Keepers and vets at London and Whipsnade zoos are doing all they can to encourage their animals to breed and it’s often a complicated business.
At Gorilla Kingdom it involves shipping in a new male silverback, Kumbuka. The boisterous and powerful 15-year-old is brought in to mate with the experienced women in the existing gorilla group - Effe, Zaire and Mujuku. But he’s never seen a female before: “Kumbuka’s actually a virgin,” says gorilla keeper Dan Simmonds, “so he’s got a lot to learn.” His reputation for throwing and breaking things proves well-founded as he starts wreaking havoc upon arrival, causing untold damage in the state-of-the-art night quarters and trying to destroy the wooden structures on the island.
Within weeks, though, a love story unfolds between him and flirty female Mujuku. “It’s a privilege to watch a bond like this occurring in real time,” says Dan. Eventually their courtship leads to a mating, much to the delight of the primate keepers. Dan explains: “Nothing will beat the addition of a baby to a human family. It’s exactly the same with gorillas. It changes the gorillas’ lives.”
Elsewhere on the primate section keeper Andrea Payne takes her favourite white naped mangabey monkey for a health check before the arrival of some new potential mates for him. “I’ve seen - this is going to make me sound mad - nearly every mangabey monkey in Europe in captivity and Lucky is the most handsome.” He’s genetically rare and the group’s only breeding male but is soon given the all-clear.
The introductions are a nerve-wracking time for Andrea who must be on standby in case she has to intervene because injuries during matings are commonplace – from bite wounds to broken tails. But things go well. “He’s shown some really good positive signs – some lip smacking – which is a happy greeting,” says Andrea, and the females are enthusiastic too: “They’ve shown some good signs of presenting their bottoms which, in the monkey world, is a nice thing to do, believe it or not.”
There are dramatic scenes at the reptile house when keeper Iri Gill attempts to breed the rare and beautiful Boelen’s pythons whose dangerous courtship rituals involve a potentially deadly fight between two males to win the affections of the female. The males combat; writhing, coiling around each other and trying to push their opponent’s head down to assert their dominance, but when the fight takes to the water Iri must watch carefully that the animals don’t drown. Once a victor is established he must quickly remove the loser from danger.
Iri’s worked at the reptile house for two years but has had a lifelong passion for snakes: “They’re persecuted quite a lot in India where my parents are from and I’ve always been fascinated by why they’ve been persecuted, and why the fear was there. There are a few species that do cause human fatalities but generally it’s a lack of education. And I feel the need to enlighten people to the snake world, I guess.”
There are tense moments at bugs as they take delivery of five incredibly rare Vietnamese snails from a species on the brink of extinction. It’s a huge responsibility, particularly as almost nothing is known about how to care for them.
As summer arrives the keepers’ efforts to encourage their animals to produce offspring begin to pay off. Mammal keeper Andrea arrives one Sunday morning and is delighted to find a new Colobus monkey baby: “When you’re working with a species where there’s only one or two hundred left the zoo is like their ark so having babies is what it’s all about.”
And for Gertrude the Malayan tapir, it’s been a long wait. She’s been carrying her calf for nearly 13 months, all under the watchful eye of keeper Ash Coop. Finally a remarkable-looking baby arrives. “They say you don’t get attached to animals but how can you not get attached to something as cute as that?” says Ash.
Also in this episode, a Colombian cotton top tamarin monkey gets a full health check-up but she’s so small it presents a challenge for the vets – their heartbeat is so rapid it’s off the scale. The lion keepers attempt to entice the pride on to scales to be weighed as a precaution against health problems. There’s good news at the aquarium where keeper Roland welcomes some new English Seahorse babies. A kitchen bin comes in handy when Raja, one of the komodo dragons, needs an X Ray after fracturing his tail during a sexual encounter and keepers decide to let the zebras in with the giraffes, but it’s a heady mix.
For Andrea it’s definitely a life she wouldn’t swap: “People probably think we have a weird job and the things we do would probably disgust people – like collecting poo into pots and rubbing cream where no-one else would probably like to rub cream. But we think it’s normal. We think everyone else is weird."
“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.”