Jaguars are Rachael Bo­den­ham’s first love. But this zookeeper would like to be a sun bear in her next life.

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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

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