Passion. It’s the one word that unites the staff at Fota — from Ger, who manages the shop, and has worked there from the day it very first opened 31 years ago, to the warden who stops off at supermarkets for raspberries for a very picky iguana, to Sean McKeown, the director of the park and the man responsible for the breeding programmes for Northern Cheetahs across Europe.
Together, they form part of the small team of 45 people in winter — and double that in summer — who work at the park day in, day out. Incredibly, Fota, a non-profit organisation and registered charity, receives no funding — it relies solely on our entry fees and annual memberships for its very survival.
Sean McKeown has the best office view imaginable, hands down. The director of Fota Wildlife Park sits at his desk overlooking the cheetah run.
Outside, two cheetahs balm out side by side in the shade. They are brothers and they generally stay close, he explains, while the solitary female does her own thing, just like in the wild.
Later during our interview, one of them walks up to the full-length window we sit beside. He pays us no attention and swaggers back to the company of his brother.
But Sean stops mid-sentence to watch him. Even he, the man who has been director of Fota since the day it first opened, can’t take such a sight for granted.
There had been talk of a wall to border the cheetahs and the office building when Fota’s entrance was revamped in 2010, but Sean put a stop to that. The view he secured is fitting for the person known in the world of zoos and wildlife parks as ‘The Cheetah Man’. There has been a hugely successful breeding programme at Fota. More than 180 cheetahs have been bred, and today, Sean holds the studbook in Europe for the Northern Cheetah (around three years ago Fota made the transition to the more endangered Northern Cheetah). He decides if and when particular cheetahs should be bred across Europe — most zoos and wildlife parks allow free exchange of animals for breeding purposes, ensuring the genetic diversity of the captive population.
Sean has been director of Fota from the very beginning. In the late ’70s when Dublin Zoo decided to follow in the direction of London Zoo and create a wildlife/safari park, UCC made an approach. They had acquired Fota Island for its agricultural department and knew it was a perfect fit. At the time, Sean was assistant director at Dublin Zoo and he moved south, joining Fota as director.
Today the zoo and wildlife park share some of the same board, but day-to-day operations are completely separate.
Sean left after 14 years to work in Dubai, and he returned more than a decade later with big plans and a vision for Fota. There was the 2010 entrance revamp, and just last month he oversaw the opening of the Asian Sanctuary at Fota — its first, very high-profile residents being two Sumatran tigers.
When we first meet, it is just days from the official media launch and a busy time for Sean and his team.
The tigers are still in isolation after their road and ferry trips. The female, Dourga from France, is settling in well. The male, Denar from Poland, is quieter, but Sean knows it’s a matter of time until he settles. Creating an area for the tigers alone cost €2m and it is only phase one of a three-part €6m development. Rhinos are next, then Asian lions. All going well, phase two will be under way by year’s end. It’ll add an additional 27 acres to the 70-acre site at Fota and make the day trip a potential five-hour experience for visitors.
The wildlife park’s annual running costs, meanwhile, are over €3m and yet it receives no outside funding — bar a one-off grant of €200,000 towards the cost of the new €700,000 Tropical House from SECAD (South and East Cork Area Development). Incredibly they have never made a loss (“we budget, we plan,” I am told).
How do they pay for it all? With our entry fee. Thankfully, then, numbers are up. If the weather is right on a bank holiday weekend, visitors can reach more than 5,000. It’s the number one visitor attraction in Cork (second only in Munster to the Cliffs of Moher) so it’s little surprise that their numbers bring €145m a year in tourism to local hotels and B&Bs.
It’s a business, yes, and money talks — but conservation is the primary aim at Fota, Sean tells me, achieved through education, research, breeding and re-introductions. In fact, past practices of capturing animals in the wild for zoos have been reversed, with many zoos and wildlife parks now sending endangered animals to be set free in the wild as part of vital reintroduction programmes. For example, Fota sent Scimitar-horned Oryx to Tunisia and only last April transported European bison to Romania. Closer to home, Fota is striving to increase dwindling numbers of native Irish corncrake.
