My day as a Fota Wildlife Park ranger

Covid threatened its future as visitor numbers plummeted. But with the gates back open again, what’s it like behind the scenes at one of Cork's biggest tourist attractions? Martha Brennan grabs a uniform and joins the team for day, from shovelling out the rhino enclosure, to entering a real lions' den - plus she hears how the giraffes are coping with keepers in face masks
My day as a Fota Wildlife Park ranger

Our reporter, Martha Brennan, feeding Jamil, one of the rhinos at Fota Wildlife park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

After months of lockdown, Fota Wildlife Park faced a risk of permanent closure.

Almost all — 95% — of Fota’s operating costs are reliant on gate receipts, annual pass sales and gift shop revenues. In the first three months of 2021, visitor numbers were reduced to a little over 3,000. In an average year in the same three-month time frame, that figure would have been over 40,000. The situation was dire, with running costs still clocking up at €380,000 a month.

But as the gravity of the situation made headlines, in just one weekend, the park found itself in receipt of €10,000 in private donations.

It showed how much Fota was treasured by the public.

Right the way through the pandemic, for the animals and their keepers, it had to be business as usual. The park might have been closed to the public, but the animals still had to be fed and cared for.

Open again, on a strict pre-booking basis with reduced numbers, what is it like at the park?

Uniform fitted, I join the rangers for a day to experience what goes into running Ireland’s wildest attraction.

I meet senior ranger Martin Rodrigues down at the real giraffes, where hoofstock is about to take place. Martin’s been working with animals for well over a decade and recently moved to Cork from South Africa to work at Fota. “They know us and we know them,” he says while petting Clodagh, one of 12 Rothschild’s giraffes living at the park. 

Martin tells me that the friendly animals can get a bit skittish, but as I help feed Clodagh some sweet potato chunks I notice three other long necks wind around the corner, peeking out curiously at us. The giraffes usually eat hay and specific pellets but receive the sweet potato as a calming incentive for when the rangers need to check their hooves.

Clodagh, one of the giraffes, with Martin Rodrigues, senior ranger at Fota Wildlife park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Clodagh, one of the giraffes, with Martin Rodrigues, senior ranger at Fota Wildlife park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Ranger Cormac Kelly specialises in this. As he checks Clodagh’s large feet, she excitedly scoops the chunks out of Martin’s hand with a long grey tongue. The process helps with training. Martin calls commands to Clodagh, such as “left”, so that she will move where Cormac needs her to go. In return, she gets a treat and Martin uses a clicker to signal she was correct.

Though lockdown impacted the park financially, Cormac says that it didn’t affect the animals or their behaviour. “Our jobs never changed,” he says, though they are still unfamiliar with him when he wears a face mask. “They’re very intelligent.” 

There are currently 1,350 animals living on Fota’s vast 100 acres and about 50 full-time staff members working hard to take care of them. Of the park’s 135 species, 75 face extinction in the wild. The park’s goal is to help restore and protect populations through long-established breeding programmes, which are run cooperatively with other institutions around the world. The idea is to let the animals act as they would in the wild, and not let them get to know the rangers too well.

“You essentially become mom but we don’t want that to happen,” says lead ranger Julien Fonteneau, who is showing us what goes on behind the famous chick windows, a popular attraction for children. I can see why. Inside the warm room are large containers with the most adorable, and tiny, baby birds. 

The Grey Partridge is one of the species that Fota is working with to help reinforce populations. “It’s about trying to give them a better chance,” Julien explains. “Like chickens, they lay five or six eggs and then start sitting, but similarly, they also might get upset for some reason. So we do the job for them.”

The rangers move the eggs into an incubator and rotate them, slowly, like their mothers would normally do. They require a lot of attention, as “the first few days can be critical and things are quick to change,” says Julien. Once they start pipping, or breaking through their shells, they’re moved out of the incubator and after three weeks under heat, are slowly introduced to fresh air, and eventually, let out into the park.

Martin then leads us toward Cheetah Hill, as he explains what he would be usually doing around this time. 

"We clean, feed the animals breakfast, distribute medications, and most importantly, make sure they’re happy and healthy," he says. “You can tell so much about how they’re feeling by just observing them." 

"We can notice the slightest change. For example, I’ll know if Rocksteady, one of our ostriches, has the slightest niggle by the way he runs.” While we have this conversation, Rocksteady potters alongside us at the other side of a small barrier, not a niggle in sight.

Ranger Jess Hodnett and trainee ranger Clare Looney introduce us to the five cheetah pens. Jess tells me about studbooks, which are logs that manage breeding and maintain genetic diversity. The European Endangered Species Breeding Programme makes the decisions as to the cheetahs’ breeding, as well as for many other animals at the park. Over 200 cubs have been born at Fota and there are currently 16 of the animals at Cheetah Hill.

From afar, I meet Sam and Archie, the park’s two male cheetahs. “We have to give them the respect that they deserve,” Jess says. She has gone through very specialised training in order to take care of the animals. 

“Nothing we manage here is a pet. Their wild instincts are still alive even though they were born here.” Even though she has worked with such exotic animals for years, the wonder hasn’t escaped her. “When we see the awe in other people who visit Fota it keeps it alive in us. Even when you’re cleaning poo.” 

Jess and Clare open the highly secured gates to enter ‘lovers lane’, the area between two chain fences in which they move the cheetahs to other pens to breed. To entice the animals out, Jess hauls a whole (de-feathered) chicken out of a cooler and holds it out to them through a small window with a pair of tongs.

