcer on a three striped box turtle to a baby rhino with diarrhoea. And it’s cleaning time at the hippo pool. “It’s a mucky job,“ declares keeper Mark as he wades waist deep into the dirty water, “but it is quite fun as you can see, pushing a load of poo around.” Elephant keeper Stefan Groeneveld sums up the thoughts of all the keepers: “We’re very lucky because this is more like a hobby than a job - and we get paid for it!”
“It’s not enough just to be passionate about animals and to love them. You’ve actually got to almost look inside their head. Anyone can dominate an animal through a cage but getting an animal to co-operate is extremely rewarding.” - ZSL London Zoo senior keeper Tony Cholerton.
This three-part factual series for ITV give viewers exclusive and compelling behind-the-scenes access to the lives of the animals and staff at ZSL London Zoo. Produced by Wild Pictures, the series offers a privileged and unique insight into the at times emotionally intense stories of keepers and their 20,000 charges at one of the world’s oldest zoos at its base in Regent’s Park and country estate at Whipsnade.
In this third series, the zoo unveils its new £4 million tiger exhibit in London, and the pressure is on for keepers to get its endangered inhabitants, Sumatran tigers Jae Jae and Melati, to mate as well as to settle them in ahead of the Royal opening by the Duke of Edinburgh.
The arrival of a new testosterone-filled male gorilla provides a challenge for mammal keeper Daniel Simmonds, who gave up a well-paid job in the city to work with the animals he loves. Seven-foot silverback Kumbuka has been brought in to breed with the three females at the zoo. A tender relationship between Kumbuka and female Mujuku soon develops.
“It’s a massive privilege to sit and watch a bond like this occurring,” says Dan.
“Hopefully we should have babies.”
At Whipsnade, elephant keeper Stefan Groeneveld has a supreme passion for elephants - he’s dreamed of working with them since he was a boy, and says: “I’m very lucky because this is more like a hobby than actually a job. And we get paid for it!”
Bird keeper Jamie Graham reveals the reality of looking after penguins: “People think they’re cute and cuddly but they can be quite evil and they fight a lot.”
Meanwhile, two cardiologists are brought in to perform ground-breaking surgery on some of the zoo’s most dangerous animals - the chimpanzees. As spring arrives the thoughts of keepers turn to the important business of mating amongst their animals – which is particularly crucial when involving the endangered species kept at the zoo. But sometimes it's no easy task, says mammal keeper Dan, of the gorillas: “Kumbuka's actually a virgin. Until 3 weeks ago he'd never seen a female gorilla, so he's got a lot to learn.”