Just 12 wardens look after the 400 animals at Fota — three of them lead wardens. Kelly Lambe is the latest addition to the team. She came specifically to care for the tigers.
Originally from Kildare, she spent seven years in Australia and New Zealand where she worked in wildlife parks. Incredibly, she only started her zoo career in her 30s.
“I was in admin jobs and just started volunteering. While I was there I did my zoology degree and they offered me a job,” she says.
There was plenty of big cat experience so the move to Fota was a perfect fit. She left New Zealand in March and began work as Fota was readying itself for the tigers’ arrival.
The male is finally starting to settle in.
“He’s pretty shy,” says Kelly. “She’s inquisitive and she loves people. She’s an awesome cat.”
They are housed in separate cages, but they can see each other. And the intention is to breed them.
“She calls out to him with a kind of ‘chuff’,” says Kelly. “They come into season a lot and it’s only a three or four-month gestation, so by the end of the year who knows what might happen.”
Fota is divided into three areas, with each lead warden taking responsibility for the animals within it.
So Kelly won’t just be looking after tigers. Also under her remit, the section tagged ‘carnivores’ or ‘others’, are the cheetahs, meerkats, seals and red panda to name a few.
In addition, the brand new Tropical House will also be her responsibility later this summer.
Lynda McSweeney came to Fota on a graduate internship in 1994. “It was a FÁS course to get more women into managerial positions — and it worked,” she says.
Today she is the only woman on Fota’s management team. As I sit in on their morning meeting in the wildlife park’s coffee shop, Lynda holds her own at the table of men, all banter, wit and utter professionalism. There’s an ease to the meeting and later when I learn that zoo inspectors have commented on the rapport between management and staff overall, it comes as no surprise. This is a very special work environment.
“On my first day I was asked to create an educational programme for schools,” says Lynda. “And that was it.”
Today, more than 13,000 students pass through Fota’s doors on educational programmes, from primary to secondary to third level. And of course there are summer camps too. Lynda oversees all of it, trying to tie in with curriculums where possible. She’s even happy to develop tailored programmes if a teacher requests.
“We look at ecology, habitats and we learn about the native plants and animals too, not just the exotic,” she says.
Prices are kept at a minimum too — for primary schools it costs €10, just €2 more than the basic child’s entry fee.
Lynda shares the same passion for Fota as her co workers.
“I couldn’t ever have imagined not working with animals,” she says. “There isn’t a day when I don’t appreciate what I do — working outside with animals. Yes it rains, yes I take it for granted sometimes, but some animal will always put a smile on my face.”
Ger started on the shop floor when Fota just opened, and she’s worked there ever since.
“Back then, we only had a tiny space and small stores. We don’t know ourselves now,” she says of the 2010 revamp of the entrance. The shop employs three people full-time and doubles the number for summer.
“The meerkats and cheetah cuddly toys are big sellers — but now it’ll be the tigers. They buy at the end the day, based on what they see,” she says.
Like everyone else at Fota, Ger loves her job.
“My husband is retired. People ask me would I retire too, but, no, I love it,” she says.
“People are in great form. It’s summer. They open up to you.”
Willie slows the buggy as we approach the spider monkeys. “I want you to meet Ol Blue Eyes,” he says, as we park up. Sure enough, she emerges, bounding over, vying for attention across the water, darting her head to and fro from behind a rock.
“She’s 44, same age as me,” Willie laughs and tells us her story. It is thought she is the only animal at Fota not to be born in captivity; she came from Chester Zoo. Wardens there believed she was, once upon a time, taken from the wild.
Like Blue Eyes, so many animals have a story at Fota, and Willie is the man to tell them. He was Head Warden on the ground for years, until he began giving behind-the-scenes tours of the park last year.
There is no better person qualified to do the job. Again there’s that Fota passion but Willie isn’t just an ‘animal person’ — he has fantastic rapport with the public too, stopping to talk to people about the animals at every opportunity.