She begins calling the animals as one would a cat, until an almighty growl barrels in the air toward her. “Grumpy, grumpy,” she nonchalantly chimes back. “We get so used to all of their sounds. It’s much better than listening to traffic.”

 Elle the cheetah gets a good look at photographer Eddie O'Hare at Fota Wildlife Park.
Elle the cheetah gets a good look at photographer Eddie O'Hare at Fota Wildlife Park.

There are three Indian rhinos at Fota, 10-year-old Jamil and eight-year-olds Maya and Schusto. Ranger Liam McConville shows me the ropes around the large pens, which contain water for the animals to bathe in as well as plenty of hay — I can barely lift one of the bales, and they eat two a day. The species, also known as the greater one-horned rhino, is currently listed as vulnerable. Fota acquired Maya last year, in the hopes to breed her with bull Jamil, who won’t be fully grown until age 14.

Before heading out to do hoof stock, I first get to feed Jamil some sweet potatoes. As the leathery two-tonne rhino opens his gigantic mouth to me for the treat, I automatically jump back laughing in childlike wonder. I don’t want to upset the sensitive animal — they can run up to 30km an hour if spooked — but staring into his teeth is such a foreign feeling I can’t help but feel a rush of adrenaline. I imagine that it could be addictive to witness such wonder every day.

“It’s a calling,” says Martin. He knew from when he was just a boy that he wanted to work with animals, and gets goosebumps when I ask what his child self would think of this job. “Some parts are hard but it never really feels like a job. It’s part of us.” The adrenaline quickly wears off as I go about shovelling some of the rhinos’ business. Just as I start to declare that I don’t get paid enough, Liam tells me the animals can produce up to 50kg of faeces per day. I shut my mouth.

The animals know him better than they would a vet, so he carries out medical requirements such as taking blood. This is common for the core team in the park. “We are their custodians. Our jobs are no different to a nurse or doctor taking care of patients,” Martin says. He adds in a very hushed voice that Jamil may be his favourite animal in the park, but they try to be diplomatic.

Liam Mc Conville, cleaning the hoof of Jamil, one the rhinos at Fota Wildlife Park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Liam Mc Conville, cleaning the hoof of Jamil, one the rhinos at Fota Wildlife Park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

We head outside as Liam and trainee ranger Nicola Copithorne go about checking Jamil’s feet. It’s a preventative measure, much like with the giraffes. It’s wondrous to watch the animal, of which there are only 3,600 left in the wild, preempting what the rangers want him to do, moving backwards and lifting his foot as Nicola calls commands and rewards him with treats. Just as Liam begins work on Jamil’s feet, a child above us leaves out a jump-worthy screech. Jamil is unfazed. “He’s so good with people,” Liam says. “He’s a people rhino.” 

Nicola leads us to the Scimitar-horned oryx next. Overhunting led to the extinction of the North African animal in the 1990s and zoological facilities like Fota have been trying to assist with reintroducing the animal. A male born at the park has been released into the wild in Tunisia, and a herd of 17 of the animals has grown. “It’s a great day out for people to come here but our main mission is conservation and research,” Martin says. “This is how people connect to it.” The oryx too are people animals. “They’re very interested in everyone,” Nicola says. 

I help her to clean up one of the straw beds, which are situated below heaters and scattered with fresh wood chips every night. We then release the oryx out into the main area with the zebra and giraffes. “It’s so natural to see them mixing,” Nicola says while watching the oryx dart past us, a satisfied smile on her face.

If you’re not sure where the tigers are located in the park, just look for the crowds. Along with the giraffes and penguins, they’re the most popular attraction.

 There are five Sumatran tigers living behind the wall of chain-linked fences and excitedly, I get to step inside the fortress. Well, into their building, while they are safely running around behind some more fences. I’m perfectly fine with the situation.

Clare shows us around the area. Each tiger has its own stall inside the building, which are locked tightly and littered with safety signs. She warns there might still be some blood on the ground following breakfast. “I was probably a bit more squeamish when I was younger but not any more,” she says, laughing. The industrial size fridge full of meat will only last them about three days: the male tigers eat 5kg of rabbit, chicken, and horse a day and the females eat over 2kg.

The rangers also use different smells as enrichments for the tigers. I peer into a big box filled with cinnamon, herbs, and perfumes — their favourite is Acqua Di Parma. She spritzes some on a piece of red meat, and after a lot of unlocking, locking, moving through barriers, throws it into the pen. “Safety comes first. We have to be on the ball every day,” Clare says. “I’m never dismissive of them. I’m at ease around them, but I never forget that these are powerful killers.”

Martha Brennan and Eibhlín Foley with the lemurs at Fota Wildlife Park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Martha Brennan and Eibhlín Foley with the lemurs at Fota Wildlife Park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

We finish up by feeding some very excited lemurs scoops of banana with ranger and Madagascar expert Eibhlin Foley and checking in on the Natterjack toads, which aren’t on display to the public. The park collects tadpoles and raises them as part of a headstart programme with the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Since 2016, over 5,000 toads have been released into ponds around the animal’s natural habitat near Dingle. In nature, of a line of 3,000 eggs, only 30 might make it. In Fota, around 800 might make it per 1,000. Climate change has a huge impact on the tadpoles, as it does every animal.

“It’s so important to educate the next generation on the importance of conserving all of these beautiful species,” Martin says. The crowds have gathered now, and we dart between buggies and groups of school children.

Staff are delighted to see people back in the park after being closed for so long. It’s been busier than ever, due to it being a safe outdoor space for families, but Martin is most excited about the return of school tours.

“You might not connect with everyone but for every 50 kids, one could be the next David Attenborough. It’s here that the passion for conservation begins.”

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