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Keeper Lesley still hand-rearing lions after 30 years at Dudley Zoo

By Heather Large | Dudley | Entertainment | Published:

Not many people can say they have hand-reared a lion club while heavily pregnant with their first child.

Lesley pictured with the Humbolt Penguins in 1991

But it was just part of the job for Dudley Zoo keeper Lesley Lewis who has clocked up 30 years at the Castle Hill attraction.

Since joining the team straight from school in 1989 as a trainee keeper, she's become part and parcel of zoo life.

The 47-year-old started working with the site’s big cats and farm animals and over the last three decades has worked with most species, including her favourite camels.

Lesley Lewis with some of the giant bones for Sam the lion

Her present role is team leader of the farm where she looks after the likes of the micro-pigs, guinea pigs and pigmy goats.

Lesley also met and married fellow keeper Matt,who is now the zoo manager, in 1997 at Dudley Registry Office and they held their reception at the zoo.

The couple, who live on the zoo site, continue juggling the needs of the animals while raising their own children, Harry, 20 and Eliza, 15.

Lesley and Matt Lewis

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Hand-rearing lion cub Sam during the early months of his life after he was rejected by his mum at birth has been one of the many highlights of her 30 years at the zoo.

“The lion cub was rejected by his mum and we took him home at two days old.

“He used to come home with us during the evening and then spend the day in the zoo cabin.

“It was a mad time, but lovely too and he lived with us for a quite a few months before he got too big and we had to move him back on site,” says Lesley.

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Lesley with her daughter Eliza in 2005

Looking after the big cat meant Lesley getting a few strange looks when shopping in the town centre as top of her list was a bag of huge marrow bones.

Sam, who was the first Asiatic lion to be born at Dudley Zoo, needed to chew on the bones every day to keep his strength up

He left Dudley in 1999 to start a new life at Parken Zoo in Stockholm, Sweden where he was part of a major international conservation programme.

Lesley accompanied him on the trip along with zoo director Derek Grove and stayed with him until he settled into his new home.

Lesley and Matt met at Dudley Zoo
Lesley and Matt held their reception at the zoo

She has also been hand-rearing baby Bactrian camel Deliliah who was born at the start of July and at just over a week-old took her first brief steps into the outside paddock.

Thanks to her wealth of experience Lesley is also fondly regarded as a mother figure to many of the site’s keeping team and is always on hand to offer advice.

“The zoo is like one big family and I’ve been privileged to have helped train so many young keepers over the years, who I’ve watch grow and have their own families and I’m like a proud mum to them all!

“It’s a wonderful job and I feel very lucky to be able to do something I love every single day and it certainly doesn’t feel like 30 years,” says Lesley.

Lesley with zoo director Derek Grove

Derek, who celebrated 35 years' continuous service at the attraction in the summer, presented Lesley with gift vouchers in recognition of her milestone.

“I remember Lesley starting as a bright and bushy tailed youngster.

“She’s dedicated and enthusiastic and can always be relied on if extra help is needed, whether its gritting a paddock or hand rearing a baby camel around the clock, like she’s currently doing.

“But to this day she’s retained that bright and bushy tailed nature and that’s a real credit to her,” he says.

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.

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