6AM Rain clatters against the tin roof of my caravan. My windows don’t have curtains; from my bed, the first sparks of still-sleepy light are visible in the bleary sky. Neither the light nor the rain are responsible for waking me up. Instead, it’s a distant, persistent roar that acts as my morning alarm. It’s the sound of an African lion.
6.30AM The lion’s stopped but now there’s a farm cat meowing somewhere. Oh, she’s trapped in the caravan. Better let her out. Can I be bothered to go to the toilet yet? No.
7AM Daylight Savings Time has returned a yellow sun to the early hours. I throw on my clothes and shuffle the long path to the public toilets inside the zoo. Paddocks flank me on either side, and goats line up to bleat in protest at my empty hands. I’ve seen them drink each other’s mid-stream urine enough times to contemplate saving myself a trip, but vestiges of civility pull me back from the brink. This time. Out of nowhere, Bella – our insane work dog – flies into my leg and starts gnawing excitedly on my hands. She thinks we’re opposite poles of a magnet, and only the eminently chewable basketball presents a greater pull and a blessed distraction.
7.30AM WWOOFer breakfast in the garage. Bella knocks coffee all over the table, leaping around like a fish on deck. I eat a croissant, a yoghurt and an apple, all of which I salvaged from the supermarket’s waste. This will sound very slightly less disgusting in about four paragraphs.
8AM The morning feed. My two fellow WWOOFers and I load up the trolleys from the work fridge and head down into the zoo. I’m grateful for the help: for the first week, I was doing this by myself. Hay for the donkeys and alpacas – the insane black ram headbutts everything in sight in an attempt to establish dominance over the food supply, but meekly relinquishes his alpha status once the male donkey arrives. The ostrich bounds over like she’s been watching too many roadrunner cartoons and alternates between pecking the bread and pecking whatever human limb is holding the bread. When the emus are hungry, they can be similarly aggressive.
The lions and tigers stayed out last night, and the Bengal tigers prowl up and down their enclosure, following us as we conduct the feed. It would be intimidating, except they break it up with full-on belly rolls, as if auditioning for any farm pet vacancies. The meerkat is thrilled to see me, and it takes a while to shoo her away from the wall so I don’t accidentally step on her when jumping into her pen. Meanwhile, the parrots screech in anger at their low position in the pecking order, and the monkeys screech in anger at the parrots’ disturbance of the peace.
8.30AM The ducks have crapped all over the pavement. Worse, the donkeys have crapped right next to the fence where the visitors stand. Bird poo can be pressure sprayed, but the donkey shit gets picked up nugget by nugget with latex gloves. The old stuff’s solid enough, but the fresh poo is soft and slimy. If possible, fob this job off on someone else – after all, someone has to change the wallabies’ water and collect the chicken eggs.
9AM Time to drive the truck down the winding Taranaki roads to Countdown supermarket. A mutually-beneficial deal with the grocery giant gives us all their bread, fruit and vegetable waste for free. I load it into barrels and load the barrels onto the truck. The amount of perfectly good food thrown away every day is ethically reprehensible beyond comprehension. As a conservative estimate, it would be enough to provide 100 people with sufficient food for a day. That’s the waste produced by a single supermarket in a single 24 hour period.
9.30AM Snack harvesting time. Over 90% of the produce in the barrels is still in packaging and I’m pretty laissez-faire about my food consumption at the best of times. Whatever I don’t filter out gets sorted into baskets and trays, ready for food preparation.
10AM WARNING: THIS PARAGRAPH MAY UPSET THOSE WHO PREFER IT WHEN THEIR HORSES ARE ALIVE AND NOT CHOPPED INTO PIECES. THEY ARE LIKELY TO BE PARTICULARLY UPSET THAT I WROTE A REALLY GLIB AND GRUESOME WARNING IN CAPITAL LETTERS. In the chiller, there is a horse. I know it’s a horse, because its head is just sitting on the floor, fur still intact, a beady eye gleaming reproachfully up at me. The rest of it is hung up in segments on huge meat hooks, red and bloody and raw. Definitely put on latex gloves for this. Also best to have a chainmail glove on your non-cutting hand, so the only flesh you end up dicing is horse. Half an exhausting hour later, you’ve hopefully got two full buckets of meat for the tigers and lions. If they’re not full, it’s because the cats have snuck into the chiller with you and have been ransacking the buckets behind your back.
10.30AM Please. No more cutting horse. What? There are seven people doing the Tiger Encounter at lunch-time? Guess I better cut 35 more pieces of horse then. Spattered blood begins to mark my trails between the chiller and the prep room.
11AM WWOOFer Troy has building expertise, so he’s outside building a fence. Fortunately I have no such competence, but I do (apparently) have half a degree in Computer Science. Little do the zoo owners know that this in no way qualifies me to build a website (I’m sure the University of Oxford would be appalled that I attempted to use my knowledge for practical purposes) but as it turns out, I coincidentally understand basic HTML and CSS from my own teenage interest in such things. So I set up the zoo website. Do I remember how to write PHP? It turns out: No.
