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A day in the life of an animal keeper

Posted on: 20 July, 2023

We join the animal team for National Zookeeper Week to appreciate zookeepers’ expertise, hard work, contribution to the charity’s conservation efforts and general passion.

Today I was very privileged to spend the day with two of our amazing hoof stock animal keepers, Ellie and Laura. I joined them after they’d finished their early morning shift, which involves animal health checks (including additional care for some of our older animals, including those with conditions such as arthritis), preparing animal feeds and mucking out to ensure enclosures are clean and comfortable.


First off, we went to check the red river hog brothers Mito and Ekundu, aged 11 years old, with one of Bristol Zoological Society’s vets, Sarah.

As soon as Ellie put out the hog’s food, they came trotting over to their paddock. They are fed in separate areas to ensure that Ekundu doesn’t try to pinch Mito’s food! Their food consists of omnivore and browser pellets, starchy vegetables, lettuce and mealworms and they are fed 3 to 5 times per day.

The life expectancy of a red river hog in human care is typically up to 15 years.

Mito was fed in a specifically designed training area, which allowed Ellie to bathe a sore on his mouth and the vet to examine him whilst he munched away on his dinner. To an onlooker, he strolled nonchalantly into the training area. But, behind the scenes the animal team had spent many months working hard training the hogs. This approach has enabled our vets and keepers to take voluntary blood samples from the hogs’ ears as part of their routine preventative care, as well as administering their vaccinations every 6 months without causing the animals distress.

Ellie also used a photizo machine on Mito’s carpal bone (the equivalent of a human’s wrist) to help with his arthritis, something the team has been doing for 2 years. The machine uses LED light therapy to warm and improves blood flow to the area, helping manage symptoms of the condition. The hogs also have regular laser therapy sessions with an osteopath.

The animal team also made adjustments to the hog’s management to further improve their welfare and help manage the symptoms of arthritis. For example, keepers changed the substrate in the enclosure to allow for more cushioning and increased the indoor temperature, especially above the bed areas. The team also created a special diet plan to help Mito and Ekundu lose weight which has made an improvement to their mobility and health. Creating enrichment is another important part of the animal team’s role as it provides low impact exercise and stimulation for the animals.

Before we said goodbye to the hogs, Ellie made their enrichment by adding pellets into a ball, which they would have to work out how to extract – a great mental exercise. We left them looking very joyful as they chased the ball around their paddock.

Ellie spoke passionately about the hogs, telling me about the dedication of the animal team who spent a lot of time researching ways to help manage the hog’s arthritis, often looking at literature published on domestic animals as a guide. Spending just a small amount of time with the red river hogs, I could see how these charismatic and often underrated creatures had made an impression on her.


Next stop was the eland brothers – Arron and Axel.

Firstly, Ellie showed me the cameras they use in the yard which allow them to monitor the elands and their zebra companions and quickly spot any issues, and to undertake research. For example, they used the cameras to research the sleeping patterns and resting behaviour of the two species when mixed together or separated overnight. The results indicated that both species spent more time resting when mixed together, which has helped the team make informed decisions about their management.

Ellie then prepared their feed – a type of browser pellet, spread into multiple feeds throughout the day to aid their digestion.

We watched the screen and saw the eland brothers rise and stride over to their feeding paddock – the intuitive pair had become accustomed to their feeding routine. When up close, I was immediately captivated by how majestic this species is. Standing at an impressive 1.8m tall and weighing around 550kg.

Part of the animal care the keepers provide the eland is observing them each day for any signs of illness or lameness, and severity, which can then be communicated to the vet team. Keepers also regularly weigh all the animals, which can highlight any changes that may indicate a health issue.


Next, we went to feed our newest arrivals – a pair of Endangered Philippine spotted deer. They were much shyer and elusive than the other species I’d seen that day and enjoy spending their time amongst the plentiful native trees and plants in their paddock. Pandora is 8 months and Eugene is 1 year old. With fewer than 700 of the species left in the wild, the pair are part of a critical breeding programme. I felt very lucky to spot Pandora as she very quickly ran around her large grassy paddock and poked her head out for some food.


Our last but by no means least animal visit of the day was the giraffes. Laura showed me how they carefully prepare the browse for the giraffe feeds. There is a fine art in tying them together and each bunch is hosed down to remove any dirt. Our giraffes, Tom, Dayo and Tico each eat around 5 big bunches of browse per day. The giraffes are also given a browser pellet fed throughout the day in enrichment feeders. This prolongs their feeding time, aiding digestion and providing mental stimulation.

The team have been working hard to train the trio using positive reinforcement techniques, which enable them to carry out crucial health checks and x-rays. It has taken the team a number of years to build Dayo’s confidence, and he is now much more relaxed. This has enabled the keepers and Veterinary Nurse Teresa, to take voluntary blood samples, and carry out hoof care, which requires Dayo to place his hoof on a block for staff to access it safely. Recently, Dayo has had x-rays taken of both his front hooves using this technique.

The team are so proud of Dayo, and their commitment and passion shines through in all the work they do.

Conservationists from Bristol Zoological Society also undertake work in Bénoué National Park, Cameroon, to help protect Critically Endangered Kordofan giraffes as part of the Society’s mission of Saving Wildlife Together.

Passion for their work

It was inspiring listening to Ellie and Laura talk about their roles and how rewarding it is to have a direct impact on animal welfare. They said the initial excitement of working alongside animals at the start of their career has never worn off.

Ellie said one of her special memories was working with and breeding endangered okapi. She will always treasure working with the okapi calves and knowing that they have gone on to have calves of their own in other zoos as part of the breeding programme. Laura spoke fondly about her memories of hand rearing a penguin from 2 months old at the Bristol Zoo Gardens site before it closed in 2022.

So how do you become an animal keeper?

If you are considering a career as an animal keeper there are different routes you can take.

Ellie studied Animal Science at Aberystwyth University and did a year’s internship at Chester Zoo where she obtained a lot of practical experience. Since then, she has had several zookeeper roles in different zoos across the UK and completed a Masters in Anthrozoology at the University of Exeter.

Laura took an Animal Care course locally at SGS College for 2 years. She then went on to get a Diploma in Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals (DMZAA) from Sparsholt College in Hampshire, which took another 2 years. After this, Laura volunteered for 4 years at Bristol Zoo Gardens whilst working part-time at a store, before becoming a qualified animal keeper for Bristol Zoological Society. She was a bird keeper at Bristol Zoo Gardens for 8 years before moving over to Wild Place Project (renaming as Bristol Zoo Project on 21 July) where she now cares for our hoof stock.

If you’re interested in pursuing a career as an animal keeper or in conservation, check out the courses Bristol Zoological Society runs in partnership with South Gloucestershire and Stroud College, UWE Bristol and the University of Bristol. Also, check our website for exciting job and volunteer roles.

Emma Smith, Bristol Zoological Society’s Marketing Manager