Danielle Ridgway has only been a zookeeper for just over a year but in that short time she has coached a cheetah to run at top speed and cared for and released into the wild an endangered animal that began life looking like a little pink jelly bean.
Ms Ridgway’s job title is Threatened Species and Native Animal Keeper at Werribee Open Range Zoo in Victoria.
She said she’s “living a dream”.
“I pinch myself every day. I couldn’t be happier.”
Every day is busy and different, with a big list of jobs to get through before she can say goodbye to all her animals each evening.
One of her most thrilling days at work so far was the day she and her colleagues decided to challenge the female cheetah named Kulinda to run as fast as she would out in the wild.
“We have a machine and we attach a piece of meat to it and that encourages her to run,” said Ms Ridgway.
“The way we generally set her up she used to cheat.”
Kulinda had learned where to sit and wait for her meal so she didn’t have to run to catch it.
“So one of the days we set (the machine) up in a different spot and she absolutely sprinted, which we filmed on slow-mo video.
“A small change can be so enriching*. A small idea can make a big impact on the animal, visitors and keepers.”
VIDEO: Watch Kulinda sprint to chase her meal
Cheetah Kulinda at Werribee Open Range Zoo
When she was at school she wanted to be an actor but a trip to Africa changed the course of her life.
“I was volunteering in Africa,” Ms Ridgway, 26, said.
“A rhino had been poached before I arrived. That someone could do that was unfathomable* but (I learned) that there was more to that story.”
She came to understand that poaching happens as part of a bigger set of problems that often include war, drought, habitat destruction and poverty.
“It’s not just bad people killing animals. We need to take a holistic* approach to conservation.”
Ms Ridgway studied biology at school and graduated from university with a degree called a Bachelor of Wildlife Conservation.
She also volunteered with the RSPCA and there gained another qualification called a Certificate 2 in Animal Studies, which helped her learn how to take care of domestic animals and learn basic animal health, knowledge and skills she uses every day at the zoo.
After more study with Zoos Victoria and Taronga Zoo, she completed a placement, a bit like work experience, at Zoos Victoria’s Werribee Open Range Zoo, where she was already doing a different role, as a safari guide.
As a threatened species and native animal keeper, Ms Ridgway is involved in programs to breed young of local species – such as orange-bellied parrots and eastern-barred bandicoots – on the brink* of extinction, with the aim of releasing them into the wild. She counts releasing an eastern-barred bandicoot as another highlight of her job so far.
“Seeing animals you’ve bred, (born looking like) as a little jelly bean and then released out into the wild is rewarding.”
Some of the essential tasks aren’t quite so exciting.
“Sometimes we have to pick up poo or clean out a gross bucket but the positives outweigh the negatives.”
A day in the life of a zookeeper
DANIELLE’S TYPICAL DAY AT THE ZOO
- Morning meeting with the Native Animals team to discuss animal updates and veterinary concerns
- Collect food for the animals from the keeper kitchen
- Travel to the Australia Trail
- Visual check and feed tammar wallabies and potoroos
- Collect eucalyptus branches for the koalas
- Visual check and feed emus and kangaroos
- Visual check and feed koalas
- Clean koala enclosure
- Visual check and feed the critically-endangered orange-bellied parrots
- Clean the orange-bellied parrot enclosure
- Complete weekly tasks in Australia Trail (for example, top up bedding in shelters)
- Train tammar wallabies to participate in health checks without being restrained
- Train potoroos to be recalled for health checks or in an emergency
- Train mountain pygmy possums to come to a ‘station’ for health checks and weighing
- Prepare enrichment items for animals that encourage them to use their minds and bodies like they would in the wild
- Wash animals’ dishes
- Clean water bowls, rake sand and feed the critically endangered eastern-barred bandicoots
- Complete monthly health checks on individuals
- Enter information such as the animals’ weights into the zoo’s computer system
- Collect food for afternoon feeds and final visual checks
- Feed tammar wallabies and potoroos
- Train kangaroos for recall and feed
- Feed koalas
- Visual check on the orange-bellied parrots
- Lock up all enclosures
- Afternoon meeting with the Native Animals team
- Wash up
- Home time!
- enriching: improve the quality of something
- unfathomable: can’t be understood
- holistic: taking the whole situation into account, rather than just one part
- brink: extreme edge or the point at which something terrible is about to happen
- What is the cheetah’s name?
- What skills did Danielle Ridgway learn while volunteering at the RSPCA?
- What are two critically endangered species being bred at the zoo?
- What are two not-so-nice tasks she does?
- Name four species she cares for every day in her current role.
LISTEN TO THIS STORY
1. All about animals
Make a list of all the animal species Danielle is responsible for caring for at the Werribee Open Range Zoo. Then choose one of the animals to research. Record five facts about the animal that you think would be most important for a zookeeper who cares for the animal to know about them.
Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Science
On a black or coloured sheet of paper, draw and cut out the silhouette of the animal you chose. Neatly write your facts onto your silhouette so they can be displayed in your classroom.
Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Science, Visual Art
Wow, Danielle has done some really amazing things at Werribee Zoo, and she has only been there a year.
Imagine what else she is going to achieve.
But she has to also complete her daily tasks as well.
Turn Danielle’s daily routine into a diary entry and add one extra exciting thing she might encounter in her role.
You may like to turn it into a week of entries if you like.
Don’t forget to use your VCOP skills to highlight Danielle’s voice and show us the difference between the plain boring and really exciting moments in the story.
HAVE YOUR SAY: If you could be a keeper for any animal in the world, what animal would you choose?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.