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Real life: Going ape for zookeeper job

By Heather Large | Weekend | Published:

Hanging out with chimpanzees is all in a day’s work for Vicky Kirkman.

Although she grew up wanting to work with big cats, after becoming a zoo keeper she developed a fondness instead for great apes.

She finds these primates endlessly fascinating and enjoys watching them as they groom each other and move around their enclosure.

The 37-year-old,who has been working at the attraction for almost three years, is one of 13 keepers in the ape section and 52 across the whole 80-acre site.

She has been tasked with helping the 13-strong group of chimps settle into their new habitat – the £3.5 million Chimpanzee Eden.

It 12,500 sq ft enclosure, which spans three stories high and has outdoor climbing frames, has been designed to pose the same kind of challenges wild chimps face in their daily lives.

Staff at Twycross, which has housed chimpanzees since its inception in 1963, say it is far more suited to their care needs. Visitors can watch the chimps tackle puzzles in areas specially designed for scientists and visitors alike to learn about the cognitive abilities of one of our closest living relatives.

Vicky said the troop of chimps were all settling into their new home well and were enjoying exploring their new surroundings.

“It’s much bigger. They’ve got a lot more height. They’ve got an enormous roof and can move around - they’re loving it!,” she tells us.

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Personalities

Since becoming a zoo keeper in 2006, she has worked at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire, South Lakes Safari Zoo in Cumbria and more recently at South Staffordshire College’s Rodbaston Campus in Penkridge where she was a primate keeper and instructor.

She joined the team at Twycross Zoo, which welcomes more than 500,000 people through the gates every year and has one of the largest primate collections in Europe, in August 2015.

Vicky had always wanted to work with animals since she was very young. “I started off wanting to work with tigers but I really like the different personalities primates have, I’m not saying that tigers don’t have personalties but it’s more subtle,” she says.

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Although, as you might expect, there is no such thing as a typical day but there are daily duties to undertake including feeding, giving medication to those who need it and cleaning out enclosures.

There are also enrichment activities for the animals. In captivity, water and food is supplied so the primates need to be given something else to do in the time that would normally be spent finding these survival necessities in the wild. Vicky tells us that she has been enjoying getting to know the different chimps and watching their behaviour which usually involves plenty of ‘playing, grooming and giggling’.

“The dominant male is Jambo – he puts everybody in their place and he can be quite grumpy,” she adds.

There is a rarely a quite moment for a zoo keeper but Vicky says there is plenty of job satisfaction. “It’s quite a physical job and you do work long hours but it’s very rewarding. It becomes a large part of life and there is a zoo family here,” says Vicky.

The zoo is home to more than 500 animals, from around 150 species, many of which are enrolled in conservation breeding programmes.

One of its aims contributes to conservation in the wild since 2006 and has supported over 55 conservation and welfare projects from many different countries around the world.

In April last year, Vicky and other members of the team visited Cameroon to support the Ape Action Africa team at their sanctuary with veterinary care and the daily management of the animals.

“Last year, I planned a working holiday to gain some experience with Apes in a rescue/ sanctuary setting at Ape Action Africa, Cameroon.

“This is a project that Twycross supports and I went with a colleague and the zoo vet. The project is home to 320 animals – 100 chimps and 20 gorillas and other primates.

“The apes tend to be orphan animals mainly from the bush meat or pet trade. This was an amazing experience for me to see for myself the plight of gorillas and chimpanzees and to work along side these fantastic animals in a more natural surrounding.

“The animals are cared for at the sanctuary and then they have large forest enclosures to live in when they are older. “We took enrichment for the animals such as Kongs and toys and clothes for the local children and orphanage. We worked with the keepers there doing a range of jobs from deep cleaning/refurbishing enclosures to painting building feeding and lots more.

“It was an amazing trip and when we returned we continued to help raise awareness by doing a conservation evening at the zoo raising money for the project. I would love to return to Ape Action Africa to see how the animals are all getting on and they are always looking for volunteers,” she tells us

Vicky, who lives in Tamworth, says her advice for anyone wanting to follow in her footsteps is to stay committed to their dream and get work experience. “Don’t give up if you want to do it. Volunteer and get your foot in the door. It will be worth it in the end.”

Heather Large

l Twycross Zoo is taking part in Love Your Zoo week which is promoted by the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) and runs from today until June 3. As well as activities for children, visitors are invited to enjoy a series of keeper talks and learn all about the animals, from giraffes and elephants to meerkats, lemurs and penguins, in their care. See www.twycrosszoo.org

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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