Fancy feeding the lions at Edinburgh Zoo? Our reporter Gemma Fraser tries out the attraction’s latest Magic Moment
CHATTING happily to zookeeper Erika Oulton, soaking up her lion facts and the glorious sunshine in equal measure, I haven’t quite had the time to fully think about what I am about to do.
However, as I round the corner and come face-to-face with the massive bulk that is male Asian lion Jayendra, I suddenly stop in my tracks and feel my heart pounding.
“Perhaps I haven’t thought this through,” I admit quietly to myself while trying to put on my best brave face.
Back in the safety of the office, I had jumped at the chance to become one of the first non-zoo staff to get the rare opportunity to feed two-year-old Jayendra – better known to staff as Jay – and 16-year-old female lion Kamlesh.
Feeding the big cats is one of Edinburgh Zoo’s new Magic Moments experiences, giving animal lovers the chance to spend 30 minutes getting up close and personal with their favourite zoo residents.
But now the “magic moment” has arrived, I feel decidedly less enthusiastic.
We watch Jay and Kamlesh from the safety of the viewing area for a while as animal experience presenter Erika tells me about their feeding habits and types of meat they are given.
The lions are fed every three days, she explains, to mimic their feeding habits in the wild.
During these feeds, they each get between 20 and 25 kilos of meat, which is placed in their enclosure by keepers, who hang it from trees or hide it in bags to allow the lions to be drawn to the meat by their sense of smell.
During these times, Erika is quick to point out, the lions are safely out of the way in a locked area within the enclosure.
No food scandals here, the Edinburgh Zoo lions enjoy a diet mainly consisting of horsemeat, while also receiving the occasional meal of calf, venison and goat.
I have arrived on one of the non-feeding days and will, therefore, be giving the lions a mere “snack” of just over a kilo of horsemeat.
“It’s nothing compared with their big feeds, just like a packet of crisps to me and you,” says Erika.
Jay is pacing up and down in the enclosure and clearly has his eye on something – which makes me slightly nervous, while Kamlesh basks in the sunshine, looking every bit the “old woman” Erika describes her as.
They are aware of our presence but make no move to come any closer.
Erika explains that the Carnivore Magic Moment, which was officially launched last week, has been months in the making.
As well as the laborious task of getting the concept passed by the zoo’s strict health and safety department, Jay and Kamlesh have had to get used to the idea of being fed by people other than their regular keepers.
It turns out they can be quite fussy when it comes to who they feed from, not at all what I was expecting to hear.
“I hadn’t worked with lions for quite a while before we started doing this, so even I was new to them,” explains Erika. “They have one keeper who they love, and the female would prefer to feed from him, not me. But as she got more used to me, she was happy to feed from me. They know their keepers quite well and that’s why we spent time doing the trials.”
The trials, which started in January, gave office-based zoo staff the chance to get close to the lions and feed them by placing a piece of meat on the end of a pole and pushing it through the double-meshed enclosure.
The trials were designed to get Jay and Kamlesh well acquainted with the process, as well as getting a first-hand account of how the office-based employees found the experience.
“They had never fed lions before so they were quite excited by it. We also tried it in different weather to see if the weather had any impact on their feeding.
“This experience is great for animal lovers. We see it getting given as a different birthday present, something you wouldn’t normally do.
“They are really special animals, and we as keepers feel it’s a privilege to work with them.”
Erika, clasping a bowl of portioned horsemeat and two wooden poles, decides that the time has come. We have been there long enough and they will be used to our presence by now.
She explains that we should try and feed the lions together, so that one is not waiting while the other eats, and I heartily agree. Keeping a hungry lion waiting for food is not on my to-do list.
I am told to hold just the top end of the pole and poke it through the mesh, level with the lion’s mouth, then to retract the pole as soon as the meat has been taken.
I take a deep breath as we cross the barrier which separates members of the public from the meshed enclosure, and we stand at a designated safe distance.
