Life at the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park (AWCP) has been busier than ever since reopening to the public after the pandemic. One of the first visitors the Wildlife Park received at the end of lockdown was a camera crew from GBC to start filming for a six-part series about life at the zoo. Producer, James Murphy, had planned just a four-part series, but after meeting the team and the animals at the AWCP he decided there was plenty of scope for a few more episodes.

The Wild Side was first aired on the 21st July, with the first episode focusing on life during lockdown for the animals and staff at the zoo. It also featured the parks Lockdown World Otter Day, also aired live on Facebook throughout the day. Subsequent episodes of The Wild Side feature the AWCP’s talented keepers demonstrating their skills at animal training, enrichment and welfare for the animals and introducing the true stars of the show… the animals!

Since the end of lockdown, the AWCP has also seen the (much delayed) arrival of a new member of staff. Mike Paricos applied for the role of animal keeper way back in February. He was selected for the role just a couple of weeks before lockdown and was due to start work at the end of April. But the worldwide pandemic had other ideas. Mike had finished a seasonal role at Longleat Safari Park, after starting his career at another, up and coming small zoo in the UK, WILD Zoological Park in the West Midlands. Mike is the cherry on the top of a fantastic and skilled keeper team at the Wildlife Park. Since his much awaited arrival in July, he has taken on the role of small mammal keeper and is also working with primate keeper, Nic Campbell with the Long-tailed macaques.

One of the few perks of lockdown was that Neil Grey, employed as a temporary Keeper at the park, was able to continue to work a for few months longer, filling the role whilst Mike was stuck in the UK. Neil joined the AWCP as an intern back in 2017. After six months volunteering, he was offered a temporary role in the Botanic Gardens to train in the maintenance department. After a year, he was drafted back the the Wildlife Park to utilise his maintenance skills and to give him the opportunity to gain more crucial experience as a zoo keeper. After the brave decision to change his career from chef to zoo keeper later on in life, Neil will need as much experience as he can get to compete in the competitive world of zoo keeping.

New recruits at the AWCP go through a period of intensive training. It is imperative that they are familiar with all routines, protocols and animal species in the park as on the weekends, there are only two members of staff onsite. Most keepers will be given a weekend shift just 4-5 weeks after they start the role, so they have to learn quickly. With such a small team, the training of new volunteers, interns and staff is an important job, usually carried out by senior staff. However, with a plethora of other tasks, it can be difficult for senior staff to provide the consistency and time required. Training is also an inset and learned skill, something Nic Campbell exhibited early on. ‘We noticed early on that Nic had a fantastic knack for training new interns and volunteers’ says manager, Jess Leaper. With a background in training students at a zoological training center, Nic is well qualified to carry out this important task. It is also incredibly helpful for Nic to have volunteers trained well on her section, as this gives her more time to spend on other important tasks such as training animals and providing enrichment.

9am It’s time to prepare the food for the animals. Nutrition is an important part of keeping an animal healthy, something the park takes very seriously. But it has taken a while to perfect the diets for some of the animals. New recruits are shown how to weigh out the correct diets. ‘Everything we feed our animals is weighed out, this maintains consistency in the animals diets. In the past, when we had only a couple of staff members, we all knew the quantities by sight. As the team grew, it became clear we needed a more precise presentation of the diets to stop them drifting’ says Jess. Diet sheets hung up in the food prep kitchen help new recruits and volunteers to manage the animals diets, as well as providing a handy reminder to keepers when drafted on to other sections of the zoo.

10am Mike has worked with a variety species before, including big cats and other potentially dangerous species. At the Wildlife Park there are a few species that can be considered dangerous – often referred to as Category 1 animals. Rather surprisingly, the Asian short-clawed otters are one such species. These cute and seemingly ‘cuddly’ creatures actually have immensely strong jaws, designed for crunching through shellfish and bones. Thankfully, the two female otters at the AWCP have generally been pretty friendly towards staff, so Keepers are able to safely go inside the enclosures and work with them. Another surprising Category 1 species is the Potbellied pigs. There are three male pigs, or ‘boars’, at the park and they can sometimes be a little aggressive and unpredictable. For this reason, those animals deemed unsafe to work in with have to be shifted out of the enclosure whilst the keepers clean.

12pm At the AWCP, enrichment and stimulation for the animals is imperative. The park is just an acre in size, so the enclosures are not large, but staff work hard to keep the animals as enriched as possible. Since taking on the Egyptian fruit bats, Mike has set about creating a new dynamic inside the two bat enclosures. By gradually adding more ropes and branches and moving things around, he is adding complexity and stimulation for the animals. As these bats navigate in the dark using echolocation, any changes should be detected – however, like humans, bats can become lazy and tend to assume they know the environment they are familiar with. For this reason, changes should be made slowly to reduce the chances of collision and injury to the bats fragile wings.

Since reopening the park after lockdown, the bats and potbellied pigs have been closed off to the visitors, but not for the reasons people might fear. It is nothing to do with the potential link between bats and COVID19, but in fact due to the heavy plastic curtains visitors would have to touch to enter the bat area. This presented a potential transmission site for the virus, not just to other visitors but also to staff. The decision was taken to keep this area closed for the foreseeable future, until it is deemed safe. The plus side being, Mike has plenty of time to transform these areas before they are revealed again to the visiting public, hopefully in the not to distant future.

2pm Afternoons at the AWCP are all about getting those extra, and often heavy, jobs done. Before lockdown, the Botanic Gardens team delivered three ton bags of soil for the park. This was going to be distributed throughout some of the enclosures in need of some new substrate, notably the Potbellied pigs. But with just two staff on each day throughout lockdown, this was not a job for this time. Mike has therefore inherited a mammoth task!

Pigs love to wallow, and they love rooting around in mud and soil. After years of cleaning the enclosures, the soil in the pig pen has depleted somewhat and was in desperate need of replenishment. On a hot August day, Mike set about the task with relish, helped by some volunteers and keepers. The team effort was rewarded by happy pigs rooting for their buried snacks, inadvertently doing their bit, helping the keepers to spread the soil around the enclosure.

To find out more about the AWCP, check out their Facebook/Instagram page, watch The Wild Side on gbc.gi, or visit www.awcp.gi.

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Jess Leaper has managed the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park (AWCP) for over 12 years. Having completed her MSc project on the Barbary macaque, she later returned to Gibraltar and was asked to help out at the Wildlife Park. Vowing to somehow improve the enclosures of the primates there before she moved on, she managed that and much more. Now also active locally in sustainability groups and campaigns, raising awareness of Climate Change, particularly in relation to species and habitats.