With him on one of the tours, I meet Maud, the three-legged lemur (“We still don’t know what happened to her, we came in one morning and she was just like that”), I feed a giraffe, learn about the penguin who perhaps caught a little of the plot of Madagascar and keeps escaping, and, my personal highlight, come face-to- face with Rog, the baby cheetah.
Born in late 2013, Willie raised him at home in his early weeks — he shows me photos of the bottle feeding cub with the pride of the father of newborn.
Rog is one of six cheetah cubs Willie has hand reared at home, often because of problems with the mother’s milk. It’s no easy task for the wardens with 1am feeds a requirement.
We see the brand new surgery by the Tropical House — wardens only have access to worming products, vitamins and prescribed medicine. The rest is under lock and key for the outside vet who calls when required. I watch as medicine is hidden in a piece of meat before it is thrown to a cheetah, and we observe the warden take note of everything that is administered — paperwork and record keeping are key.
We catch a glimpse of the guns cabinet — just four people have the key. It’s largely there for pest control. He shows us the 8ft fence to keep the foxes out, and the thinner wire mesh used to keep the mink out after they lost flamingos to the predator.
We experience the strange smells in the kitchen where food is prepped. The fruit and veg door is opened for us, full mainly of chopped veg for the monkeys; the fruit can be too acidic for their teeth. “The dominant bullies grab all the sweet things — so the others are actually healthier,” Willie tells us.
The meat fridge is kept closed, thankfully, home as it is to rabbits, horse meat and chickens for the big cats.
I have been visiting Fota for years with my children — but I will never look at the wildlife park the same way again after my tour with Willie.
*Fota’s VIP Family Experience costs €150 and lasts 2 hours
*Fota’s Behind the Scenes Experience costs €150 for two people and €100 for one person
*The Warden Experience allows you to experience Fota Wildlife Park from a warden’s perspective. It lasts four to five hours and costs €200 www.fotawildlife.ie
Fota is a workplace where people are really given a chance to shine. Catriona ní Scanaill is testament to that.
She started to work at Fota on a seasonal basis in 2010. She trained on the job, studying by correspondence for a Diploma in the Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals at Sparsholt in Hampshire. She was made a full-time assistant warden last year.
“I help wardens with the day to day duties,” Cat says, “cleaning out, feeding, observations — I can do everything with all pretty much all of the animals.”
The day I visit she is assigned to hoof stock, so the giraffes, her favourites, are under her remit. Many of the wardens I talk to admit to having a special place in their hearts for them.
“Many it’s because I am so small and they are so huge,” she laughs. “You know, they are all different characters, you get to know them, their demeanours, personalities. Some are cheeky and saucy, others quiet and shy.”
The cheetahs, baby Rog in particular, are another favourite. “I used to come to the park at night for a while on my own to feed him when he was little.”
I gasp. The park. On your own. At night? “It was freaky,” she admits, laughing. “All I could see were these red eyes looking at me through the darkness — the wallabies.”
Again, it’s just another example of that Fota passion.
While staff don’t make a habit of it, they can step into the cage with the cheetahs, something that can never be done with the tigers.
Cheetahs are flight animals, I’m told, so generally they crouch before you and hiss. But there can be no sudden movements, no outward signs of fear.
“I don’t put myself in a dangerous position,” Cat says. “You learn on the job, stay calm, no sudden movements.”
There’s a lot to fit into a shift at Fota. The day starts with a morning meeting with the rest of the section heads where they review the previous day. They hear the plans for the day ahead — there might be vet visits, new animals, others moving to a new wildlife park, or a new part of Fota. The day I visit spotted deer arrive.
Next, wardens check that the animals are ok, ensuring that there aren’t any injuries, and they count them — where possible. The wallabies and maras are free range so they could be in the woods.
Next the food is prepped — fruit and veg is chopped, dried food and pellets are prepared, fish buckets are filled up for the penguins and seals. It isn’t a job for the squirmish.
The animals are fed and their beds cleaned out — no mean feat when it comes to the likes of the giraffes and tigers.
There’s an 11am break and lunch, and then it all starts again with afternoon feeding. This time the cats are fed too, so it’s a whole chicken, horse meat or rabbit.
