‘We’re her sort of mum’: behind the scenes at Taronga zoo | photo-essay

We join the keepers at Sydneys Taronga zoo as they nurture and develop their newest arrivals, including Maiya the red panda and Kamini the pygmy hippo. A photo-essay by Jonny Weeks

Lily and Blossom are about to be toilet trained at Taronga zoo. The two young sugar gliders are curled up together inside a wooden box within a personnel bathroom while trainer Suzie Lemon is trying to coax them out with the promise of a sugary, sap-like treat. Lily eventually emerges and promptly peeings all over the floor but Lemon doesnt seem to mind. After all, theyre not here for that kind of lavatory training.

Were developing them to glide over to us on cue to demonstrate their natural gliding behaviour, Lemon explains. We needed an enclosed space, somewhere with four solid walls, because in future theyre going to be doing this for education purposes in the new learning centre.

These two are both young so theyve got to build their confidence and learn how to aim.

Lemon creates her palms to form a wide landing pad and beckons Lily over. When the marsupial takes off it spreads its legs to disclose wing-like membranes before landing on Lemons wrists.

They do a bit of head-bobbing that are intended to judge the distance before taking off, she says, but sometimes they overshoot. And, obviously, sometimes they pick their own target, such as the nearest leg.





  • Sugar gliders Lily and Blossom learn how to gliding with keeper Suzie Lemon inside a staff toilet at the zoos backyard to bush segment. Photographs by Jonny Weeks for the Guardian .

Sugar gliders are nocturnal by nature but many of the zoos approximately 4,000 inhabitants and 110 full-time keepers have been up since first light long before the zoos gates opened to the general public.

Over at the pygmy hippo enclosing, four-month-old calf Kamini is gracefully bobbing up and down in the water tank alongside her mom, Kambiri. The two chase and gnaw at one another, playing up for anyone watching through the glass walls of the tank. Kamini weighs virtually 40 kgs but moving through the water she looks nearly weightless.

Kamini is a water baby, she loves the water, says Tracy Roberts, senior ungulate keeper, as she dedicates the pair a warm shower back at their pen.

Ive never known infants that are as stubborn and independent as pygmy hippo calfs, she adds. In the afternoon the mother will come to the door wanting to come in and get fed and you have to say, No, youve got to go and get the calf before you can come in. And the mother will go ohhh and trudge back up the hill and say, Calf, can you come in for me please ?, and the calf will go, Oh, I dont know mum, what about another five minutes? Sometimes you are able to hear them vocalise and you can imagine Kambiri saying It is bedtime, youre coming with me!

Pygmy hippos are one of the many critically endangered species kept at the zoo and, although little is known of the species, which is native to west Africa, its thought that as few as 2,000 now exist in the wild, with civil wars affecting their rainforest habitats and building preservation unmanageable.

Roberts has an especially strong bond with Kambiri, having worked in the exotic fauna division since her birth six years ago. When youve been on that journey with an animal like Kambiri her whole life, watching her grow from a little calf into a cheeky teenager and then transform overnight into the most devoted mother, it feels wonderful, she says.

A lot of people go, Oh you work with hippos, theyre the most dangerous animal in Africa, arent they? But pygmy hippos are a subspecies, theyre different. Theyre merely a fifth of the size, they have longer legs, they have slimmer muscles … Theyre gentle, theyre affectionate, theyre intelligent and I think they have a sense of humour too. It simply violate your heart to believe one day we could lose these animals in the wild because we dont have the ability to protect them.

However, we do demonstrate those big teeth a lot of respect. They self-sharpen as they come down on each other, so you have to be aware that they could accidentally injure you.





  • Infant pygmy hippo Kamini and her mom, Kambiri, playing in the pool and being showered by keeper Tracy Roberts. Photographs by Jonny Weeks for the Guardian .

Taronga zoo has been located on the slopes of Mosman, overlooking Sydney harbour, since 1916, and the giraffes, who are fed nine times a day, have occupied the same pitching throughout that time.

The zoos remit has changed over the decades from purely exotic entertainment to conservation, breeding and education. Its mantra now is for the wild and its welfare charter nations its aim is to ensure that the life experience of a zoo animal approximates the experiences of an individual living in the wild, in quality, repertoire and in relation to its species natural history.

However, the existence of captive animals still elicit much criticism. Peta, the animal rights organisation, asserts that cages and cramped enclosures at zoos deprive animals of the opportunity to satisfy their most basic needs and that the zoo community regards the animals it keeps as commodities.

Ashley Fruno, Peta Australias associate director of campaigns, tells: Zoos often defend their breed programs on the pretext of preservation but very few, if any, of the captive-bred species that do face extinction in the wild including the elephants, rhinoceros, tigers, red pandas, gorillas and chimps in Tarongas breeding programs will ever be released back into their natural habitats to bolster dwindling populations.

Yet the keepers at Taronga say they do all they can to ensure the animals in their care live fulfilled, enriched lives and emphasise that they are motivated to ensure the long-term protection of each species in the wild.




  • Giraffes Nyota, Jimiyu and Zarafa during feeding day with keeper Sarah Jones. Photos by Jonny Weeks for The Guardian .

At the seal enclosing, these arguments are starkly juxtaposed. The pools cannot compare to the vast expanse of the oceans and the presence of a purpose-built seal theater recalls a bygone era when animals were trained purely for human gratification. But the seals at Taronga dont perform balancing ball acts. Instead, their performances feature behaviours designed to assist in the maintenance of their health or to highlight the perils of their plight in the wild.

When Lexie, an Australian seal lion who was rescued as an orphan pup, comes out on to the stage for a private practice session, she hops onto a wooden platform and allows the keepers to massage her abdomen with a dummy ultrasound wand they hope she might soon be pregnant and will undergo such exams for real. And when Malie is instructed into the pool, he purposefully flails about with a piece of fishermans netting to show how easily a sea lion could become trapped by such materials in the wild.

Elly Neumann, supervisor of the seal theaters, tells: We want people to come gratify our animals, come feel for our animals and understand what you can do to help them. If the public “re coming” insure Lexie and learn about the impacts of overfishing on wild colonies then Lexie becomes an ambassador for her species out in the wild.

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