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Bizarre birthday gift leaves reporter in the lion's den

Things get messy in the lion enclosure as South Wales Evening Post reporter Ben Wright tries his hand at being a zookeeper.

Since becoming a journalist, there have been plenty of times when it has felt like I’ve been thrown to the lions.

In my so far short — but eventful — career there have been tough court cases to cover, tight deadlines to meet, and then there was the time I was booted out of the office to become a bingo caller.

But never did I think, one day, I would be literally thrown in the king of the jungle’s enclosure.

Thanks to the bizarre surprise birthday present from a family member, and my stupid big fat mouth in front of my boss, my next assignment was being a keeper in the carnivore section at Chester Zoo.

Love or hate zoos, you can’t argue about the number of animals they look after which are facing extinction.

Two of Chester Zoo’s biggest crowd pullers have a bleak future.

There are around 300 Asiatic lions and 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild.

The first thing that strikes you when you come face to face — albeit through their enclosure — is that they are much bigger and louder than they appear on the TV.

Any sense of cuteness went straight out the window after I had tossed them a weighty hunk of beef.

In what seemed less than a minute, they had devoured an entire cow’s leg and were looking in my direction for dessert.

And my first task as a zookeeper was to pick up their mess. Great.

Having had guinea pigs as a child I knew all about cleaning up after an animal.

However, I don’t think my nasal passages had ever encountered such a terrible stench as tiger poo.

The zoo’s three tigers were locked away safely in their den while I scoured their enclosure for droppings.

But I still kept looking over my shoulder like a paranoid gazelle every few seconds to make sure Kepala and co hadn’t sneaked out for a hack-burger.

But thanks to the skills and infectious humour of zookeeper Chris Lavender, I was made to feel much more at ease.

“There’s a lot of people interested in being keeper for the day,” he said.

“We have had to put an age limit on it though, as we had a lot of teenagers coming for the day who were shocked when we asked them to do a bit of work, like chopping up carrots for the marmots or sweeping up in the goats’ enclosure.

“We also had to be very careful of the bunny huggers too.”

“The what?” I asked

“Oh, they are the types who want to hug and touch everything.

“That’s okay with animals like the goats, but stroking a lion, even through its cage, isn’t an option.”

After seeing the damage their claws had done to one of their heavy buoy-like toys, I was going to keep my hands in my pockets when I encountered them through the steel cage in their den.

And after having been both terrified and deafened in one fell swoop by the beasts’ roars, I was a bit more at ease when 10am came and I was in the safety of the staff restaurant.

This gave me the ideal opportunity to quiz the zookeepers on what it was like working there.

At first I was taken aback by how nonplussed the staff seemed about working with an array of amazing creatures great and small.

But on closer inspection, what appeared like hard-heartedness was actually a professional attitude.

“You have to try not to get too attached to the animals,” said one.

“It can be hard, but you’ve got to make sure that they are kept well fed and that they are happy and healthy.”

So, one cup of coffee and a welcoming chat with my co-workers later and I was ready to feed the otters.

I was primed for the task, but it would mean I would have to put my squeamish nature to the test, as I would have to chop up whole fish.

No matter how much I tried not to look like a wuss, I flinched every time I had to cut off one of their heads.

But I couldn’t chicken out, as those squeaky spring-loaded otters had to get their grub on time.

Any messing around by me, and it meant the zoo’s red panda and her babies, bush-dogs and kangaroos would be getting their food late. I hadn’t realised how much hungry work being a zookeeper was.

The rest of the afternoon involved more cleaning, chopping up food and checking on the zoo’s inhabitants, which included a heavily pregnant bongo and some rather inquisitive looking kangaroos.

“It can be pretty tiring work. I’ve been doing it for more than 20 years, but I still love it. I even met my wife while working here,” said Chris.

After an exhilarating but exhausting day, I was ready to hit the hay. While I enjoyed the experience, I’m dreading what next year’s bizarre birthday gift will be. Fingers crossed it’s a record token. Do you have a story about the regional press?
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