OF THE thousands who head to Drusillas in Alfriston each year, few will probably realise the hard work that goes on behind the scenes.
The idea of looking after animals as a career would appeal to many but after jumping at the chance to become a ‘Keeper for the Day’ it became clear the work is physical and not just a walk in the park.
Clad in wellies, jeans and a fleece, along with several layers, I was told by real zookeeper Claire Bacon about the health and safety aspects of the role and then given my first job. It was to feed the pigs.
As someone who was not brought up having any family pets I was a bit apprehensive about how to handle some of the animals but also looking forward to whether I would successfully complete the challenge I had set myself - holding a snake.
Having fed the pigs I was shown into the freezer - not for the faint-hearted - and shown the different rodents eaten by various animals which have to be prepared by staff.
I was impressed with Claire’s detailed knowledge - but to her it was just second nature.
The Eastbourne resident has been a zookeeper at Drusillas since 1996 and her interest in animals grew when she carried out work experience at a farm.
She then went to Plumpton College and studied a two-year agriculture course.
Of the Drusillas’ job she said, “It’s good when we get a new species in and I like to find out as much as I can about it.
“It’s interesting to see how other people perceive animals.
“I like being active. It’s not always predictable, if an animal is ill you have got to watch and wait with it until the vet comes.”
After meeting the mini Shetland ponies I was taken to see the meerkats and help feed them.
I was told by Claire that despite being tempted to stroke the furry creatures, that I should refrain and move relatively slowly around them so as not to startle them.
It was during this time that I began to understand that it’s not all glam being a zookeeper as I picked up their waste and began cleaning the enclosure’s windows.
But without people like Claire and other members of the team Drusillas would not be able to thrive as it does and introduce new species into its fold.
There is a system in place so it is clear who feeds what animal on each day and to note any changes such as a pregnancy or if an animal is being bullied.
At 11am it was time to feed the penguins as a crowd of spectators looked on.
It was interesting watching how they came for their feed and swooped under the water to catch the fish.
Next up was the challenge of getting to grips with one of the snakes. I was feeling pretty nervous and although being much bigger than Sully the Sinaloon milk snake it was obvious who was more scared about the prospect. The strangest part was feeling him move around and lick my hand.
I’d be lying if I said I was completely comfortable at that point but it was certainly an experience I would try again.
I’m afraid to say anything that crawls is out of the question though and despite wanting to push myself to hold a millipede and a hissing cockroach I couldn’t.
My highlights of the day included holding Sully, managing to stay in the fruit bat enclosure despite being fairly petrified at the time, and watching the behaviour of many of the animals, including the meerkats while they sunbathed.
After finishing my shift at Drusillas I was able to come back to a warm office and take off my wellies.
Settling back into my comfy chair with a cup of tea in my hand I thought about Claire outside in the cold and began to type.
I certainly take my hat off to her and the team.