11.30AM Okay, I understand the PayPal donation button involves fees, but why have they taken 48% of my test donation? I guess I’ll spend the most frustrating half hour of my day talking to PayPal’s completely inept automated telephone system in an attempt to sort it out. I have a feeling that if the robot on the other end of the phone was subjected to the Turing Test, it would fail to even reach the benchmark for being a computer, and instead end up being classified as a type of rock.
12PM Lunch! Yesterday, our super-generous host family gave my fellow WWOOFers and I money to take their 7-year-old son out for lunch. He and I spent a good hour – in between mouthfuls of Chinese buffet – discussing the speed of light and whether in fact you could build a spaceship that could travel at one thousand million billion trillion gazillion katrillion kazillion miles a second. I expressed reservations but he maintains yes. Today there’s no time for lunch trips so I mostly eat salvaged baked goods. Infinite free cakes is simultaneously the most delicious and most dangerous thing that has ever happened to me.
12.30PM Time for a shower? This is a big consideration, because there’s only one shower for all of us, and it’s in my caravan. Also, it’s not a shower, it’s just a Chinese Water Torture Room. There you are, huddled naked and dry inside a tiny box, water pressure set to maximum, whimpering in confusion as you anticipate when the next single drop of scalding hot water will deign to drip from the moulding shower head. It’s coming, it’s coming, it’s – no, that’s just a spider. Still, as WWOOFer Tara optimistically points out, at least the water’s warm.
1PM The manager is running Tiger Encounters, so I’m in charge of the tickets and shop. I actually really enjoy customer service, especially when it involves wide-eyed happy children. This possibly sounds sarcastic, but it isn’t.
1.30PM Public lion and tiger feeding. Watch as visitors crowd around the enclosures, marvelling at the fact that lions and tigers are really good at eating meat. The ranking order is interesting: the female lions won’t touch the meat until the male lion has chosen his, and then the male lion’s sister gets to eat before the unrelated lioness.
2PM Try to fix the office security camera. Wow, I really don’t know what I’m doing. EDITOR’S NOTE: I fixed this three days later! All it took was a tftp firmware transfer and a paperclip.
2.30PM Free time! I could watch a BluRay on the ludicrously big television in my caravan, or I could hop in a WWOOFer car and drive the 10km into town. Ah, actually I’ve fallen asleep face-down on my bed while trying to play Tower Madness on my phone.
4.30PM Zoo’s closed; time for the afternoon feed. Today the two tigers are happy to be lured into their nighthouse by the promise of more food. The lions are having none of it: Aslan eyes us balefully from the other side of the enclosure, and if he’s not moving, neither of the females are going to budge either. The cockatoos greet us with cheerful cries of Hello Darling, while the capuchin monkeys display absolutely no manners in grabbing fistfuls of bread through their wire enclosures. One of them has bread stuffed into both his hands and his mouth, but he’s still trying to fight to gather more.
And finally, the gibbon. Sigh. Look, I understand people’s objections to zoos, and I agree with many of them. Perhaps it’s naive to suppose that I can work at a zoo without it seeming like an implicit endorsement, but I certainly retain reservations. As it happens, most of the animals at this small, private zoo seem genuinely content with their lives and seem to have a reasonably safe, comfortable and healthy existence.
But then there’s the gibbon. Nothing in the whole world looks as depressed as that gibbon. She used to have a partner, but now she’s alone. The other monkeys swing eagerly to gather their dinner; she shuffles over and sits next to my feet on the floor of her enclosure. I crouch down and feed her food through the bars; she collects it listlessly, leaving one small paw pressed up against the wires. I put a finger through the fence and gently stroke her arm. Eventually she begins to eat.
5PM Still depressed by the gibbon.
5.30PM Cheered up by playing with our host family’s irrepressible children, speeding bundles of inquisitive joy. We work on the Lego City.
6PM Daylight Savings Time begins to snatch away the afternoon light. It’s colder now, and we huddle gratefully around our dinner of hot soupy noodles. Outside the open garage door, palm trees are silhouetted on the horizon. In a couple of hours, we’ll retreat to our caravans – maybe finally watch a film, or simply collapse after another stimulating and exhausting day. In the meantime, there’s always a chance to discuss and reflect on how lucky we are.
Lucky to have been taken in by a kind, friendly and generous family, who always tell us how much they appreciate our work and who are great fun to be around.
Lucky to have a roof over our heads and at least a shower of some description.
Lucky, as the supermarket trips remind us, to have food.
Lucky, in being surrounded by cages, to be free.
Lucky, wow, seriously lucky, to have the opportunity to take part in such a unique endeavour.
Because listen! That’s a lion roaring in the evening New Zealand air.
Snapshots of NZ
Reader of this week’s blog entry: That’s interesting, Jonathan, you seem to have been comparatively restrained on the photos. Good on you – I thought you’d have a ridiculous number of animal pictures.
Reader of next week’s blog entry: OH MY GOD IT’S NOTHING BUT ANIMAL PICTURES