My East Anglian Life: ‘Being a zookeeper isn’t a job – it's my world'

Haylee Parker with baby rhino Zwardi at Africa Alive

Haylee Parker with baby rhino Zawadi at Africa Alive - Credit: Brittany Woodman

Africa Alive’s zookeeper team leader Haylee Parker is beaming with pride as we chat. She’s navigating her way around the outside of the drill monkey enclosure, where the team have just successfully introduced a male and female to one another, after weeks of preparation. 

It is, she says, the product of many many hours’ work for the zoological reserve, whose main objective is collaborating with other facilities across the world, preserving some of the globe’s rarest species. 

I ask if it’s a bit like when I tried to introduce my bunny to a new hutch-mate. 

She giggles. “Kind of. We had them side by side with a mesh area between where they could see each other and interact. We’ve been watching what they do. Primates, like us, have so many different behaviours, positive and negative, and you do learn over the years what might happen. So far it’s going perfectly,” she says, fingers crossed. 

Haylee Parker, zookeeper team leader at Africa Alive

Haylee Parker, zookeeper team leader at Africa Alive - Credit: Brittany Woodman

It’s another win for the reserve, where an extraordinarily rare Somali wild ass is due to give birth shortly, and where a new baby rhino Zawadi, has recently been welcomed into the fold, after an incredible two decades of trying to make this feat happen. 

These moments of joy couldn’t have come soon enough says Haylee, recalling the dark days of Covid lockdowns, when she genuinely didn’t know if Africa Alive would survive. 

“We really didn’t have a lot of money in the bank,” she recalls. “We had a lot of people on furlough, but the majority of us were able to carry on as normal which was lucky – it meant you could forget for a little while. 

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“But on days like today, when the weather’s so good, it was so strange to see the park empty, thinking ‘we’d normally have 1,000 people in here’ and that would pay for the next feed delivery.” 

Haylee Parker surveying one of the paddocks at Africa Alive

Haylee Parker surveying one of the paddocks at Africa Alive - Credit: Brittany Woodman

With multiple animals to care for, it really was a case of keep calm and carry on. “It was very worrying, but then an animal would do something silly or strange or stupid, and we’d be able to laugh. 

“And lots of people donated stuff which was great. Some baked cakes and dropped them off at the gate for us. 

“It doesn’t bare thinking about what could have happened. We feel very very lucky to still be here.” 

Being a zookeeper certainly isn’t your run-of-the-mill job, but being outdoors and around animals is in Haylee’s blood. She grew up on the Benacre Estate, surrounded by creatures big and small. 

And although at 15 she took a job as a dental nurse, nature called, and after applying for a role at what was then Suffolk Wildlife and Rare Breeds Park in Lowestoft, she was offered an apprenticeship. 

That was over 34 years ago. 

The owners were so pleased with Haylee’s work ethic they invited her to take a full-time job. 

Of course, the site was very different back then. “It was lots more birds and rare breed farm stock. We had sheep, cattle, goats and well as some primates and plenty of monkeys. I did a bit of everything.” 

Haylee worked her way around the entire zoo, becoming senior keeper, assistant head keeper, head keeper, and now team leader of Africa Alive’s zookeepers. 

A typical day, says Haylee, includes checking on the animals and making sure their lives are as enriched as possible, looking over all husbandry and feeding, and environments. 

Haylee Parker with baby white rhino Zawadi 

Haylee Parker with baby white rhino Zawadi - Credit: Brittany Woodman

“And we have a vet day each week. They’ll tell us what we need to do, and give us any medicine to administer ourselves. I love that side of things.” 

The biggest change in her over 30 years here is the laser focus, today, on education and conservation. “It was a money-making business, and was more farmy – whereas now we have more and more exotic species and the education department does so much. It’s a lot more than a public attraction...but we do need the public through the gates to keep it going. 

“Conservation is very close to my heart. It’s why you go into this kind of job. A lot of people aren’t aware of that side of things. There are breeding programmes all over the world, and we work together to make sure the right animals are paired up, so the gene pool remains really good. When you look into what’s involved it’s just amazing.” 

One of the rarest animals at Africa Alive is the Somali wild ass, which Haylee says most people think is just a stripe-legged donkey. 

“It’s actually the rarest equine in the whole world, and one of ours is pregnant. They are so underrated. I really enjoy talking to people about them when I’m at the paddocks, and explaining how incredible they are.” 

Africa Alive is also the first zoo in the country to successfully breed fossa. 

And Haylee says she was moved to tears when they finally, after 20 to 25 years of patience, saw the birth of a white rhino in 2021. 

“We’ve had lots of pairings over the years that haven’t worked. Then all of a sudden we were given an unproven male and a young unproven female, neither were sexually mature or had babies. We got this pair together and it happened, finally! 

“I still get a bit emotional about that. We had cameras to keep an eye on her. When she gave birth, I was at home and thought something looked odd on camera. I looked at the camera again as I got out of the shower and she’d had it. We rang everyone and were back at work within 15 minutes to monitor her.” 

Rhinos have a 500-day gestation period – it had been a long wait. “She came just before Christmas – the best kind of present.” 

It was, says Haylee, one of the most memorable moments of her career. As was the first time the team were told they were getting rhinos to begin with. 

“It was so exciting when the enclosure was being built. Then the first rhino appeared and it was quite amazing to see it being lifted by crane up in the air and put into position in the enclosure. That was breath-taking.” 

So, what does it take to be a zookeeper? A love of animals is certainly a must. “But you have to also be dedicated. It can be early hours and later finishing times. We had lions come back a few weeks ago and were here quite late unloading them. You just have to love it, and be in it for the job not the money. There are bad days (like in the rare times you have to put an animal to sleep) but so many good days, like today, introducing the male and female drill monkeys. Those days make you want to come back every morning.” 

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