What’s It Like To Be a Lion Keeper?

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25th October 2018

One of our most popular excursions at Sandpipers is the incredible Knowsley Safari Park, a stunning five mile safari drive. We recently had a chat with James, a Lion Keeper at Knowsley, to find out more about his experiences working at the safari.

What made you want to work with animals? How did you develop your passion for animals?

I watched the Lion King at the age of three and it hooked me! I was very lucky to grow up close to many different zoos and safari parks. I would ask the keepers the lions’ names and dates of birth, which I then made into family trees at home. I then became very attached to one of my local zoos, where I would visit as often as I possibly could. I built up a relationship with the lions there. It was lovely to see them grow from small cubs to the majestic adults they are now. At the age of 16 I started volunteering and at 18 I did a work experience placement. I was then employed as an apprentice and then a keeper. At the age of 21, I joined Knowsley Safari. I was very sad to leave the lions behind, but I still go and visit them whenever I go home, often before I see my family! Making the move to Knowsley gave me the chance to work with a larger group of lions and to see their complex relationships.


Who is your zoology/conservationist hero?

There are many people who have influenced me over the years. From the keepers who would share their knowledge with me, to the people you see on TV. One person who stands out for me is Jonathan Scott from BBC’s Big Cat Diary, who has spent over 40 years watching and documenting the lions in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. I was very lucky earlier this year to go to a talk he gave and get my book signed. They say never meet your heroes but I’m very glad I did! I am also very interested in zoo history and the work of Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell. He masterminded the world’s first open plan zoo at Whipsnade, which led to the creation of modern open spaces that we see in zoos today. This ultimately opened the path towards the idea of the safari parks. His ambition and commitment for change revolutionised the work of zoos all over the world, at a time when many animals were still kept in brick and iron Victorian houses.


What has been the highlight of your job? What’s the funniest or most memorable experience you’ve had with the animals?

The highlight for me is seeing the animals behave like animals! I spend most of my time up with the lions and I love seeing them interact with one another. Last year we mixed our two bachelor male lions Scooter and Mojo with four females. At first the boys saw each other as competition, but now 8 months in they are as friendly with each other as ever. We still have some tension but the good times definitely outweigh the lows.

“Most of the funny moments always seem to involved emus, none of them ever seemed to have liked me!”


What do you hope our guests will take away from their visit?

I hope that guests come away inspired by the animals in our care. We really are privileged to see these animals and to have the opportunity to get so close to them. If you go away inspired and do some of your own research to learn more about their conservation, I believe we have done a good job.


What are the most popular animals? What should our guests look out for during their visit?

Definitely the lions of course! Credit should also be given to our White Rhino crash. We are now one of the most prolific breeders of this species in Europe, which is something we should be very proud of. The tiger Trail is also something we are very proud of. We opened it in May this year and it is one of the biggest tiger enclosures in Europe. It has a running stream, a lake and great opportunities to view the tigers behave naturally in this area of mature woodland.


What is it that draws people to safari parks over zoos?

I think people like to see things from their own car and to feel like they are within the enclosures with the animals. The space we can give our animals is certainly something very special too. For example our European Bison, Elk and Fallow Deer live in an area that is around 30 acres of mature woodland, swamps and open plains. It can’t get any more natural than that! Both zoos and safari parks do very important work. I believe that continued cooperation between all collections will lead to the most successful breeding and conservation programmes. We all have to work together.

Has hanging out with animals taught you anything about humans?

“I learn something new every day! Our lions are particularly human in their behaviour (or are we particularly animal?)”

Working with lions has definitely taught me that they’re unpredictable! Just stay calm, come up with a plan and work through it.


What do you do to ensure the animals’ quality of life is as high as possible?

It’s all about choices. Allowing animals the flexibility to get away from each other is incredibly important. Just like us, animals are not going to like each other all the time! The best thing we can give the animals is a great natural environment with the company of their own kind. Privacy is also very important, we want them to feel as comfortable as possible. I believe it is our role to give these animals the options to behave as naturally as they possibly can.


In what ways do the animals’ personalities vary?

The animals vary just as much as we do! Our two male lions Scooter and Mojo are a great example of this. Mojo cannot hide his emotions and does not like to be alone. He is always cuddled up with the girls or rolling around trying to play with his brother Scooter. Scooter on the other hand is a lot more independent and seems to prefer his own space. Both of these boys have had exactly the same upbringing as brothers, yet they have developed completely different characters, fascinating!

Do you bond with the animals and create close relationships? Do you feel the animals bond with the keepers?

Most of the animals I look after might tolerate you more than someone they don’t know, but there is no major bond there. I always say all the affection is from us to them, nothing back. If I was to not turn up to the park ever again, I doubt any of the animals would think twice! They know the colour of the uniform and that means there is a chance of food, which is why they may follow us all around. I always work by what I call ‘the butler method’: I am around in the background cleaning and preparing the food, but I try not to interfere too much.
Of course us keepers get incredibly attached to all the animals in our care. Losing one is just as devastating as losing a member of the family.

“I spend more time awake with the lions then I do my girlfriend at home!”

There are some animals in the park that do definitely bond a lot more with the keepers. But the big cats always like to remind you where you stand.

What examples have you seen of animals exhibiting highly intelligent behaviour?

Lions again! Most people see lions as very aggressive, which they can be but there is always some method behind it. When there is tension between our males, they are not trying to kill the other, they are trying to prove a point. Often this is about dominance and trying to gain control over something such as food or a female.


What are some common misconceptions you would like to dispel?

Lions live very differently to how we are lead to believe! Most of our guests seem very surprised when they see our male lions together. This is actually how they would live in the wild! The males form groups called coalitions which take over prides. They then spend most of their time patrolling their territory keeping other males out of their land.
Also our animals are not tame! They are if anything more dangerous than their wild cousins. They have no fear of man and are instead very curious. This is why we have important safety rules in place to make sure all of our visitors remain safe at all times.

Knowsley Safari Park is regularly available from our Sandpipers holiday centre. To book or for more information, please call 0303 303 0145 or email us at bookings@revitalise.org.uk

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