Special Report: Behind the scenes at Fota Island this festive season

Shanto and one of the other Asiatic lions at Fota Wildlife Park, Co. Cork.

While we tuck into our turkey and all the trimmings, the residents of Fota Wildlife Park won’t go hungry, with the park’s dedicated staff foregoing their own Christmas dinners to serve up some special fayre. Susan O’Shea went behind the scenes to see what’s on the menu

When we think of people having to work on Christmas Day our thoughts usually turn to frontline emergency staff - doctors, nurses, firemen, gardaí.

But while Fota Wildlife Park will be closed to the public from the 24-26 of December, its animals still need to be fed, watered and looked after, especially if the weather turns bad.

Willie Duffy, head ranger, who has worked at the wildlife park for a remarkable 31 years, says most of the inhabitants aren’t too bothered by our weather and our winters.

Willie Duffy, head ranger, with Jamil, the Indian rhino, at Fota Wildlife Park, Co. Cork. All Pictures: Denis Minihane

“In the lions’ native habitat, temperatures can drop below zero at night, so they aren’t too worried about the cold. The wet is a different thing, as it can get into the bones. But the lions have a hut outside that’s heated, it’s called pride rock. And inside their house they have a mulch bed that the heat comes up through and they lie on top of each other, so there’s family warmth. Equally, the tigers don’t mind the cold, and when it snowed last year they had great fun.

If it is wet, all the animals have access to warm shelters. The fundamentals of looking the animals are similar to humans, water, food, shelter. Storms we have to watch for.

"For example, look how wooded the tiger enclosure is. You don’t want to come in in the morning and find a tree down, and a tiger out. So we watch for storms and can bring them and keep them secure in advance.”

Indeed good weather can actually hit Fota where it hurts … in the pocket.

“People think we had a great year but we had a fantastic summer weather-wise and it’s free to go to the beach, if you get what I mean, so that hurt us. We are weather-dependent, so that’s why doing different things like offering tours is important as it brings in more revenue.”

A picture taken in Fota by lead ranger Kelly Lambe during the big freeze of Dourga, one of the Sumatran Tigers, with a snowman.

Willie provides twice-daily private guided tours of the park for small numbers, usually family groups, where visitors not only get to feed some of the animals, but are also reminded of the importance of conservation.

“Animals can survive on this planet without us, but we can’t survive without them. Fota is not just a business and a place to see animals, education and conservation are key, with 17,000 school kids passing through the park’s education centre on an annual basis”, raising awareness of the threat to animals and our planet as a whole.

He says while most people come to Fota to see the big names, like the giraffe and rhino, it’s the small species like the bee and the butterfly that are essential to our ecosystem, the ones “that spread the seeds of life”, and he encourages people to promote these things in their garden through proper planting.

In conservation terms, the European bison, Europe’s largest land mammal, is one of the park’s big breeding successes.”These are one of the key species we have sent back to the wild. There was only 30 of them left in the wild in the last century, now there are 5,000, and we have sent bison back into the wild, to Romania and Poland.”

The oryx is another key species. “They were actually extinct in African 20 years ago, so if there weren’t zoos around, they wouldn’t be alive. In 2005, a scientist found a group in Tunisia and there was a male from Fota released into the wild there, and he became leader of let’s say a ‘harem’, so that was a big success”.

He points out one of Fota’s latest additions, the giraffe viewing gallery opened just this summer, a wild flower garden for native plants, bees, butterflies, and beneath it an education hub, explaining the different giraffes, species and their personalities.

While cruise liner visits are big business for Cobh and the greater Cork region, it’s the crew rather than passengers who visit the park. “If you think about it, it you are American and you come to Ireland, you’d rather kiss the Blarney Stone or go to Kerry than visit a wildlife park. The crew finish up at 10 o’clock, and they have a few hours and a lot of them come here, and in fairness to Irish Rail, when a ship comes in they lay on a train every half hour.”

The big attraction of Fota, according to Wille, is the fact that so many of the animals are free-range. “When you come in the first thing you see is the African paddock, it’s like a piece of Africa in Cork. You’ve got kangaroos, wallabies, ring-tailed lemurs, maras, they are all free range, and people love that they have the freedom to roam.”

The pride of Fota

In 2016, Fota got its first lions, male Shanto, and sisters Gira and Gita and in August 2017, Gira gave birth to three cubs. The pride is thriving.

Willie calls the male, Shanto and he immediately responds, bounding over to the glass for a close-up, closely followed by the cubs. The close relationship the rangers have with the animals means that they respond to their names (and the sound of the buggy bringing food), allowing the ranges to visually check for any marks, or cuts, and even get the animals to stand on a scales and be weighed. These are asiatic lions, and Willie says the reason Fota is focussing on Asia is because China and India are the fastest growing economies in the world, their habitats are under severe pressure.

Fota’s lions are fed meat like in the wild, a mix of chicken, rabbit, horsemeat and beef. “It may not be antelope like what they would hunt in India but meat is meat. The good thing is we can order in half carcasses of horsemeat, it’s not going to come chopped up. We can hang it on the trees and that way they have to use their strength and muscles to pull it down.”

Ranger Kelly Lambe says while she doesn’t have a favourite, she’s particularly fond of the pride, and since the cubs were born in the park it’s been a real privilege to watch them grow and see their personalities develop.

