MY WORKING LIFE
Jaguars are Rachael Bodenham’s first love. But this zookeeper would like to be a sun bear in her next life.
You look after jaguars, tigers, Scottish wildcats – which of the enclosures would you least like to fall into? The jaguar enclosure. To be fair, if you fell in you’d probably die straight away, whereas if you fell into the tigers’ you may get played with a bit first, so it depends if you want a quick death or not. The tigers would probably break a leg, rip off your arm and then possibly kill you.
They wouldn’t cut you any slack given that you’re their beloved keeper? Definitely not. In a way, they’d probably go for me more because I’m the one that withholds the food.
How did you get into this? I did a degree on animal behaviour and had the option to do a sandwich year, which meant I came to Chester Zoo for 12 months on the rhino section. I loved it. I finished my degree and did another six months’ unpaid work and I basically didn’t leave until they gave me a job!
Why didn’t you choose something safe and cuddly to work with? Initially, I worked with the rhinos and then the giraffes, and as I have quite a horsey background I thought I would end up as a hoofstock keeper. But I had the chance to do six months on the carnivore section and fell in love with the animals. They are so intelligent and we spend lots of time trying to stimulate them and give them challenging
things to do. Seeing them interact with the things that you’ve put time and effort into is really rewarding. You don’t really get that with the hoofstock.
Which is your favourite of the carnivores? The jaguars. I’ve been working most closely with them for the past five years and they’re intelligent, very good to interact with and they have a lot of character.
If you had to take one of your carnivores home for the night because there had been some sort of zoo catastrophe, which would you choose? Well, they’re all going to harm you, but our bush dogs are not going to kill you and they’re so much fun.
Which would you like to come back as? I think our sun bears because they’re constantly being challenged with new and exciting things and they probably get the most attention. They need so much stimulation that we’re there six, seven times a day giving them things to do.
And which of your animals is the most scheming? Our female jaguar. She’s black and sometimes difficult to find; she’s an absolute ninja. We have to get eyes on her twice a day to check that she’s OK and also that she’s still in the enclosure – and sometimes it can be really, really hard to find her. You know that she can see you, but can you find her?
You don’t really think she can get out, do you? After 10 or 15 minutes of searching you do start to think, ‘Is she really in there?’ We know that she is, though. You could keep a T-Rex in there and it wouldn’t get out.
Is an unfortunate part of being the carnivore keeper the extra-smelly poo? Ha-ha! The giant otters are the worst. They have a fish-based diet, so not only is it very fishy smelling but they smush it into the substrate and it’s absolutely foul.
What’s a typical day for you? I would be given a few different animals to care for, so maybe I’d have the sun bears and the jaguars and the first thing I’d do is go and check their enclosures. I’d make sure the electric fences are all working correctly, then I’d find the animals and make sure they look fit and healthy. Next, I’d bring the animals into their den, clean their enclosure, put lots of food out and hide it, then give them access to their enclosure and maybe clean their dens.
What do you do later in the day? If we have spare time we do things like paddock maintenance and building new areas in the enclosure. If there’s even more time I might do some extra training, like trying to get them to show me their teeth or their paws.
How do you do that? I’ve spent a good few years training the jaguars, for example, so that they’ll open their mouths and show me their paws. You get them to touch a target initially and get them to associate that by touching the target they’re doing the right thing and they get a chunk of meat. It takes a long time!
How often do you see a member of the public doing something stupid at the zoo? Pretty much every day. The main thing is climbing over stand-off barriers – I caught a couple of kids climbing over the lions’ stand-off the other day and I couldn’t believe it. It can leave you a bit speechless.
If the zoo was so full that you had to get rid of one animal, what would you choose? Probably the anteaters because they’re really fussy with their food and it can be a really big pain trying to get them to eat. But they are very important and people do love them.
Rachael says she’d like to come back as a sun bear