Recently, I went with my children for the experience of a lifetime – Zookeeper for the Day at Dartmoor Zoological Park in Devon. Technically, the experience was theirs (and they certainly did most of the hard work!) but as they needed a guardian to accompany them, lots of the fun brushed off on me, too.
Dartmoor Zoo (DZP) is the famous setting of the book We Bought a Zoo by Benjamin Mee. This is the true and fascinating story of a family who moves to a zoo and endeavours to get the place back on its feet. It was fictionalised in a film starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, and there are giant film posters in Dartmoor Zoo’s Jaguar Restaurant.
Here are a few of the highlights of our day at the zoo – and this doesn’t even cover half of it!
- Cleaning out coati enclosure, then going into the enclosure with the coatis and hand-feeding grapes to them.
- Feeding two gorgeous reindeer, one of whom was called Comet. He could well be in training for December duties…
- Designing enrichment activities for meerkats. This was brilliant! The kids selected various cardboard boxes from a fun-packed enrichment room, then filled them with straw and wriggly meerkat food, to give the meerkats something to work at.
- Cleaning out and feeding pygmy goats, who were extremely lively.
- Feeding sibling vervet monkeys, who were even livelier, if that’s possible! The challenge here was to make sure that one monkey didn’t hog the sweetcorn. This involved some careful Mission Impossible-type planning… which didn’t quite work out. But it was certainly fun!
- Throwing fish to some noisy otters during the otter talk.
- Polishing tortoise shells!
- Holding a rare gecko, who rewarded my daughter by weeing on her hand – but was so cute that it was instantly forgiven. Also holding a sugar glider and a corn snake…
- Using perfume and hidden banana chunks to enrich the afternoons of a pair of gorgeous raccoon dogs.
- Taking a good look at a tarantula named Cruella… but not too close up!
- Watching tigers being fed – scarily, awe-inspiringly close-up!
- Greeting the new jaguar.
By the end of the day, we’d all learnt how rewarding (and exhausting) the work of a zookeeper is. The whole experience was absolutely amazing, and if anyone ever gets a chance to visit the zoo, we totally recommend it!