A peacock keeping an eye out at Fota Wildlife Park, Co. Cork.

“Dad (Shanto) has been an amazing dad, we’ve been really lucky. Gira was a first-time mum, but she took to it really well, and he’s been a very hands-on dad. When food comes into the mix sometimes you get a situation where no-one wants to share, but he’s been very good in that he lets the cubs near him when he’s eating. They’ve really bonded well. A picture-perfect raising of the family!”

Closely guarded

When the rhino enclosure was built a number of years ago to house the park’s latest arrivals, it had to come with equipped with its own security plan.

“Rhino horn is worth $50,000 on the black market. Last year in France, raiders broke into a zoo and a rhino was shot and killed, and that sent shockwaves through the zoo world,” explains Willie. “So there are black boxes around the perimeter, more than 50 security cameras

guarding the park’s two Indian rhinos, and additional security measures in the house. Plus the fact that we are an island and have a lodge gate gives us added security.”

A bit like Rudolph, carrots are a favourite of the rhinos, but Willie Duffy says in small measure, as they are full of natural sugars, and obesity is as much an issue for animals as it is for humans.

“We have to watch their weight, if animals get obese then they won’t breed and we have a female rhino joining us in the new year so we need to keep these two boys in good shape.”

Grace Capithorne, trainee ranger

Grace Copithorne, a trainee ranger, and our reporter Susan O’Shea feeding the humbolt penguins at Fota Wildlife Park.

As a ranger, Grace will also be working on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with the penguins among those species under her care. Grace says Fota’s Humboldt penguins, originating from South America, are commonly referred to a ‘jack-ass’ penguins because the noise they make is remarkably similar to that of a donkey.

There are 26 penguins in the group, and they are fed twice daily with a mixture of different fish. Herring, a favourite, will probably make an appearance on Christmas Day.

Grace says the ‘old lady’ of the group is 15 years old, and always makes it to the front when it comes to feeding, but the rangers take care to ensure no bird goes hungry. Grace is not put out by having to work on Christmas Day, and says if she followed her original career path, which was training to be a nurse, she probably would be working the 25th anyway.

Working a morning shift means she will still get to enjoy her own dinner later in the day. While feeding the animals is the main priority, checking their shelters, access to water etc is also important, especially if there is bad weather the night before.

”I don’t think people realise the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes here 24/7.”

Kelly Lambe, lead ranger of carnivores

Kelly Lambe, lead ranger of carnivores, feeding Bonnie, a Red Panda, at Fota Wildlife Park, Co. Cork.

A member of the Fota staff for over five years, Kelly works every Christmas Day, usually covering the morning shift.

The animals under her care will definitely be getting a treat on the 25th and even in the run-up to the big day.

We certainly try to make things a little Christmassy. For the fruit and veg guys we will have some extras, like some brussels sprouts, and we also do some Christmas-themed enrichment.

"We have Advent Animals in the run-up to Christmas, with special animal-friendly treats for different specis over three different Sundays.

“For the lion-tailed macaques we made what looked like plum puddings, it was basically monkey pellet mushed up, with rice to look like icing, and a raspberries or strawberries on top. The lions get stockings made out of hession, which is a very safe product that if they ingest it isn’t a problem, and we are going to hang them up and they will get their stockings from Santa a little early.

"We hang them from a tree with giraffe straw inside, giraffe is a prey item. They will probably rip it up but that’s how big cats like to celebrate Christmas. The giraffes get some seasoned trees, leaves, bark. Their necks are a bit long for putting santa hats on! They are some of the most popular animals people like to see, and when we feed them the treats people get a closer look.”

Two of the park’s other inhabitants, Bonny and her daughter Miko, the red-pandas, will also get a treat this Christmas, with pellets soaked and shaped into plum puddings.

“They are very fond of fruit, so we will make a little fruit cake for them, with some pear in it. These guys are naturally found in places like Nepal so they are well used to adverse weather conditions.

“It’s not the greatest weather today, but they are just curled up in a ball, on what looks like a precarious branch, but they are not bothered by the rain or the cold, they just snuggle up and find their favourite spot. They have the option of a house but they always choose a tree, that’s their natural habitat. We are fortunate to have lots of bamboo in the park, so we can harvest it every day and they will get some of that on Christmas too. But they might stay curled up in a ball which is what most people will be doing on Christmas Day.”

Neither will the cheetahs and tigers be forgotten, with some tasty meat and some giraffe straw on offer.

They like to get the scent on themselves, to mask their smell, so they could potentially get closer to a prey without being noticed, it’s a natural behaviour, though to us it looks like a big cat rolling around in some straw, but obviously in this weather it’s nice to have some straw to roll around it

To mimic what happens in the wild, the tigers are fed five days a week, with two starve days where they go without food. Kelly says the tigers, particularly Dinar, definitely ‘sulk’ on those days, but December 25 won’t be a starve day.

“Most of the animals want to celebrate Christmas like we do, with a nice big feed, followed by a lie-down.”

Did you know?

All proceeds (€15,000) from the 50c duck feed goes to help fund a conservation project to safeguard the Madagscan Pochard, once feared extinct, and of which they are now only 24 left in the wild. Fota brings the annual contribution up to €20,000.

Did you know?

Fota receives no state funding and is completely reliant on its gate receipts to cover its costs, with €12m invested alone since 2010.

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