Age: 42 | Location: Mogo, Australia
Somewhere along the south coast of New South Wales, The Zookeeper gets woken up by a hungry baby gorilla. He’s been bottle-feeding this tiny animal since birth, following a tricky incident with it's parents.
‘His dad took him from his mum and kept him for about fourteen hours. We couldn't get him back off him. And so when we were finally able to encourage him to put the baby down and leave so that we could then get to the baby, I rushed in and picked him up for the first time. I definitely teared up at that moment.'
I ask The Zookeeper why the father gorilla seized the baby in the first place.
‘We'll never know. It's not something that they should do. The mother hadn't given birth to the placenta, so I like to think that maybe he saw that something was wrong with her and he was trying to intervene. But he is a young silverback so he might have just been doing something. He wanted the toy, the new toy. We don't know.’
Even excluding the time spent with the gorilla, his morning routine is unusual.
The first thing he does after getting out of bed? An ice bath.
‘It's zero degrees for two minutes.’
'It's a tough one to do, just standing there in front of the bath, but it's a nice little victory first thing in the morning,’
And for breakfast afterwards?
‘I actually drink raw eggs.’
Every single day?
I’m surprised to learn he’s not a vegan, or at least a vegetarian.
‘I think our digestive system and our dentition shows that we're not supposed to be either one or the other, and I think that anything can essentially be ethically farmed. Whether or not we do or not is a different story, but I think it can be.’
The Zookeeper is proof that it is possible to eat meat and still form meaningful connections with animals. He cares about the creatures he is responsible for in ways similar to those who choose meat-free diets, something which becomes clear when I ask him what he thinks is the best part of his job.
‘An easy answer would be just to say babies, but it's not necessarily that. It's when you get that real connection with an animal of some description, you know, whether it's a touch or glance, just a shared moment.’
In particular, he has formed deep relationships with those animals he raised by hand.
‘I think that really forces a pretty strong bonding relationship because you're essentially taking on that mother role. There was a koala many years ago that I raised in Sydney called Archer. They stay with you.’
More astonishingly, The Zookeeper brought up a lion in lockdown.
‘That sort of period, when she was very young, zero to six months, it sort of coincided with an odd time in life. It was lockdown and stuff like that. So to have this close bond with this lion cub, growing with me at that time. There was a pretty special time.'
But as with any relationship, being so close to an animal comes with the possibility of losing them too.
‘I've had to be there for the end of life for many animals I cared for. It's important you do that part of the job just as well as welcoming a birth.'
'You owe it to the animal to give them as much dignity as possible.'
While he may have been doing the job for twenty-six years, The Zookeeper believes there's always more to learn.
'You learn from the animals that are in your care. Most of our job is to do better for them each day. Look after them better. And they can sort of show you how you can do that. It's about learning to listen and watch what they're trying to show you, because obviously it's not a verbal communication. But they are telling you stuff all the time.'
Now, he’s become attuned to even the smell of each animal.
‘They're very emotive, so many of the smells. It's very interesting in the zoo because every species has a very specific smell and whether or not you find it offensive you can pick a species very quickly by their smell. Like you go into the gorilla house and you instantly know that that’s what it is. It's interesting that sort of brain connection. I love it.’
Moving on, as our connection wavers and the sound of his voice shrinks, I ask The Zookeeper what's the best gift that he's ever received.
‘I have a very close artist friend - he's just phenomenal - and he's given me some artwork. He did these ones that, they're on black paper, and he uses basically white chalk on his finger. There was one that he did that was sort of like this lion that's coming out of this painting and his mane is fire, which was to commemorate the events of the fires we went through a few years ago. The depth and realism in scary, like it's just chalk on his fingers. Very talented man.’
I’d forgotten about the wildfires, although now he has mentioned it I remember watching the news, seeing the flames rip through acres and acres of the Australian wilderness. I can’t imagine how scary it must have been, knowing that his animals are sat, waiting, with no idea of the danger on its way.
Fortunately, all the animals at The Zookeeper's wildlife park were kept safe.
‘The fires actually threatened to burn the zoo down, so it was myself and I think fourteen other people that stayed and essentially saved the zoo from being burned. Thankfully, nothing ended up being affected except the perimeter fence.'
'It was incredibly damaging to the local community.’
As always, one of the last things I want to know is the best piece of advice The Zookeeper has ever received.
‘Hurry up and wait. I've got that sort of personality that would rather work harder today in order to get it done. And that's just not always possible.’
Give my best wishes to your gorilla friend, I tell him, before I hang up the phone.
He laughs, a low chuckle.
‘Thank you, I will.’