Lisa Watkins, deputy head of ungulates and white rhino keeper at West Midland Safari Park, works with some of the world’s largest creatures
What goes into the day-to-day life of a white rhino keeper?
Our day usually begins by checking in on the rhinos – making sure they all seem fit and healthy, as well as giving their indoor enclosures the once over to make sure everything seems fine. We’ll then feed them in the morning, before opening the gates and allowing them to roam about the reserve for the rest of the day at their own leisure. Some of the keepers will then go out on patrol while the rest will stay behind and clean the enclosures and get them all ready for the evening.
What’s the best part of your job?
For me, it’s being a part of a successful breeding program and having animals that are happy enough to breed. Just being able to give our white rhinos an enriching life as best we can means an incredible amount to me, especially when you consider the dangers these creatures face in the wild.
And the worst?
Well, working in all weathers would be one! So if it snows, we still need to come in and make sure the animals are fed, happy and exercised. Of course, if it’s scorching hot we still need to come in and shovel large amounts of smelly excrement, too. You wouldn’t believe the volume of faeces they produce. That’s a definite downside! Even now as I’m speaking to you I’m soaked through, but that’s just part of the job and you eventually get used to those kinds of things.
What kind of challenges and dangers do you face looking after such potentially dangerous creatures?
As you can imagine, there are lots of protocols and procedures in place to keep us safe when looking after the white rhinos at West Midland Safari Park, so we feel more than safe when keeping them. Of course, when the rhinos are out on the reserve mixing with our other animals, we do have a patrol that monitors them throughout the day. These are powerful creatures so we always make sure someone is watching and ready to act.
Most of the time there’s nothing to worry about and the rhinos simply get on with their daily routines, but there is the odd occasion where a confrontation between some of them may occur, so in those instances we would intervene to ensure their safety.
What other conservation efforts are you and the rest of the team at West Midland Safari Park involved in?
All year round, West Midland Safari Park works with the Namibian Wildlife Conservation in Ongava, which looks after and conducts really important research on the white rhino. This partnership has been incredibly beneficial and also an eye-opening experience for us. And for four weeks of the year we do charity events and fundraising for different wildlife projects both here in the UK and abroad. The park has raised money for white rhino-specific projects before but fingers crossed we’ll get the chance to do that again in 2016.
“Just being able to give our white rhinos an enriching life as best we can means an incredible amount”
So you want to be a rhino keeper? Here’s how…
Like any professional wildlife keeper role, an academic background is always advantageous, but Lisa believes having lots of hands-on experience working at sanctuaries, zoos and other wildlife centres is the most important addition to your CV or application. “I would definitely advise you to volunteer and get experience. I know it can be quite difficult to get work in a zoo to begin with, but if you start small at stables then you can sometimes get internships that provide you with invaluable experience,” she adds. This would also give you a chance to see if the job is right for you.
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