The sharp end: My day of the jackal

A shift as assistant keeper at Colchester Zoo tests Dave Waller's animal charm.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Sharp End has gone to the dogs. Specifically, the canine section at Colchester Zoo. I am to be an assistant zookeeper for the day, dancing with Iberian wolves, the black-backed jackals and African hunting dogs, the most efficient killers in the animal kingdom. Will I be waving a premature farewell to the pages of MT?

I arrive as the rising sun burns the mist from the fields, and soon learn that my concerns are unfounded. Jackals are timid, and the hunting dogs are so dangerous that the keepers never enter their enclosure without securing them elsewhere first.

Adam, the 34-year-old head of the section, explains this as we watch Gilberto, the zoo's lolloping anteater, crapping in his own pond water. Despite appearances, he is one to be wary of. Anteaters have claws the size of human fingers, and arms that can lift nine stone. Adam once saw Gilberto coming at him on his hind legs, screaming and swinging his claws, and had to fend him off with a broom. A keeper in Argentina was killed in a similar attack, says Adam, relishing the phrase embracio del muerte - the embrace of death. Johnny Morris never mentioned that.

Even so, there is a romance around working with animals - Colchester gets five on-spec job applications a day. And, for a while, things do get cuddlier. Adam gives me a backstage tour of the dog section, which is also home to several non-canine species. I meet the red pandas and the gremlin-like, cotton-topped tamarins. Animals freak out when a strange face shows up, as it usually belongs to a vet. The macaques bare their teeth and hiss at me. I jeer back but it doesn't seem to help.

Visitors are scarce on this chilly winter Monday, but there's much to do. Our first job is to clean out the red panda pen. Adam had warned me that these timid bamboo-eaters tend to 'produce more than they consume'. I don the rubber gloves and scoop with wonderment. Then we go to give Benson the bearcat his lunch. A piece of banana elicits no interest, but his eyes bulge when he clocks a yellow-feathered chick lying dead in my bowl. I hold it by a wrinkled claw and he clamps it in his teeth. Down it goes. Easter comes early for Benson.

I play several roles. As well as the catering, there's nursing - feeding medicine to Jessica, the geriatric macaque, on a banana. And I'm a chambermaid. While Benson is outside, Adam and I stoop in his room, removing the treats he has left on his pillow.

Apart from 24/7 shit-shovelling, zookeepers have to play matchmaker. The tree-climbing coatis are in the process of being 'introduced'. Three females live together, caged off from Badger, the randy male next door. Adam explains the importance of close monitoring as I watch a frisky Badger getting roughed up by a resistant female. Adam likens the animal's plight to a risky version of speed dating. You have to go tooled up, he says, as you never know whether you'll get lucky or take a kicking.

We lunch in the welcome humidity of the macaques' enclosure, behind the wire fence. I unpeel a banana and tuck in. Adam tells me his story: he'd taken a degree in film and photography, joining a zoo in the holidays. The creative work failed to flood in, but he was bitten by the animal bug and hasn't looked back.

A professional keeper must be careful not to think of the animals as pets, but relationships inevitably develop. Along with the fresh air and comradeship, this is the real pleasure of the job. It has to be: if you want to work with animals, you have to settle for an annual salary of about £15k.

Time to feed the dogs. The cardinal rule of keeping is: lock the doors. Thankfully, I don't find that out the hard way. Moving from enclosure to enclosure, unlocking padlocks and diligently checking we've locked them behind us, I find the perfect job for an obsessive/compulsive or ex-prison warden. When we lob a hunk of horseflesh, the hunting dogs devour it. I'm relieved to learn that the other feeding method - strapping meat to naked journalists and sending them into the enclosure - is just a joke.

Finally we drive to the woods to find old logs for Gilberto and the other anteaters. They like nothing more than tearing through rotten wood in search of bugs. We head back along the bumpy farm track as the sun drops. I envy the keepers' contentment, but I'm not about to swap. The fresh air has wiped me out. In the search for the energy to get home, I hunt down a chocolate muffin. It meets a swift demise in my own embracio del muerte.

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