Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Get Stuck In

'Shovel that ....'
Among the nice things that people say about me in my freelance work is that I'm prepared to roll my sleeves up and get stuck in. They tell me that I can do so whilst maintaining a strategic overview.

That's good to hear, and if you're looking for my professional website you can find it here.

That's www.coracle-comm.co.uk

Sometimes it happens outside of work too. I recently spent some of my poetry prize money on the 'Keeper for a Day' scheme at Chester Zoo. Add it to your bucket-list. I insist.

As Bill Bryson said about Durham, if you've not been, go there now. Take my car keys.

As soon as I arrived at the Indian rhino house and the keeper thrust a shovel into my hand I knew I was in for a good time.

Distracting a mother Black Rhino with a carrot 
Of course, people shake their heads in disbelief when I tell them I paid good money to spend a day shovelling rhino poo. But I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Yes, I did shovel a lot of poo, and sweep up annoying pellets of antelope droppings, but to get up close and personal (as they say) with these magnificent creatures was something else. Benny, the 2.4 ton Indian rhino is a big softee, and probably the biggest creature I've ever been up close to. He is immense. I mean huge ... I always thought of the Indian rhinos being a lot smaller than their African cousins, the black rhino, but they aren't. They are colossal. They are built like tanks, both Benny and his wife and daughter. Imagine my astonishment, then, when a wee slip of a female keeper had Benny lie down and roll over so that they could inspect his feet. I hadn't realised that they could train rhinos but yes, they can. Rhinos are brighter than you might think. I was smitten and can understand why the keepers on that section are so attached to them. They grow on you. They thrive on interaction with humans. Which makes their plight all the more poignant when you think of poaching and the sick trade in rhino horn for quack cures.

Not only did Benny lie down and roll over in exchange for a banana, he also backed up a few paces on request so that when he lay down his head wasn't wedged awkwardly against the wall of his shed. There's clever.

If the Indian rhinos were friendly, the Black Rhinos were flighty and jumpy. One of the female babies butted and charged me. They can pack a punch. By the afternoon, though, most of them had accepted me as they accepted the regular keepers and allowed me to feed them carrots as the keepers weighed and monitored their baby's growth. Rhinos can't see very well, of course, so they snuffle around you to get the measure of you with your snouts.

Feeding the tapirs and capybaras
The tapirs can't see very well either. But they have boxing-gloves for noses and pick up the mixed veg' from the feeding bowl before you have chance to scatter it.

Mongoose (mongeese?), capybaras, various deer and whopping big antelopes - much bigger close up than you'd imagine them to be, warthogs ... it was fascinating to muck them out and feed them.

I came away smitten with the rhinos and full of admiration for the keepers. These people know their stuff. Some of these guys have worked with these creatures for years and know everything there is to know about them. They've seen and experienced things the rest of us wouldn't have the first idea about - hand-rearing rhinos, watching them giving birth, watching them die. The next time you see a zoo keeper shovelling shit, don't think, 'Heck, what a job they've got ...' think 'There's someone living out a vocation, someone skilled, professional and thoroughly committed to the animals in their charge.'

With a hand-reared deer
The conservation work these people do is extraordinary. They deserve our respect.

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