An alarm clock? I have gibbons and peacocks: In bed with Gerald Asher

Susan de Muth
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:33

Gerald Asher, 38, is head keeper of the hoofed animals at London Zoo, where he has worked for the past 20 years.

WHEN the last bell goes and the visitors leave, a lot of the animals come out from under cover and start being more active. The wolves howl and there is an atmosphere of relaxation, even celebration.

We take the camels and lamas for a walk before we settle the animals down for the night. Most keepers do have their particular favourites, though we shouldn't really, and they will get a little extra attention. I believe one keeper kisses his rhinos goodnight but I would never risk that with my giraffes - they have 13-inch tongues]

My own favourite is a lowland anoa - the smallest of the cattle family - called Louise. I hand-reared her, feeding her day and night every three hours for six weeks. You can become attatched to any animal - one keeper was crying this morning because Belinda, one of his spiders, had died in the night. It takes time to form these bonds, and even when we have a day off most of us phone in to check on our animals.

I live in the zoo, sharing a lodge with five other keepers, and before I go to bed I usually have a wander around. As dusk falls we get a lot of local wildlife coming in. Herons nest on the Elephant House roof, hedgehogs, badgers and foxes scurry around. They're not afraid, they feel they're in a secure area - we saw some fox cubs playing on the north bank of the canal the other day.

Sometimes I come across members of the public who've hidden at closing time and are strolling round. Once I found a little group sitting on the lawns enjoying a picnic - they seemed quite amazed to see me] I escort them to the gates and they leave quietly enough. The real problems are with intruders who are trying to steal animals in the night - we've had alarms installed all round the zoo.

I'm always very tired by the end of the day and am usually in bed by 9pm. My room is quite plain except I've got an 8ft model giraffe at one end - I just can't keep away from them] I read for a while - usually natural history but I do have a soft spot for wars. I never have any trouble going off to sleep except when I'm on duty two nights a week and know that I might be woken any minute.

Then I'll usually be called out of bed quite a few times to check temperatures in the aquariums, attend to the sick and injured and calm the animals down if there's been an intruder. The chimps react very noisily to being disturbed - they throw fits of anger and start banging about, chucking their toys around and doing drop-kicks on to the windows.

The elephants are particularly nervous, and when they start panicking and trumpeting they're very dangerous. Fortunately their head keeper lives in. He's the only one who can settle them because he's fought his way up through their hierachy and is treated as their leader - they'd trample anyone else to death.

We get quite a few escapes at night, too. We've had to retrieve pelicans found waddling down to King's Cross and once some capybara got out. We netted one after a long chase through the zoo, but another had found its way into the canal. We had to comandeer a passing barge to catch it.

Since I left school the zoo has been my life, and I suppose that's why I'm still single. My social life is mainly with the other keepers. We've got a club on the site - and we always talk about work. When I thought the zoo was going to be closed down I got insomnia, worrying about what would become of the animals. The only zoo-free time I have is when I'm asleep - I'm too tired to have dreams.

Between 5.30 and 6am the gibbons will start their shrieking, closely followed by the peacocks and cranes. I definitely don't need an alarm clock. I always feel tired and miserable when I get up, but as soon as I get stuck in and start giving my animals their breakfasts I invariably feel quite bright and cheerful again.

(Photograph omitted)

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