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Lory Park Zoo

Working in a Zoo

Frances Bell studied wildlife management with ACS DIstance Education. Learn more about her experiences working in a zoo.

What do students do after a Wildlife Course?


The following text is an extract from a newsletter written by:

Frances Bell
Wildlife Student
ACS Distance Education

Please note any opinions expressed in the document are solely those of the author and are therefore independent from ACS Distance Education, its employees or affiliates.


“Working at Lory Park has definitely been a different experience from Boskoppie.  I’ve worked mainly with the birds here, though my section also includes primates and reptiles.  After a 3 week stint flying under the radar, I was dropped into the hot seat as Section Head of Birds, Primates and Reptiles – despite telling the absolute truth about having no experience with zoos, birds of prey or breeding programmes.   All this, when all I expected was to be feeding and mucking out animal enclosures!

My accommodation here has been in an old farm house, lots of room to spread out but there are quirks – like the handle on the toilet that sticks, the floors that seem to move like tectonic plates, the dodgy curtain rail that falls out at the least expected moments, and the general “ice-box” feel of the place no matter how high the outside temperature.   Transport was non-existent for the first couple of months until I was able to get my international drivers license through – what a long drawn-out affair that was!  I now have use of the work bakkie when I’m working, but am still as stuck as ever on my off days.   Until a couple of months ago I had the house to myself, but in July I was told I was getting a housemate – yes, told, not asked.  Fortunately, we get on reasonably well and the whole experience hasn’t been too bad.   The landlord’s dogs, South African mastiffs called Boerboels, have taken a shine to me which has been jaw-dropping for the landlord’s wife…. On the rare occasions when I’ve been outside and seen the dogs, all 3 came trotting up to say hello.  The female, Aster walks alongside me so closely that I can’t actually go anywhere, and the males Rollo and Otto are almost as bad. 

So due to the lack of an afterhours vehicle, I’ve been nowhere and done virtually nothing until the last couple of weeks.  I’ve made friends with a couple of the volunteers who come in to work with the parrots once a week, and one of them has taken me away from here on a couple of occasions recently.  I went to a Spring Party where I met a lot of lovely people who showed me what true South African hospitality is all about.  I’ve also been to Montecasino which yes, is a casino, but they have an awesome little bird park there as well.  Last weekend I went up to Hartbeespoort Dam with my housemate.  We visited Bushbabies Monkey Sanctuary and I was mightily impressed with the work they do there.  They take in monkeys who mostly come from the pet trade, rehabilitate them and then, since release to the wild is not feasible, release them into a 7 hectare sanctuary to become un-habituated to people and form their own family groups.  Conditions for them are excellent and I love the fact that even though they’re out in the open, they still have plenty of enrichment.  We had a one hour walking tour and the highlight of that was the little Capuchin named Apie who is still undoing all his emotional ties with people – he decided that I was “it” and spent most of the tour cadging a lift, either on my head or snuggled into my fleece.


Other than that the social life is non-existent.  Seems I rather foolishly assumed that once I was home I would have time to do my own thing.  No such luck.  Until very recently I spent at least one full day of my days off catching up on paperwork that I haven’t had time to do at the zoo.


One of the annoying things when I first arrived was the length of time it took to get an internet connection.  The lodge where I’m staying has a connection but it doesn’t reach down to my end of the compound.  Long story short, after a very frustrating 3 weeks I was able to get a dongle and don’t need to rely on anyone else for internet and email access.  The good thing is that it will go with me so I shouldn’t run into that problem again.  I also got a DSTV account (SA equivalent of Foxtel) so can veg out in front of the telly late at night.


There has been a lamentable lack of hands on at the zoo and I’m craving more interaction with animals.  My first hand-rearing job was to raise a couple of baby barn owls – my first owls, very cute little babies who I named Darth and Vader on account of the hissing noise they made whenever anyone went near.  They’ve long since gone to a local vet who gives them a nice big aviary and prepares them for release.


In my first week at the zoo I was also introduced – well, dropped in it, really – to the Southern Ground Hornbill recovery program.   LP has two Southern Ground Hornbills which are part of a national breeding programme.  We’re also supposed to get harvested chicks from Kruger to hand-raise, but since I’m now leaving someone else will be doing that.


Have had my share of lorikeet babies but only one has survived.  He’s out in the “off-exhibit” section now, but he still recognises me and I go and give him a bit of a pat when I can.  It was very hard to let him go out into the big outdoors when he used to sit on shoulder and whisper sweet nothings in my ear – and nibble it as well, as often as not. 