“Sometimes you have to kill the chicken, you get used to it and I don’t mind it once it’s done right,” says Cat.
Aidan Rafferty is one of the three lead wardens at Fota. He looks after hoof stock, covering everything from giraffes to bison to zebra and deer. The latest addition is a new baby giraffe, born just a couple of weeks ago.
From Ballintemple, he also began working in Fota during the summer season. “I was doing a bit of bookkeeping before and I just came in here for the season. I did everything, worked everywhere, did some of it voluntarily. Then I became qualified on the job,” he says. “To be fair to them here, they really give people a chance.”
With just 12 wardens, the workload is never-ending, but Aidan adds it gets even busier in winter. Right now, wardens work from 9am-6pm, and in winter from 8.30am-5pm, to get the most of the sunlight. A far busier time for staff, animals are inside and there is more cleaning to be done. Staff usually work every second weekend.
He too has a special grá for the giraffes. “They are a beautiful animal — just look at their scale and size.”
“I have photos of myself here as a child,” Stephen Ryan laughs. “Fota has always been a special place for the people of Cork and it’s symbolic of a childhood here.”
Stephen joined Fota five years ago from his previous marketing role
at Cork City Football Club.
“I think Fota was being taken for granted, so I wanted to change the mind set, think outside the box,” he says. “I want it to feel different for visitors each time, and it is — animals change by the season, babies are born. Our arts and crafts tent is also very popular with children.”
Stephen also revamped the website and embraced social media. “We tell people on Facebook about what the tigers are up to. And we use photos from the public — we share their story and they share ours.”
Like so many others at Fota, Teresa Power started working at the Wildlife Park on a seasonal basis nine years ago, eventually working her way up to Lead Warden.
“I did everything from picking up litter, to driving the train, to manning the gate,” she recalls. She trained on the job, qualified and around three years ago was made Lead Warden overseeing the primates.
She was in her late 30s when she first starting working at Fota, but she had a life-long passion for animals, working for years with horses. “It’s my dream job,” she says.
But with an estimated 70 primates, from gibbons to spider monkeys to lemurs, under her remit — plus additions like the flamingos and meerkats in her section — it’s also a busy one.
The different breeds are kept apart, all on different islands, and they are all fed twice a day — pellets for breakfast and predominantly chopped vegetables in the afternoon. All of the food needs to be prepped too by the wardens. Puzzle feeders are used as an enrichment tool, to challenge the animals, an absolute must for the intelligent primates. The animals have the option of sleeping inside or outside, while the cleaning and maintenance of the islands and houses also falls to Teresa and her team.
And the loud howling visitors to Fota will be very familiar with? Generally it’s gibbons marking their territory.
“They call out usually a couple of times of day,” says Teresa. “One starts and then they all follow.”
John moved from a wildlife safari park outside his native Vancouver to the position at Fota. Eleven years later he’s still here.
“My father was Irish, and Fota came highly recommended,” he says.
He transferred from working with the animals to more a office-based position, until the Tropical House was added to the mix this year. Right now he’s juggling the management of the Tropical House with his paperwork, but the House will fall under Lead Warden Kelly Lambe’s remit later this summer. There has to be a settling in period for the tigers first.
John’s day begins in the Tropical House observing, checking for sick inhabitants, judging behaviour, colouration, eating habits. Are the plants healthy? Does the water need changing?
He checks the lights, and makes sure the place looks good for the public.
He talks of proposed and currently out of budget, for now at least, enrichment programmes — LED lighting that follows movement of sun.
Again, there’s that Fota passion again.
Observations and cleaning done, then it’s time for feeding.
The tortoise like herbs, dandelions and clover. There’s an iguana partial to raspberries (that requires a trip to the shop).
The nine types of frogs need fruit fly cultures and crickets, which in turn need to be administered to.
And then there’s the mechanics of the Tropical House, the tanks, the water pumps.
All that, and the day I visited John was also filling out the paperwork for the new spotted deer.