The ninth International Zookeeper Day is held on Wednesday October 4 in honour of St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.
Zookeeper Day celebrates the people who make it their life’s work to care for animals, whether at zoos, sanctuaries, aquariums, rescue centres, parks or reserves.
This is Gemma’s story.
Early last Tuesday was a typical morning for keeper Gemma Asser at Monarto, smearing kangaroo mince deep into egg cartons as she prepared the safari park’s Meerkat dishes for the day ahead. A scooping of crickets and maggots from the insect room (for the native Plains Wanderer bird) added to the breakfast pack and she was off on her daily round as a Natives keeper.
Not the most glamorous foray at the largest safari park outside Africa maybe but Natives is one of the most important certainly. And anyway, appearances can be deceptive. Gemma, a seriously cool keeper, has a seriously cool job.
Gemma is 32-years-old, grew up in Murray Bridge and has a BSc in Animal Behaviour and Cert 3 in Captive Animals and Animal Studies (Wildlife). She’s worked with the penguins and sharks at Melbourne Aquarium and with lemurs and lions at Monarto where she’s been for the past four years.
The native round though, which she took over permanently in January, is her thing. (Be prepared to move about when you start out she says, competition for keeper jobs is tough.)
First up are the Plains Wanderers (unknown to Gemma too when she first started at Monarto) tiny, quail like ground birds homed in secure outside habitats.
“They’re one of Australia’s most endangered species, part of a breeding program,” she says.
“When they hear my car arrive every one of them runs to their bowls and stuffs their faces. They seem to think I’m going to take their food away. (She’s not.)
“The morning is all about checking everyone and making sure they are all ok. I was on a field trip last week, six hours away, gathering data about the Plains Wanderers so we can compare them in the wild to captivity.”
Birds of prey are the natural predators but foxes and cats can be lurking as the birds instinctively duck down.
“We have the worst mammal extinction rate in the world,” says Gemma who places huge focus on educating visitors about what they can do to help redress the balance.
Flora and fauna matter hugely she says. Teach people to plant native plants and put a bowl of water out for indigenous animals overnight, increase biodiversity and keep cats indoors.
Two billion indigenous creatures are killed by cats each year. Enjoy them absolutely but be responsible says Gemma. “I have two inside cats.”
Next up are three female Yellow Footed Rock Wallabies who, colour coded almost, are not always immediately obvious. “My girls,” says Gemma.
“One of the best skills to have is being really good at hide and seek,” she says.
All animals have to be found each day to make sure they’re eating well and free of cuts and bumps.
“I spent 40 minutes the other day looking for bettongs and had to radio in ‘Gemma to Natives Department’. Of course, the moment I had more eyes, they were found within five minutes.”
Meerkats follow, one dozen upright and friendly looking but don’t be taken in. “The most homicidal mammal in the world,” says Gemma but “everyone loves meerkats, they’re not engendered in the wild but they help raise money that we can put toward conservation.”
Getting to recognise the lookalike mongeese wasn’t straightforward, an ID sheet and constant peering for the first month called for but then it clicked.
Roho, a male, took a liking to her and was her way in. “He’s such a sweetheart, he scent marked my boot and I guess made me an honorary meerkat, going by how relaxed the group has been around me since!”
Finally, and repeated at 10am daily, the Cape Porcupines and two brand new porcupettes.
A month ago Rita and Oliver became parents again, this time to Winni and Walter. Sadly a third baby died from birthing complications.
“Rita is large and in charge. She has an epic hairdo, like an ‘80s rock-star,” says Gemma (think Cher or Tina Turner).
“The babies had a health check at two weeks. Just watching them is a joy, it’s the circle of life.
“Compassion fatigue is prevalent. I don’t find it easy to switch off. It’s something every zookeeper needs to get better at.”
(For the curious, porcupettes have soft quills when they’re born and weeks old only, are already onto a diet of sweet potato, corn and suckling from mum.)
Despite their southern Africa origins, porcupines form part of the Australian Natives round, a draw to help bring in more cash (Monarto Safari Park is a conservation charity and funds are limited).
“Lots of people see Natives as only a gateway into zoo keeping but I just kept getting drawn back to them, it’s an important part of conservation,” says Gemma.
Regardless of round, the outlook is the same.
“My quality of care is their quality of life,” says Gemma who places great emphasis upon enrichment or the stimulating and training of animals to help them reach their potential.
“The best part of the job is the animals, I love the training and the enrichment. A lot of my day is also spent educating people. You don’t know what you don’t know, but it is my job to help bridge that gap and connect people with nature.’
So, fancy a job as a keeper?
“The smallest part of your day is what the general public perceive the job to be, which is ‘cuddling the animals’ (which we don’t. Spend time with them, yes. Cuddle them, no…) but most of it is spent future planning, food prep, cleaning.
“You hear people say ‘You are so lucky’.
“I prefer the term fortunate. It isn’t luck that works hard, studied for my degrees or pays my bills. You’d be surprised about how much of our talk at the smoko is about animal poo or genitals.
“But it is all part of the job. Which if you come along for Keeper for a Morning/Day here at Monarto experience, you get to see all aspects of what being a keeper entails, the good, the bad and the slightly gross.”
Never underplay the lower profile animals she says despite a colourful Giant Cuttlefish tattoo that adorns one arm.
“In Australia, we have some of the most unique animals in the world who are just as worthy of our attention as any of the African megafauna we have here at the zoo.
“It’s human nature, you don’t appreciate what is in your own back yard. But what is in our backyard is amazing.”
Visitors are encouraged to come to Monarto Safari Park to see Gemma’s native animals in their habitat.
Monarto Safari Park is open 365 days a year.