Edinburgh Zoo wants you to get close to its animals, discovers Deborah Punshon

The pandas are still a big attraction at Edinburgh Zoo
The pandas are still a big attraction at Edinburgh Zoo

It’s not everyday you feed a two-ton rhino or make dinner for a family of hungry armadillos.

It’s also a bit unusual to have penguins peck at your wellies as they wait impatiently to be fed.

But those who have been honorary zoo keepers for the day at Edinburgh Zoo will know how it feels, and the staff hope more people will take up the offer.

Keeper experiences have been running at Edinburgh Zoo since February 2012, offering – for a price – an opportunity to see animals in a different light.

With a range of different options, the experiences give people the chance to get up close with animals they otherwise wouldn’t, learn more about them and the opportunity to financially support them.

Like the money raised through admissions and memberships, proceeds from keeper experiences goes towards fulfilling the zoo’s charitable mission of “safeguarding species from extinction and connecting people with nature”.

This includes areas like animal welfare, education, new site developments, plus funding conservation work here in Scotland and in more than 20 countries around the world.

“Keeper experiences give our visitors the opportunity to go behind the scenes at the Zoo and see what life is like for our keepers and the animals they care for,” said Jo Paulson, events and experiences manager.

“The direct connection they experience with our animals is the kind of memory that lasts a lifetime.

“It will also hopefully inspire an even greater awareness of wider conservation and environmental issues.

“Keeper experiences provide our animals with another form of positive enrichment, providing further mental and physical stimulation specific to each species’ requirements.”

But how does it work? My visit, led by zoo keeper Aime Wilson, began with the pandas, the creatures responsible for a 40 per cent rise in visitor numbers.

Tian Tian and Yang Guang, now half way through their 10-year loan from China, are the first pandas to live in the UK for over 17 years.

Arriving in 2011, they settled in nicely and their popularity has been immense.

In 2013, Edinburgh Zoo had 760,897 visitors, more than Museum of Liverpool, the Riverside Museum and Chatsworth House.

But from what I saw, the pandas were oblivious to their star status.

The male was star-fishing in his bed, while his lady love had gone for a sleep.

But I soon discovered that my visit was going to be much more than black and white.

Aime took me to a hut towards the top of the grounds to meet a few smaller animals, like Bella the cockatoo.

Bella’s former owners used to ignore her, and, out of boredom, she plucked her feathers out with such force she destroyed the follicles and is now bald.

But she loves seeing people and the keepers leave the radio on for her when there’s no one around.

I also met Bruce the cuscus. A subspecies of the possum, he’s learning target training and I got to reward him with fruit when he got it right.

Adorably cute, this marsupial – with its long rat-like tail – is nimble and smart and may soon be entertaining the crowds.

Next was a visit to one of the bases used as part of the zoo’s education programme,

Over the past four decades, its programme has reached over one million pupils from nursery age to older teens.

I had a hold of a tenrec, which looked like a mini hedgehog but no relation, although I passed on the python. Schoolchildren, apparently, are much braver!

We then stopped in on a sleepy rhino called Bertus.

After about 10 minutes of shaking a food bucket and calling his name, he finally yielded and got up.

At seven-and-a-half years old, he eats just about everything including 16kg of pellets everyday.

I fed him banana and carrot, putting my hands into a very large mouth.

Despite being covered in saliva, it was quite something to be so close to such a remarkable and huge animal.

I then found myself on parade with the penguins who were taking their daily constitutional around the grounds.

Feeding them was next, but, before you do everything there’s a safety briefing, encouraging you to stay calm around the animals.

The penguins are fed by hand and there’s a wee knack to it. Holding the fish out to them, you allow them to have a tug at the meat before letting them gulp it down whole.

More feeding was involved on my visit to the chimp enclosure.

We threw massive leeks to the troop, with Aime casually advising me what to do if I accidentally hit one of them.

I also learned more about how the chimps use food, perhaps to win favour with the dominant members of the group.

But our conversation was cut short because of an all-out riot breaking out among the chimps.

We figured out it was some kind of disagreement, or perhaps they were just not thrilled with leeks for lunch.

Besides the animals, one of the great things about the experiences are the keepers themselves; they answer any question you ask and their compassion and enthusiasm for the animals is infectious.

They are calm, relaxed, knowledgeable, informative and engaging.

It’s good to know our animals are in good hands.