Tony Cholerton, a senior tiger keeper at ZSL London Zoo, speaks to us about what it’s like to spend every day with these big cats
Tell us how exactly you became a tiger keeper.
I have always been passionate about working with animals, so as soon as I could, I signed up to be a volunteer at ZSL London Zoo. My first role was working with the tropical birds, which I loved. The experience really cemented my desire to work professionally with animals, so I applied to become a trainee keeper. I worked my way up from trainee, and began working with mammals, like the giraffes and okapis, before joining the team that looks after the lions, tigers and gorillas.
What does your job entail?
Our mornings are usually taken up with the cleaning of the enclosures – there’s a lot of mucking-out involved – and doing enrichment training with the animals. When Melati, our female Sumatran tiger, first moved to ZSL London Zoo, she hadn’t had much previous training. But by working to positively reinforce certain natural behaviours, she’s now well at ease with us weighing her and carrying out the veterinary checks that ensure she’s a happy and healthy tigress.
“…there’s a lot of mucking-out involved…”
What is the best part of your job?
The fact that I get to experience so many unique moments that I’ll remember my whole life – every day is different as an animal keeper. Most recently, coming in and finding out that Melati was in labour with the cubs was a real highlight.
And the worst?
When Melati’s last litter were old enough, they moved to new homes at other zoos. This was so they could start their own breeding groups as part of the international breeding programme for critically endangered Sumatran tigers – managed by ZSL’s conservation experts. Because we worked so closely with them, it was really hard to say goodbye to the cubs. But what’s more important is that we know they’ve all gone to excellent zoos where they’ve been matched with the perfect partner for them to have their own cubs with.
What has it been like getting a new tiger enclosure at the zoo?
Tiger Territory is incredible. It was specifically designed as an ideal habitat for Sumatran tigers to breed, and allowed us to welcome cubs into the world at ZSL London Zoo for the first time in 18 years. It has special areas for us to train with our tigers, Jae Jae and Melati and the cubs, and gives our visitors a real insight into the world of the Sumatran tiger and the threats they face in the wild.
“Tiger Territory is incredible. It was specifically designed as an ideal habitat for Sumatran tigers to breed…”
You recently had Sumatran tiger cubs born at the zoo. Tell us what this was like.
We knew roughly when Melati was due to give birth, so it was really exciting coming in each morning to see if she had gone into labour. I was working with her the day before, and I saw signs that she was very close – she was finding it difficult to get comfortable and couldn’t settle, so I was sure that it was about to happen. When I came in the next day, she had made her own way into her special cubbing den and was in labour. A few hours later, we all watched on our cubcam system while she gave birth to the two cubs. Because Melati and Jae Jae have a really strong bond, we decided to leave them together throughout the pregnancy and birth. Soon after the twins were born, we spotted Jae Jae paying his first visit, and we’re really pleased with how attentive he’s been to them ever since.
Why is keeping tigers and this birth in particular important for the zoo?
The Sumatran tiger is classified as Critically Endangered, with just 300 of these beautiful animals left in the wild. Their numbers are sadly declining due to habitat loss, poaching and human-tiger conflict. Alongside our conservation programme in Indonesia, where we work to make changes to continue their survival in the wild, our work as part of the international breeding programme is absolutely vital. When our two cubs are old enough, they’ll move to other zoos where they will start their own breeding groups. This ensures that a healthy population of Sumatran tigers will continue to exist around the world.
“our work as part of the international breeding programme is absolutely vital”
What do you recommend budding conservationists do if they want to become a tiger keeper?
Spend as much time as possible working with and learning about animals. Volunteering at a local kennel, animal shelter or stables all goes a long way towards demonstrating your dedication to animal care. Anything can happen if you work hard enough and care passionately about animals.
“Spend as much time as possible working with and learning about animals”
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