Sat, Jan 04, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Interview: How do I become a ... panda keeper

An Edinburgh-based zookeeper discusses how he struck gold in a highly competitive industry

By Sandra Haurant  /  The Guardian

Panda cub Yuan Zai, shown here with mother Yuan Yuan, will make her public debut at Taipei Zoo on Monday.

Photo: Taipei Times

When Edinburgh Zoo’s giant panda, Tian Tian, was thought to be expecting a cub, Michael Livingstone’s job took over his whole life. A keeper for carnivores and giant pandas at the zoo, he was part of a core group of five who closely monitored the pandas’ behavior. “We were watching them for seven weeks, 24 hours a day. It was a lot of work. When you get to the breeding season, and then watching for her to potentially give birth, everything else goes on hold,” says Livingstone. “That is all you can think about — you don’t really have a life apart from pandas. Even outside work, with family friends, people are always asking how they are getting on.”

Livingstone, 25, got a summer job at the zoo in his home city while he was studying animal biology at Edinburgh University. After the summer, he got a weekend job. “I was very lucky,” he says. “The job was only meant to be three months, then I was lucky enough to get the weekend job. I was on part-time hours until the pandas arrived and then I was made full-time — not necessarily to work with the pandas, although that is what happened.”

The pandas have remained one of his main responsibilities, but there are plenty of other animals on Livingstone’s list. “I work a lot with the giant pandas just now, but I also look after bears, lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, smaller things like skunks, otters, meerkats, anteaters ... We don’t work with all the animals every day. It’s done on a rota[ting] basis,” he says. “Normally, you get a week or two with a group, so you might be with the big cats, which includes leopards, jaguars, tigers and that run of animals where they are in the zoo. You’re responsible for them.”

Livingstone’s day starts with picking up his keys and radio, and then it’s off to see the animals.

“You go and check your animals, and feed them if they get fed in the morning, then make sure everything’s healthy, well and fine, and acting as normal. From that, you start your cleaning and that’s the big part of the morning. Up until about midday, the main part is cleaning. After that, in the afternoon you are checking the animals, locking up the houses and feeding them again in the afternoon.”

Keepers are also responsible for working on “enrichment” with the animals.

“We try to do that with a lot of the animals, especially in the carnivore section. It’s important to keep them active and it encourages their natural behavior. [If they follow scent markings] we give them paper sacks with bedding from other animals to put scents around the enclosure, or food around their enclosure if they are animals that forage a lot for their food. They have to look for it rather than getting it in a dish. We try to get them to do things that they would have to naturally do, so you’re not just giving them everything on a plate. It’s positive for them and promotes their health and mental stimulation.”

On-the-job training in the carnivore section starts with small tasks, says Livingstone.

“You start off with things that are less dangerous — so that would be the hunting dogs, porcupines — which are not carnivores but we have them in this section — skunks, and so on. You work your way up, you get trained on one section, then, after a period of time you move on to another section.”

In some parts of the zoo, training schedules are fixed, but with the carnivores, Livingstone says, training is done on an individual basis. Once the senior or head keeper thinks the trainee keeper is ready, they can move on to the next group of animals. “It’s a safety thing, and if you’ve never worked with animals before, it’s a steep learning curve. You pick things up working with small animals that relate to the bigger animals, and the more dangerous animals. You are getting the basics and understanding.”

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