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Trainee keeper blog: Becoming an early bird

23/02/2016 in Highland Wildlife Park

Mornings… they are not necessarily everyone’s favourite time of day. However, I think most animal keepers would argue that they are the best, even if it does take a couple of coffees to get us there!

The first job on the agenda for any keeper is to check that all of their animals are healthy and accounted for. On my section, the hoofed stock, the challenge lies within the main reserve, which holds large herds of deer and bison that all need to counted. In the winter – during the dark mornings – this can be particularly difficult, not to mention the additional challenge of finding them all across a complex, 25 hectare area. To aid us in our endeavour, we take their feed with us. The animals are all very clued-in to their feeding regime and so the majority of the time they are already there waiting for us at the entrance to the reserve. This can make opening the gate particularly interesting if there’s an 800 kg bison bull stood in the way.

Then comes the next hurdle of ensuring the European bison, the red deer and the Przewalski’s horses are fed separately. This involves some sneaky behaviour on our part. The nine horses are greedy opportunists. Due to their already voluptuous appearance, we avoid feeding them as they get all they need from the reserve itself, as well as additional hay, straw and browse. So first of all, one of us will usually lead the horses into a separate paddock, bribing them with a little carrot or turnip, whilst checking them over. This distracts them for long enough to allow us to feed the others. Luckily, they don’t appear to have figured-out that carrot and turnip isn’t as filling as the pellet and are usually waiting in position every morning, making life a lot easier for us.

The bison are fairly straightforward as they rule the roost on the reserve, or at least the bull does. We pour their pellet out in a long line at the side of the road, so that all 21 of them can spread out comfortably. Usually the deer catch up with us much faster and will try to get a few hasty mouthfuls before they are chased off as the bison herd arrives. My favourite days are the ones where the bison are overly enthusiastic and they buck, skip and sprint across the reserve. It’s amazing to see. Their tails stick up in the air and they kick their legs out in all directions. It’s comparable to an extremely large dog having a mad half hour.

Once the bison are settled, counted and we can see they are in good condition, we rush off and try and feed the deer further around the reserve so that they are out of sight of the bison. The deer are wise to this and follow us willingly. Once their feed is spread out, the deer start rushing to take as much pellet as possible whilst we count them all.

Most days we will get it right and the deer will be able to consume all of their assigned pellet, but some days a naughty bison will watch where we scatter the deer food and abandon their post. They will charge down after us, knowing full well they can push the more delicate deer from the pellet, and claim the entire bag of feed for themselves, whilst the rest of their herd tussle over what remains of their allocation. More often than not, other bison will inevitably follow, until the deer simply abandon their feeding station and admit defeat.

I would like to point out that the pellet is a supplementary diet, particularly in the case of the deer. If an individual does not get any that day, they are still provided with plenty of hay, straw, browse and grazing throughout the reserve to sustain them. However, to put it into context, it’d be like someone bringing a tray of bacon butties into the office, even though you already had cereal for breakfast, and they all go before you get chance to grab one. Pretty heart-breaking!

Once everyone has been accounted for, which sometimes involves the binoculars when red deer calves are nestled down behind a rock somewhere, we still have to count and feed everybody else. This involves being chased by four elk through their enclosure, crowded by a confident Bukhara deer who likes to stick her head into the bucket, hand feeding some slobbery camels, being jumped on by excitable markhor and trying desperately to separate the bossy Mishmi takin from the subordinate ones, so that everybody gets something… to name but a few.

Mornings are definitely my favourite time of day, because it’s when our job is most interactive with the animals. There’s no better way to start the day than having reindeer running alongside you as you walk to their food trough, or watching the musk ox amble over to greet you when you arrive at their paddock (albeit in the male’s case a little angrily). They make you feel like the most important person in the world, which is how we all want to feel when we wake up in the morning. As keepers, we are all very aware it’s only cupboard love, but I conveniently choose to forget that part.

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