If you didn’t want to be an astronaut, ballerina or one of the Spice Girls as a kid, it’s likely you wanted be a lion keeper, but most of us chickened before we even got close. Not this week’s LDNER Tony Cholerton, the big cats keeper at London Zoo. So take a walk on the wild side and find out what working with these big cats up close and personal is really like…
Where do you live in London and what do you like about the area?
I live in Bromley-by-Bow in the East End of London. I love being an east Londoner – I’m ten minutes from the City, the Olympic Park and Stratford. I am also close to beautiful Greenwich and the hustle and bustle of the Docklands so there is always something to do when I am not looking after lions and tigers at ZSL London Zoo.
Describe your typical day.
The first thing I do when I start work is to visit our pride of Asiatic lions in their Land of the Lions home, and our Sumatran tigers Melati, Jae Jae and their cubs Achilles and Karis in Tiger Territory. They are always pleased to see me: particularly Jae Jae, our male, who likes to play hide and seek when he spots me! Then it’s feeding time – the tigers have their food in their indoor dens, which allows me to enter their enclosure and muck it out every day. After this I clean their inside dens and prepare their food for the rest of the day.
In the afternoon I take part in our Tigers Live talks, which are a great chance for the public to learn about the critically endangered Sumatran tiger, and for us to do some training with them. While one of our presenters tells our visitors some facts about the species, I feed Jae Jae some chicken wings from outside the enclosure, before blowing a whistle that signals him to move towards the other end of the paddock for a reward. Once there, both Jae Jae and Melati are given a scatter feed, which involves throwing small pieces of meat into different parts of their enclosure for them to sniff out and eat. I give our three lionesses a scatter feed in Land of the Lions: Heidi, Indi and Rubi are all sisters who were born at ZSL London Zoo and I’ve known them since birth.
Before I go home I do some more training with the tigers. We spend a lot of time providing training for all the animals at both our Zoos, so that if we have to move any of them – to clean their paddocks, for example, or when we need to carry out vital veterinary checks to monitor their health — it is a stress-free experience for them.
Before becoming a zoo keeper you were a motorbike mechanic, what led to the change?
I knew that I didn’t want to work on motorbikes for ever so I started browsing education courses in London for inspiration. I found out that the Zoological Society of London were doing a course on Animal Ecology and Conservation and it sparked my interest. I have always loved animals and been fascinated by nature programmes – especially Sir David Attenborough’s – so I thought I would give the course a try. It was the best decision I’d ever made – after the course I discovered that ZSL London Zoo was recruiting education volunteers so I signed up. That led to me becoming a volunteer keeper, working in the Tropical Birdhouse and I haven’t looked back since.
What have been some on the most memorable experiences over the last 20 years?
I experience so many unique moments– every day is different as an animal keeper. The best bits nearly always involve the animals having babies and I have been lucky enough to be there for the births of okapis, giraffes, lions, tigers and many more. Most recently, in June, coming in and finding out that Melati, the Sumatran tigress, was in labour with the cubs was a real highlight. We knew roughly when she was due to give birth so it was really exciting coming in each morning to see if she had gone into labour. I was working with her the day before and I saw signs that she was close – she was finding it difficult to get comfortable so I was sure that it was about to happen. The next day she had made her own way into her special cubbing den and was in labour. A few hours later we all watched on our “Cubcam” camera system while she gave birth to two tiny cubs. Jae Jae gently padded in soon after to check on Melati and the cubs and it was incredible to watch them start bonding. I’ve also been fortunate to be filmed as part of the ITV series The Zoo, which was great fun.
And finally, what would your perfect day be in London?
I love a bit of excitement so I like to do things like speed-boating down the Thames, going on the London Eye, taking the Emirates cable car and going on the Orbit slide – followed by a good meal. We’re so lucky to have such an amazing and diverse range of things to do in this city, as well as incredible restaurants and cafes. You never have to do the same thing twice and you never run out of new things to experience.
ZSL London Zoo, Regent’s Park, NW1 4RY