All the training I was told I was going to get – on ZIMS, the zoo information management system; on hand-rearing; on doing faecal samples, on handling raptors; and on keeping studbooks - has failed to materialise so I’m a bit disillusioned about that.  I’ve also tried to do a bit of rehab but I’m hamstrung in that department – the zoo has no dedicated facilities for wildlife so I can’t put them into properly heated environments, I also don’t have proper hand-rearing food for anything other than parrots and lorikeets, and I get shouted at if I spend too long fussing after animals.  Just one of the disappointments of being here and one of the contributing factors to my going.


I’ve done my share of treatments on sick birds whilst I’ve been here.  We had some lorikeets die and I had to give antibiotic injections to the remaining birds – roughly 100 injections in 3 days so I think I could say I’m on the way to mastering that skill.  I’ve also done my share of subcuts with birds that come in way too weak to try to hydrate any other way.  Have also been up to Jo’burg with a few sick animals and the vet there has kindly allowed me to sit in on all the consults, with the result that I’ve learned about dealing with different conditions in birds and reptiles.  I also attended a Vet Day held at Jo’burg zoo in July, with lectures on anaesthesia and fluid replacement.  I know – sounds very dry and boring but I enjoyed it – in the light of me wanting to go on and do my vet nursing qualification when I leave SA it was very valuable.


I had to medicate a sick White-backed Vulture as well which was kind of cool!  He got so used to me that I was able to hand feed him, even when he was back in his enclosure with his mate.  That all stopped some time ago now and with it being breeding season, I’m not game to go into the enclosures unless I absolutely have to.    Besides that we’ve had the odd tortoise with rhinitis or with fungal shell infections; one of our ruffed black and white lemurs also had an eye injury so that meant 5 days of putting drops into his eye twice a day – he was really thrilled about that.  Also had all our birds dewormed in May so spent the whole day catching up birds and recording what medication they had.  Got to see what it’s like inside a living bird as well – our southern ground hornbills had to be scoped so we could see whether they’re going to be suitable as breeding birds and it was quite fascinating to see the testes in the male - as well as all the black carbon deposits right through the birds’ tissues from all the pollution around Jo’burg.


I set myself the task of hand-feeding our Bald Eagle with the aim of getting her into a footbath.  It’s only recently that she reliably takes the fish when I offer it to her, so the footbath part hasn’t happened yet.   I’ve also had the job of training two Spotted Eagle Owls which we use in our education programme.  They were already part-trained before I got there but needed someone who was really interested in doing anything with them.  They took to me pretty much straight away and I’ve got them flying really well.  Next step is to get the more reliable of them, Spot, to free fly outside.


We have an adorable little ground squirrel called Cyril who is a fairly recent addition.  He used to be someone’s pet so I try to spend a few minutes with him every day, just generally hanging out and giving him a tummy tickle.  He’s very sweet, especially when I get the right spot and he just goes limp on my hand with a blissful expression on his little face.


Of my reptiles, the scariest is not Ruby the red-tailed boa, nor the huge albino Burmese python we’ve only just acquired – it’s Pepe, the green iguana!  He was sick earlier in the winter and I had to orally medicate him – hmm, try getting a syringe into an iguana’s mouth while trying to manage teeth, claws and powerful tail, wearing a very unwieldy shoulder length glove AND do it left-handed to boot….  I also have to weigh all the reptiles on a weekly basis.  That can be quite time consuming, not least because the big scales have to be lugged more than halfway across the zoo to weigh the leopard tortoises – our largest weighs around 22 kilos.


Have had my share of injuries while I’ve been here – anyone who thinks working with big cats is risky ought to try working with birds!  I’ve been attacked a couple of times by spotted eagle owls and white-faced owls.  I’ve learned that their talons are nasty affairs and that when you get a head wound, it bleeds spectacularly even if the wounds are not that deep!  Was also attacked by a jackal buzzard last week – oh joy, as if I didn’t already have enough holes in my head!  I’ve been bitten by parrots of all descriptions, had a foot in the eye from our Schalow’s turaco, and been scratched by the white-throated monitors and Pepe.  Oh, and Skyrus the White-backed vulture has had a nip at me as well.  I’m going to need tattoos to cover up all these scars.


It didn’t take long for some of the birds to become attached to me – within a week or so Pooh, one of the Umbrella Cockatoos, who is a complete ratbag with everyone else, took a shine to me.  While he races across the floor to get to others so he can bite, he races across the floor to get to me so he can climb up my leg and we can have a cuddle.  Cuddles not been happening so much lately – apparently spending time with the parrots is not what I’m supposed to be doing as part of my job, which makes me sad.  I’ve had my share of bites from him as well, but there’s always a reason  - sometimes it’s because I’m in a hurry which he hates, and sometimes it’s because there are other birds or people around and he gets jealous.  And birds, when they’re jealous, bite whoever’s closest which was – yep, me!  Not sure what Pooh’s history is but he has a prolapsed cloaca so I have to make sure he doesn’t get over-excited and pop it out.


