Behind the Scenes – The really wild show
Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire was the first drive-through safari park outside Africa, and is now home to more than 500 animals and attracts almost a million visitors every year. Anna Pointer discovers how everyone is kept content
Deep in the countryside, on a 9,000-acre estate near Warminster, the drive-through safari park at Longleat presents a mind-boggling array of animals – including lions, tigers, an elephant, monkeys, wolves, rhinos and giraffes. Elsewhere on the vast estate, themed zones boast koalas, crocodiles, tropical birds and every kind of creepy-crawly. The attraction is flanked by the imposing Longleat House, home to the estate’s owners, Lord and Lady Weymouth. Longleat was saved from ruin in 1966 when the sixth Marquess of Bath – Lord Weymouth’s grandfather – opened a 100-acre lion reserve to bring in much-needed cash. On launch day, the cars queued for four miles – and the park fast became a global hit. Over the next two years, giraffes, zebras, hippos, chimpanzees and seals arrived.
These days, 130 keepers look after the 500 animals and there are more than 300 other staff members, from gardeners to administrators, who ensure that the visitors and grounds are perfectly cared for too.
The early bird
With more than 44 years’ service, Ian Turner, the media and product coordinator, is one of the longest-serving staff members. “I still enjoy it. I’m the first one here each day, checking the animals are in the right place. It’s quite a responsibility!”
Earlier this year, Longleat’s newest attraction, Koala Creek, welcomed four furry friends from Adelaide, Australia. Thankfully, they have coped well with the British climate. “People think they need heat but that’s not true,” explains keeper Chris Burr. “They are southern koalas so are much fluffier and hardier than the northern variety.” As they are the only ones in England, Chris needed to learn from the experts. “I recently went to Australia to find out how to care for them, because they’re highly specialist.” Each koala consumes around 800g of eucalyptus leaves per day. “There are several different types, and we grow some on the estate. Hopefully down the line, we’ll be totally self-sustainable.”
The koalas share their home with long-nosed potoroos, which are rabbit-like marsupials. Ben Whitefield-Lott helps to feed them, saying, “They eat carrots, parsnips and sweet potato, so they’re pretty healthy. I love showing them off to the public.”
Moving Longleat’s new Cuban crocodiles – Fang and Cayo – to the site was quite a military operation, explains keeper Jon Ovens (right). “One came from Colchester and the other from Paignton. We had to sync their journeys perfectly so neither could
claim territory.” Entering the enclosure is a no-no for the team, though. “They’re the most aggressive species, so that’d be instant death!” warns Jon who’s role involves keeping the pool at 24°C (75°F) and ensuring the crocodiles have enough UV light. “We’re always asked if they’re real, because they bask under the UV lamps with their mouths open, barely moving.” Keeper James Gotts (left) adds, “We use tongs to feed them twice a week with dead rats, fish and chicken. Although they can jump up to two metres for their food, they couldn’t leap over the glass.”
Originally from the Himalayas, Longleat’s red pandas Ajenda and Rufina are part of a successful breeding programme – which is vital for an endangered species. Keeper Sam Allworthy says, “Everyone loves koalas, but you can’t beat red pandas. This doesn’t even feel like work. They are so gentle and voluntarily come to the scales for weighing each week. We feed them four times a day and they get through masses of bamboo. Most of my life is spent cutting it. When the cubs outgrow Mum and Dad, they leave us for other zoos. I always cry like a baby. I spend more time with them than with my own family.”
Emily’s best buddy is a South American armadillo called Preston. “He’s beautiful, but I’ve had to put him on a diet, because he lived with monkeys before coming here and got fat on their scraps. He’s just had his first birthday, though, so I made him a cake as a treat.”
Not all jobs at Longleat are animal-based. “We do loads of general maintenance, too, such as sweeping and painting,” boat driver Finn Evans points out.
“It took me ages to get a job here, because zoos are so competitive. I knew I had to do this, though – I’m a real man-child.”Weather permitting, the boat cruise takes in sea lions and hippos. “The sea lions came all the way from California in the 70s.”
Food preparation is an important job, and keeper Emily Randall says, “In this section we’ve got 22 guinea pigs, tree porcupines, meerkats, tortoises and loads of reptiles, so we make hundreds of meals a day. They eat mainly fruit and vegetables, while the reptiles and birds get mice, rats and chicks.”
Away from the animal action, Kirsty Spicer in Guest Services mans the phones and handles emails and customer enquiries. “We’re also the first point of call for first aid – and for finding lost children. They wander off quite a lot, especially in peak times.”
Five gardeners and six groundsmen maintain hundreds of acres between them, and head gardener Jules Curtis says, “It’s constantly busy. Right from January, we’re pruning, seed sowing, mulching and prepping for spring. Come summer, it’s a riot of colour, and we’re frantic with grass mowing, hedge cutting and managing the flower beds.”
Movers and shakers
Animal registrar Ryan Berry arranges the animals’ movement between Longleat and other zoos, mainly for breeding. “Each animal has a file, and we look at their genetic viability and family tree to make sure they’re not related.” For some species, there is a single gatekeeper for the whole of Europe. “For instance, one person manages all the red pandas, to ensure as much diversity as possible.” On Ryan’s want list is a breeding partner for armadillo Preston, and a giant male otter. “We’re hoping to reunite our female otter with her boyfriend over from Germany. They’ve been separated for six months.”Transporting animals is complex, however.“We need to ensure the transport is fluid and that there are no health risks.”
Ryan registers animal births and deaths, and monitors their health. “I check the medical histories and weight of the animals, and any medicines they’ve had. Our vet comes weekly to deal with any issues. Animals might have wounds, and the gorillas may have a cold. We’re genetically similar so if you’re poorly, you can’t go near them.”
The ‘carnivore team’ look after the lions, Longleat’s star attraction. Carnivore keeper Ryan Tomkins says, “Our daily duties include getting the two prides into the right areas and monitoring the gates. Twice a week, we feed them, by dragging a wagon of horsemeat into their section. They chase it, so it’s like a real hunt.” While the females get 8kg, each male scoffs 11kg. “At other times, we give them reward chunks of meat, so they associate being around us as a positive thing.” When driving in the park, all that separates visitors from the beasts is their car. “We insist people keep their windows shut but some will still get out to take photos. It’s mad but we’re trained to deal with it.”
Park security is vitally important; £1 million has been spent on fencing in the past year alone. “We test the electric fences regularly,” says Georgina Bailey. “We use a gadget to detect faults or breaks in the voltage.” Checking the lions’ excrement is less pleasurable. “We look for worms mostly as you can tell a lot about their health from their poo. We also clean their beds daily, not that they thank us!”
Keeper Sophie White works with the park’s four rhinos. “They’re gentle giants, with big personalities. We cake them in mud, which acts as a sunblock in summer and insulation in winter. They enjoy it, and it helps to cultivate a good relationship with us.”The rhinos can be stubborn, though. “If they don’t want to do something, you certainly know about it!”
Impressively, giraffe keeper Darren Taylor can identify all 18 of his charges. “They may look the same but all have a unique feature – such as a floppy ear or an extra-wobbly lip. Their personalities are different, too; some are confident, others stay at the back.” Each morning, Darren checks their mobility. “Sometimes, they develop a limp, or they may have cut themselves.”The giraffes graze on grass and hay, almost 24/7. “At night, they rest for two hours, in ten-minute spells. They’re prey animals, so they like to stay alert.”