My job: for the love of animals

Whether it’s vaccinating a tiger or feeding a baby rhino, PSA delegate Delwyn Crombie gains immense satisfaction from her work at Hamilton Zoo.

baby rhinoHand-feeding a baby rhino until it could see well enough to feed itself counts as a particular highlight for Delwyn Crombie a keeper at the Hamilton Zoo. Delwyn is a PSA delegate for members at Hamilton City Council which owns the zoo.

She says the work with the baby rhino was particularly satisfying. “He had a hard time being born. He had ruptured blood vessels in his eyes which caused a temporary blindness, so he couldn’t really see to navigate around mum. It became necessary to hand feed him so we actually hand milked his mum just as you would a cow.

“Because the rhino are constantly being handled, the milking process wasn’t a threat to her. With mum feeding in a confined space we could lean in safely and start milking. We would give him the milk first and then top him up with equine formula because they (rhinos) are related to horses.”

They had a series of keepers involved in the process. “It was most satisfying. We would get up early and stay late to make sure he was getting enough milk. The really thrilling thing was to come in one morning and see from the video that he was managing to feed himself. It was so rewarding, fantastic.”

Delwyn is a mammal keeper and is a primary keeper for carnivores – tigers, one of the wild dog packs, serval, meerkats and red pandas. The pandas are classed as a carnivore as from time to time they will eat meat.

Her day is largely made up of feeding and cleaning. “About 75 per cent of the job is cleaning and preparing food”. We also provide enrichment for the animals and conditioning or training that has benefits for both the animal and the keepers.

“For example we have worked with one of our tigers to get him to a point where we can touch him on the flank through the caging. It became a part of his routine and therefore was not a threat to him. This means we have been able to hand-vaccinate him. This saves him from the stress of being darted by the vet which for the tiger is a terrible prospect. If we can do it calmly and quietly that is all good.”

Delwyn says all the animals have their own personalities. “Absolutely they do – everyone is different, you get to know the personalities and what is normal or abnormal with individuals.

“You try not to get too attached because you do lose animals from old age, injury or because they are transferred to another zoo. But it is hard not to. You have to have a relationship with an animal that helps you understand it in order to make its life better in a captive situation. To ensure good welfare it is also useful to work with other animals in the zoo and have someone work on your ‘round’ as they might notice something different that has been overlooked and vice versa.”

Delwyn says apart from one incident with an ostrich many years ago she has never had any real safety concerns in the job. “We do work largely on our own so you are checking a lot, checking your own safety and that of the animals you work with.”

So what attributes make a good keeper? “First, be passionate about animals. Be prepared for hard work. Have really good observation skills. Be able to tune in when something is not quite right. And for me, to be compassionate, to know when an animal is not doing so well, perhaps it is time to ‘move it elsewhere’ and that is a hard thing to do - it is like losing a friend.”


This article is from the September 2012 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.