Our monthly spotlight on the superstars at the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park… and their keepers!

As you approach the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park along the winding paths and mighty dragon trees amidst birds singing and insects buzzing, the sounds begin to disappear, making it difficult to ignore the sound of resident Asian Short-Clawed Otters, Trixie and Dixie, shouting at AWCP’s Animal Keeper Lucy for their breakfast. “If you forget, they’ll remind you like they’re doing right now,” she calls out above the noise of the hungry twin sisters.

Lucy Chivers arrived at the park in April after completing a degree in Animal Science and later a masters in Global Wildlife Health and Conservation. Her preliminary study on the foraging behaviours of eighteen Ring-Tailed Lemurs in Wild Place Project has been used in a boot camp endorsed by Richard Branson with an aim to establish whether Lemur populations in captivity are able to pass on the necessary behaviours that will allow their reintroduction into the wild. “There are now more Ring-Tailed Lemurs in captivity than anywhere else in the world. Their numbers recently dropped and they are now listed as endangered,” she says.

At the AWCP, two of the many animals Lucy cares for are Trixie and Dixie, who were donated to the park in 2012 after they were rejected by their family group at their former home at Newquay Zoo, UK. “Trixie is the louder of the two for sure. She’s the one you can always hear screaming. You know that she’s alive when you come in first thing in the morning. Dixie is more of a dark horse. She comes across as a lot sweeter and is normally the victim in the fights that happen between them. However, if you’re in her enclosure and she doesn’t want you to be there… I’ve had a fair amount of nibbles to the back of my boots.”

They somehow managed to escape from their home in Newquay Zoo twenty-seven times, probably because they were being pushed away by their group. Then they arrived at AWCP they escaped another four times. This is where Trixie got her name from.

9:00 AM – At the start of a working day at AWCP, Trixie will begin by announcing her hunger so that everyone in the gardens can hear her. Their first feed usually consists of raw fish or meat, usually injected with cod liver oil for their joints and some potassium sulfate for kidney stones – something otters are highly susceptible to. Lucy will then clean their enclosures which is fairly easy as they are water-based, which means a big hose, some disinfectant and a good scrubbing brush. She also checks the filters to ensure they’re running smoothly. However, this is not always a smooth job.

“If we have to fix the filter Dixie will come in and join you, and it’s terrifying because you know she has the capability to bite you. It’s like a shark – she’ll go under and you’ll see these little bubbles following and coming around closer to you. You stamp your feet and she’ll do a little run around, and you’ll see her pop up on the side and then jump back in. She’s a nightmare, she’s like a cute, furry little Jaws.”

12:00 PM – At this time they will usually get their second feed of the day, normally some prawns. “Trixie takes all her shell off and Dixie will eat them whole, she really likes the heads. When they are given their food they always wash it which is quite sweet,” says Lucy.

2:00 PM – For their third feed of the day they will be given another portion of raw fish or meat. Normally, in between feeds they’ll be given some training. Lucy has taught them to enter and exit their crates which is a useful tool when it comes to check-ups at the vets.

4:15 PM – Most of the food they are given is thrown into the water, which is important to keep them busy later on in the day. They also have a habit of keeping a designated pebble for the majority of their lives. They use it as a tool to open crustaceans and shellfish, and you can often find them lying or floating on their backs playing with them.

In May, Lucy helped run a World Otter Day workshop: “We made otter dens with the children and demonstrated feeding techniques, training and enrichment with the otters.” One of the other jobs Lucy is preoccupied with at the moment is ZIMS, a worldwide zoo data system used to track animal histories, medical needs and current information on how they are doing at that point in time. All the information on every animal at AWCP has been uploaded and Lucy has recently been updating this information. One of the reasons for this is for working with European breeding programmes, transfer of animals to other collections and also to assist keepers with record keeping, tracking animal weights and training programmes and also helps new staff to catch up on how to deal with certain animals.

Author Aimee is a student of Journalism in London and hopes to focus her writing on environmental and conservation in the future. She has been working at the AWCP over the summer on the Government Summer Student Scheme.