It is not everyone who can say they have taken a Bengal Tiger Cub out on a lead whilst in employment but that is just what I did when I worked as a Marketing Manager at a Wildlife Park in Devon UK. I had worked in the tourist industry for a number of years but when I was approached to ask if I would like to try and put some life back into a flagging Wildlife Park and bring in the “punters” how could I resist. Trying to market living creatures must be the same as marketing inanimate objects I thought. How wrong I was!
I arrived on my first day for work dressed, I thought, very professionally in a tailored suit and high heels. Wrong! Most of my time was spent outside in the Park with the owner trudging through grass and mud to view all the animals in his possession. The following day saw me attired in jeans and trainers which then served as my uniform throughout my employment there. The Park housed such exotic creatures as tigers, lions, pumas, wolves, bears and basically any number of wonderful and endangered species. They were in large enclosures made to look as near unspoilt a habitat as could be made for them and the general public could walk around and view them, sit on the lawns with their picnic or go into the cafe. Now the cafe was another matter. The cafe was a room within the big house lived in by the owner. This room had a mismatch of plastic chairs and tables, old worn out sofas and chairs with a huge fire burning in the grate when it was cold. It also seemed to house all the chickens and other animals that fancied coming to eat the crumbs off the floor, try to pinch the customers food or just warm themselves by the fire. A total health, safety and hygiene nightmare for the local council but I bided my time as I did not want to make huge waves on this score on my first day and besides the customers thought this way of running a cafe very quirky indeed.
As time progressed I started to get school parties interested in coming to the Park and having a guided tour and also went to fetes with some of the animals to promote the Park. One such occasion I took a baby goat called Heidi on a lead and we walked around the fete with leaflets handing them out and talking about the Park. Heidi loved people and was very happy wandering around until I stopped to chat to an elderly couple about the Park when suddenly the woman looked down, screamed, lifted her straw handbag into the air and showed me a large hole in the bottom of it where Heidi had decided to have a little munch. Ouch – that did not go down very well I can tell you.
We also held a show in a large barn in the Park every day where the visitors could come in and have a talk and demonstration of some of the animals for an hour. These were normally young animals and birds of prey that were gregarious and enjoyed all the attention. One day the place was absolutely full of school children, probably about 100 of them. They were really enjoying the show taken by our reptile keeper that day. He decided to bring out one of the tarantulas, a red kneed tarantula but instead of showing it inside its glass cage he just put it onto a piece of moss covered wood. Before he started to walk around the arena with the spider he told all the children they must be very quiet and must not blow on the spider at all otherwise it will jump. He started walking around when, of course, some naughty child must have decided to blow anyway just to see what would happen. The spider flew up into the air and disappeared. All the children screamed and pressed themselves against the back wall. I am sure we could probably have got a further 100 people in that barn then. The reptile keeper was mortified because (a) he had lost his precious spider and (b) he might be sacked for letting the spider be free in the first place. We started searching where we thought the spider had flown when suddenly the reptile keeper pointed to a little boy’s jacket. There was the spider looking very much like a pretty brooch nestling on the little boy’s lapel. The reptile keeper slowly walked over to the boy telling him not to move and managed to grab the spider back and put it in its cage.
I loved all the animals at the Park and often used to go around at the end of the day when all the visitors had gone just to quietly chat to them. The only animals I did hate, and still do, are snakes however. I had not been at the Park very long when the reptile keeper who was presiding over the show asked if I could go and help him bring the boa constrictor up from the reptile house. He said normally he would have already gone but the weather was not very warm and of course snakes have to be kept at a constant temperature and as the reptile house was at the other end of the Park could we go in my car and get it. Snake in my car I thought, no thanks. However, I worked there, I suppose I had to do it. I presumed it would be in a box anyway so no problem…… We drove to the reptile house and the keeper jumped out of the car and while I turned the car around he went into the reptile house to bring out the snake. As he opened the door I saw what looked like a very large scarf around his neck as he jumped in. “Keep that thing away from me” I croaked shaking as I started the car up. Admitedly he was very good and kept the snake well away from me. At the barn he jumped out of the car and said he would only be a few minutes showing the snake to the visitors and then we would have to take it straight back before it got too cold. True to his word he was out and in the car with the snake again within 5 minutes. I was of course blaze by then and was just chatting with him as we drove back to the reptile house until I tried to change gear!! As I reached for the gear lever I felt something flick across my hand. I looked down and there was the snake wrapped around the gear lever with his tongue flicking in and out. This snake, by the way, was over 15 foot long (a baby I was told) but I didn’t care if it was a baby. I screamed, the car swerved and went straight up a bank. Luckily no-one or my car was hurt but that was the last time I allowed a snake in my car, big or small.
We then took possession of a baby Bengal tiger that had been rejected by its mother. The keepers had to hand rear him and feed him and I used to take him out and about within the grounds of the Park every day on a lead. He was adorable and very loving. However, when he was 6 months old the owner said we would have to put him in an enclosure permanently as he was getting too boisterous with his play. I knew that because every day I went home with scratches all over my legs and arms. He was only playing but his claws were lethal.
The Park went from strength to strength. They built a huge restaurant in the grounds, visitor numbers went up but then I met my husband and moved away from the area and therefore stopped working at the Park. I have very fond memories of my time working with these fantastic animals and have much more stories to tell, funny as well as sad and one day would like to write a book about it all including all the photos I took of them whilst I was there. Maybe now I am retired I may get the time to do it you never know.