Aside from Pooh, little Freddie has become very attached and thinks I’m his girlfriend.  Freddie is a gorgeous African Grey and he loves to sit on my hand and regurgitate all over my fingers – a sign of true birdie love!!  He also talks softly to me and sometimes gives me little kisses.  Then there’s Chilli who’s a female eclectus, she’s a sweet little thing and once she’s on you she just doesn’t want to get off.  She’ll also give kisses.  There are two blue and gold macaws – a young male named Pepper who is very cheeky and is still seeing what he can get away with.  Most of the time he’s good with me now and loves to have a head scratch.  The other macaw, Zazu, is a female and she was the first bird to bond with me.  Most of the time she’ll let me scratch her head as well and if she’s really smoochy she’ll sit on my arm and nuzzle her head against me.  Macaws blush when they like you (also when they’re feeling aggressive), so cool that both Pepper and Zazu blush when they see me and it’s not based on wanting to bite!  It’s breeding season now so quite a few of the birds get jealous, and I can’t go near the outdoor aviary without half a dozen of them trying to get to me and fighting with each other along the way.


We have a little Ducorps cockatoo, Frasier, who took a long time to get used to me - however, I started playing peek-a-bird with him and that seems to have worked a treat.  He comes running now when he sees me and is always up for a scratch.  There are two other Umbrella cockatoos - both males, one called Gabby who took a while to warm up to me but is now good, and the other one is Basil.


Basil is very young (5 years old) and very cheeky, and it’s also taken him a while to decide that I’m OK.  He’ll step up onto my hand now but I have to be wary with him cos he’s just as likely to try to bite – however I’ve been trying to teach him to shake hands and that seems to have helped.  He’ll even give me little kisses – I make sure I do that through the bars of his cage though cos I’m not altogether sure I’d trust him if he had full access to my face!  We have to make sure Basil is locked away from people on busy weekends – he was tormented by children in his former home and hates them with a passion!  He’ll sometimes sing Happy Birthday – he doesn’t always get all the way through it but it’s very cute to hear.  Then there are Rex and Sam – both Moluccan cockatoos, bothmale and both totally different.  Rex is a real people bird and he’ll have a head scratch from anyone.  He also tries very hard to get some of Sam’s porridge in the mornings by saying “hello” in the sweetest voice he can muster – I’ve been trying to teach him to say “may I please have some breakfast” by way of a change, but I don’t know if he’ll latch on before I leave.   We usually take Rex as a contact animal if we have schools in, because he’s the most relaxed and reliable around people.   Sam has a sad history, he landed on the side of a leopard cage in the distant past and had one leg ripped off by way of a hello… must have been awful, but he manages remarkably well for what the comedian Peter Cook once referred to as a “unidexter”.  The only thing we have to watch out for is that he doesn’t get pressure sores on his foot so it’s a case of constant monitoring, and sometimes I bandage his foot to give him a bit more padding.  He likes to swing upside down on a rope and I’m sure it must feel nice to have that foot in a different position sometimes.  Sam also has kidney disease so he’s on a restricted diet.  It’s a constant battle to keep his weight up as well but despite these problems, most of the time he’s quite a happy bird.  


The rest of the birds have not got quite so close to me – there’s another African Grey, a female called Harriet; two Indian ringnecks, a male and female named Bluey and Lucky.  Bluey will sit on my shoulder and I’ve managed to teach him to whistle “how much is that doggy in the window” (my standard – my spies tell me the African Grey’s at the funny farm still whistle that one!) but Lucky gets really snappy with me, especially if she thinks I’m invading her space in her cage.    Then there are Mango and Peach, male and female Jenday conures.  These two are terrorists and sometimes work in tandem to get up on your shoulders and bite.  Mango always wants to be where I am when I go near the aviary but it’s not for a cuddle – he wants to bite!  At least I can get these two to step up when it’s time to go in or out though – unlike Zulu and Oliver, our two blue-fronted Amazon males.  They do an awesome double act and I wish I could record Zulu’s call to use as a ring tone.  They also always want to bite – I’m not sure what that’s about, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that being bitten by an Amazon is not something you want to repeat if you can possibly help it.   They’ll sometimes get off their perch to come for me across the aviary and though I usually try to stand my ground with them, there have been times when I’ve decided enough’s enough, and they end up getting back to their night-room by chasing me all the way there!


Sorry, I rave, but I do love my parrots…. All but two of them have come from homes where the people have either moved overseas, or not been able to look after them for one reason or another.   Poor little Frasier has had about 5 different homes, I think he was the one who bonded so strongly with his female