Great Britain

Selfless zoo workers self-isolate at wildlife park after fearing lockdown would hurt the animals

THE penguins still waddle out of the water at the same time every day, clamouring for their fishy lunch.

But the crowds of visitors are no longer pressed up against the fences of their enclosure.

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The doors may be shut to the public, but wildlife parks up and down the country still have to feed and care for their animals — all while working from home where possible.

So one group of staff have decided on a drastic plan.

Keepers Izzy Saralis-Wheatley, Sarah-Jane Jelbart and Emily Foden have moved in and are now living and working among their animals at Paradise Park in Cornwall.

Izzy, 20, who is deputy head of softbills, says: “About five days ago, we started thinking about what we could do.

“We were worried that if some of the keepers become ill themselves or can’t work because a family member is showing symptoms, then we needed a plan to make sure the animals are still cared for.

“By removing ourselves from our families, we will hopefully be at less risk and continue working.”

The park’s director, Alison Hales, adds: “This past week has been extraordinary for us.

“It’s the first time we have closed our doors other than for Christmas Day in 46 years.

“The shop, cafe and indoor play areas are silent but the birds are full of the joys of spring and the keepers have their hands very full.

“The timing is terrible for wildlife parks, which rely on visitors to run, and would usually put on special events for Easter.


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“We are looking into the offers of help from the Government and concentrating on our conservation work on the meantime.

“It’s a challenging period but we will make sure we are here for generations to come.”

Here, Izzy takes us through her new daily routine.


I’m getting used to waking up in such a quiet place. As one of five children, all of whom are at home at the moment, it’s strange not to be surrounded by a lot of noise.

The big house in the park was the original home of the family who founded the place. It’s now used as on-site accommodation for people coming for conservation meetings.

It was all ready to welcome people for our Operation Chough project but that had to be cancelled with the coronavirus crisis and now we have moved in instead.

There are three of us but we have separate rooms and try to keep our distance as much as possible.


Prior to lockdown, we would have had three or four people sorting out the feeds in the morning, but we are staggering our shifts so one person comes in early to start setting everything out.

They can then leave the wheel-barrows full of feeds for the other keepers to pick up and take around the enclosures, which minimises our contact with each other.

Some of our keepers are off already, so we have pulled in ­part-time staff and we’re just doing what we can to cover each other.


We have seven keepers working each day, so by about 8.30am everyone is in, but keeping their distance from each other while in our separate sections.

So one looks after the jungle side, for instance, which involves our birds of prey and breeding choughs.

Another goes to the small farm where we have miniature donkeys and other animals.
I have been on a fruit section which covered the finches, Edward’s pheasants, red-billed blue magpies and scarlet ibis.


When the park is open, we invite visitors to watch us feed the penguins at 11am and 3pm. We are keeping their feeding times the same to maintain their routine.
It’s hard to tell whether the penguins are missing the crowds.

“I think Paloma and Peaches are — they were hand-reared when they hatched last year and people can come and meet them.

Instead, they have been running up to us for cuddles.

We are doing live web feeding so our fans can stay involved with what’s happening here — and hopefully they will be excited to come back when we reopen.


Our half-hour lunch time is a bit different now that we have to be at least two metres apart. It’s always a good time to catch up with everyone and talk about what’s going on with the animals, but we are trying to steer clear of each other more now.

Although I feel quite safe here, the other staff members who are living at home could obviously come into contact with the disease and so we are still at risk.


It’s the start of breeding season so we’re putting up a lot of nest boxes and there is a lot of cleaning to be done.

We’ve got two Edward’s pheasant’s eggs, which are very rare. The penguins have 12 eggs and the parrots are also doing well.

Luckily, they mostly take care of their young themselves. It’s not like we’re at a zoo and need to help birth a giraffe, although we have previously had to help with lambing on our small animal farm.

Sometimes we do need to step in and help hand-rear, especially if it’s an endangered species, and that can be quite full on.

We’ve just had five screamer chicks, which will grow into big turkey-type birds. They’re so gorgeous. The babies need an extra meal in the day after our lunch.


We are busy training up some of our maintenance staff and Jungle Barn and cafe staff in how to feed the birds.

In a worst-case scenario — if none of the keepers can come in — we can’t go without feeding the animals. We have also written up simple guides so if everything goes to pot then we can call on a staff member, such as the cafe staff who are currently not working.

They know their way around the place and can dish out the feeds in an emergency.


All the normal maintenance and cleaning jobs still have to go ahead, such as cleaning the panda boxes.

PM Boris Johnson has told us to take a daily walk, and it’s no different for our birds of prey who still have to stay fit.

Some of our show staff are flying them every day and training them for the summer shows, even if we don’t know when we will reopen.


It’s time for our afternoon break. We’re trying to keep as calm as we can and make sure we can still have our breaks.

But there are fewer staff around and we can’t work in teams, which sometimes means working longer hours to get everything done.

We don’t mind because it’s only for a short while. We love the park and the animals and we will do what we can to pull through.


A second round of feeding across the park. Someone will go and make sure the donkeys have enough food and see if they need cleaning out. Then it’s a matter of getting all the dishes ready for feeding again in the morning.

We need to put some of the birds and animals away for the night.

The flamingos can stay out now it’s getting warmer.


I’m back to my temporary home. The clothes go straight in the wash and I jump in the shower to reduce any risks of contamination.

It’s strange to be working here when the weather is so nice and the place isn’t packed with people.

Hopefully it won’t be too long before that happens again.

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