London Zoo: Did we leave anyone in the tiger's den?

London Zoo is raising money with a new scheme allowing members of the public to care for wild beasts, as keepers for a day. But it's not easy to keep on the right side of a penguin or a big cat, finds Peter Conchie

One day last week I arrived home with straw in my hair and a vivid bruise on my calf where I'd been pecked by a penguin. But most alarmingly, I smelt of tigers. I'd just spent the day at London Zoo, where five of us had taken part in a dry run for the forthcoming Keeper For a Day scheme. Our guide, mentor and protector was the enthusiastic and energetically Amazonian Jane Harvey, one of London Zoo's senior keepers.

Our first stop was the giraffe enclosure where Dawn and Crackers seemed pleased to see us. Our duties came at either end of the digestive process and involved sweeping the giraffes' enclosure and feeding them breakfast. Only close up do you appreciate quite what extraordinary creatures giraffes are. Their tongues are deep, dark blue, to protect them from sunburn, and their coats are a beautiful yellow and brown patchwork of squares and hexagons. Most peculiar of all, given their size, their droppings are relatively tiny, the size of shrivelled damsons. As we swept, it felt odd to be on public display. Two toddlers careered up to the wall and peered over. "Hello big bum!" one shouted. I exchanged a sympathetic look with Crackers. Brian, the giraffe's keeper, smiled and shook his head. He was born up the road in Kentish Town and has worked at the zoo for 39 years. As one might expect, he recognises shoddy work when he sees it and when we announced that we had finished, he sent us back to do it properly.

The penguins were the next species to benefit from my benevolent incompetence. They were previously resident in Berthold Lubetkin's Grade I-listed pool, a blue and white 1930s Modernist construction celebrated by architects for its two spiralling intertwined ramps. Unfortunately, this innovative use of materials was lost on the penguins, who struggled in Lubetkin's egg-shaped landscape. They much prefer their current home, which more closely resembles a natural habitat. Our job was to scrub green and white poo from the edge of the pool. We were warned to stick together; if a penguin should misbehave, Jane told us, the sort of firm "no!" one might direct at a toddler would do the trick.

Resting on my scrubbing brush in the warm spring sunshine, I wiped my brow. As I caught my breath, a sharp pain shot up my leg. "Excuse me, Flash. No!" Jane called out as I hopped around with a penguin attached.

Over a hearty lunch in the staff canteen, we talked about childhood pets and Jane swapped tips with Katrina Boardman, the Australian keeper who runs Keeper For a Day at Whipsnade. Both projects are run by the Zoological Society of London, founded in 1826 and now a charity, and it could raise up to £75,000 a year via 525 places. This money will fund the zoos at London and Whipsnade as well as scientific conservation and research programmes in 30 countries.

Now that we had relaxed it was time for a shock. Like Clarice Starling on her way to see Dr Hannibal Lecter, a grey-haired Irish keeper called Matt led us into the home of Raika and Lumpur, a pair of tigers. Matt clanged heavy metal doors, checking, double-checking and checking once again that the barrier between man and feline was secure. Even so, a yellow line on the floor advised you not to cross lest you come within range of a swiping paw. As a metal door slammed, Raika and Lumpur strode in. And they didn't look happy to see us. Hearing a tiger roar close up is unnerving. It is a deep, vibrating and profoundly frightening rattle that echoes off the walls. The tigers' smell is a strong and musty scent somewhere between wet straw and ripe meat, while its eyes have a look of violent, almost psychopathic indifference.

Matt talked about the risk of extinction as he ran horse meat with the hair still attached up a pole to feed them. Of the 650 species at London Zoo, 112 are listed as threatened and it participates in breeding programmes for 130 species. In the background was the unfamiliar but unmistakable sound of crunching bone as a 170kg tiger feasted on a slab of horse.

"Have we got everyone?" Matt deadpanned as we stepped out into the fresh air. As if we had thought for a split second about staying behind.

Keeper For a Day is run by the Zoological Society of London and costs £150 for an introductory session or £225 for a full day at London Zoo or at Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire. It is open to over 16s (keeper foraday.co.uk; zsl.org).

Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games...
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Singer songwriter Bob Dylan performs on stage
films
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luton – £25k

    25,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luto...

    Investigo: Group Financial Controller

    £50000 - £55000 per annum: Investigo: A growing group of top end restaurants l...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Excellent opportunities are available for par...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital