Living the zoo keeper dream

Trainee zoo keeper Graces Jones rewards Mana the hippo after asking him to open wide for a dental check. Photo: Taronga Western Plains Zoo
Trainee zoo keeper Graces Jones rewards Mana the hippo after asking him to open wide for a dental check. Photo: Taronga Western Plains Zoo

By the time she was 16, Grace Jones knew she wanted to be a zoo keeper.

Her father had instilled in her a deep love of animals, always pointing out anything unusual in the backyard and encouraging his children to have a closer look.

"He'd take us out and show us, even if it was a snake," Grace says. "And he'd often bring blue tongue lizards into the house and we'd feed them and take the ticks off them."

But it was her mother and the careers advisor at Dorrigo High who put Grace firmly on track to her current job by arranging a work experience placement at Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo when she was in Year 10.

She came home at the end of the week and announced, "I'm going to be a zoo keeper."

Some people looked dubious when she told them about this career ambition, but her parents were always solidly behind her.

"Mum and Dad were always like, we think that's a great career, go and do whatever you want, we'll support you as much as we can."

After finishing the HSC in 2016, she did a Certificate II in Animal Studies through TAFE while saving money to move to Dubbo for the Certificate III in Captive Animals course run at the zoo.

In 2018, she volunteered at the zoo on top of doing the practical components of the course. "Just so I could be out here as much as I possibly could. It's been a four or five year game plan to get me to where I am now."

By the end of the year, she'd scored a job as a Guest Experience Officer at Billabong Camp, the on-site accommodation that gives visitors the chance to enjoy the zoo outside opening hours.

"It's a fancy way of saying tour guide," Grace says. "In the evenings we take our guests to see the Australian animals - dingoes, wallabies, koalas, quokkas - and in the morning we come back at 6am, wake everybody up, serve breakfast and take them out again to see the Asian and African animals. You give a talk, introduce the animals individually and answer questions."

Grace still does the occasional shift as a tour guide, but last year she springboarded from that role into her dream position when she was appointed as a part-time Trainee Keeper.

She's working with elephants now, and on a typical day she'll be helping prepare and deliver their meals, giving them their baths, and doing a solid amount of cleaning up after them.

"Obviously with elephants they're big, they eat a lot of food, so what comes out is huge! A lot of my days are spent cleaning up and preparing food. They get three main feeds and other stuff out in their paddocks as well. They're basically eating all day, which is what they do in the wild."

Bathing an elephant is a two-person job, one issuing instructions to the animal and the other hosing and scrubbing.

"You have one person asking the elephant to lean into the bollards in the stall, and then getting them to turn around and lean in the other side. And they lie down for us so we can scrub their back and behind both of their ears.

"And while one person is asking the elephants for all those behaviors, the second person, who was me today, will be hosing them and getting rid of all the dust and the hay and anything else they've thrown on their back. And I also have a scrubber brush, which looks like what you'd use to scrub your deck outside. It helps get them clean and it exfoliates their skin."

She was thrilled when the oldest female, 65-year-old Burma, acknowledged her as an individual for the first time.

She looked at me and she vocalised, she rumbled in her chest. Being singled out by an elephant is pretty special.

Grace sometimes gets to do a shift with the hippopotamus, and it was during a training session with Mana, a 23-year-old breeding male, that the photo above was taken.

"I was asking him to present his mouth, which is why I've got two hands up near him. I'm giving him the cue to open your mouth so that we can look in and make sure your teeth are okay. And he was doing a really good job of it. Sometimes you just think they could swallow you whole."

Hippos are are aggressive, fast-moving and strong but when I ask Grace if she thinks they're dangerous, she suggests they're often just misunderstood.

"A lot of hippo attacks out in the wild are people going swimming in their waterholes and hippos are territorial and so they go, get out of my pond. And humans tend to be quite flimsy and one thing leads to another.

"And a lot of people think that hippos are fat, but they've actually got loose skin by design around their legs to give them a great range of movement, so they can pick up speed. They're deceptively quick, which is another reason why people get into trouble. They underestimate them."

Grace points out that being a zoo keeper involves hard physical work, long hours and a deep commitment to the job, but the payback is tremendous.

"It's very competitive and you've got to be passionate about it. You have to be devoted to your animals and care about their wellbeing, and care about their conservation, otherwise it's just not worth it. It's not worth the hours you put in, it's not worth all the extra work.

"But the great thing about working here is everyone wants to be here. Everyone's passionate about being here, everyone's passionate about the animals we work with. So you never get anyone who pulls themselves into work just because it pays the bills. Everyone's happy to to be around, which makes a really positive work environment.

"The people I met on my work experience I actually work with now, which is really cool."

  • Applications for 2021 accredited certificate courses at Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo close on September 30. More details

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