We put the horsemeat on the end of our poles and wait for Jay and Kamlesh to see that their “packet of crisps” is ready and waiting.
To my surprise, they don’t stop their current pastimes of pacing and sunbathing to bolt down to where we are standing as soon as they get a whiff of the horsemeat.
In fact, quite the opposite happens and we find ourselves waiting . . . and waiting.
Erika, who started out as a keeper at Edinburgh Zoo 15 years ago, tries cajoling them, in the way you would a family pet.
“Come on Jay, come and get something to eat. Come on Kamlesh – are you not hungry?” she calls out.
After about 15 minutes I begin to resign myself to the fact that I am to leave the zoo without experiencing the magic moment after all.
“Sometimes they’re just not interested”, Erika explains. “And there’s nothing we can do about it. They’re wild animals at the end of the day. If this happened during one of the experiences, we would either reschedule for another day or offer something else on the day.”
Just as I am about to give up all hope, however, Kamlesh rises from her sun-trap and strolls down to us.
After watching Erika administer the feed through the mesh a couple of times, I feel brave enough to give it a go.
Jay – the lion I was meant to feed – was still pacing up and down, keeping a close watch on one of his keepers, who was in the next enclosure helping with the transfer of a wolverine.
“He’s not going to come, so you might as well feed Kamlesh,” says Erika.
“Now, if your piece of meat falls off, just leave it – don’t pick it up. It’s the natural reaction for people to pick it up again.”
I certainly don’t need to be told twice.
My heart starts racing again as I poke the meat through the hole, which is large enough for the portion size, but fortunately not large enough to fit a paw through.
I am surprised at how gently she takes the meat from the pole – I was expecting to have to hang on with two hands to try and wrestle it back again.
But while I can undoubtedly feel the strength of her teeth, she is not aggressive, and waits patiently as we pose for photos and chat in between feeds.
After a short while, Kamlesh gets bored of her snack and meanders off back to her spot in the sun – but not before stopping briefly to visit Jay and make it clear to him she has just eaten.
Jay, however, is still not tempted and continues his vigil at the other end of the enclosure. Fair enough, who am I to argue with a lion?
n The experience is now available for bookings, costing £70 a time.
Maintaining the rare breed
EDINBURGH Zoo has two Asian lions. The female, Kamlesh, arrived at the zoo in April 2003 from Chessington World of Adventures and moved into a specially-designed enclosure that was opened in 1999. In June 2012, Kamlesh was joined by a young male called Jayendra, from Bristol Zoo. Jayendra was born in December 2010 and it is hoped he will become a mate for Kamlesh when he has fully matured.
Jayendra and Kamlesh are fed every three days to replicate their feeding practices in the wild. They eat between 20kg and 25kg each per feed and primarily eat horsemeat.
The Asian lion is critically endangered with only a very small remnant population located in India’s Gir Forest. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, there are only about 175 mature Asian lions left in the wild.
The Asian lion differs from the African lion in several ways. Asian lions are generally smaller than their African cousins, and the males do not develop such a substantial mane, so their ears are more visible.
Asian lions in the wild live on a diet of deer, antelope, wild boar and water buffalo. All of the lionesses in the pride hunt together to overpower their prey. Males hardly ever hunt, but will assist the females if they are hunting a large, aggressive animal.
Strict guidelines prevent zoos from maintaining both African and Asian lions for fear of disease transmission or potential hybridisation.
Talking a walk on the wild side
Other keeper experiences at the zoo:
Full day Keeper
The day includes helping with daily animal feeds, watching animal training and lots of special hands-on “magic moments”.
Half day Keeper
This is three hours packed full of close encounters and fantastic experiences, learning all about life as a zookeeper and the animals that live in Edinburgh Zoo.
Joining a keeper for three hours, children aged between eight and 15 work with a range of animals, help prepare and deliver their diets, make enrichment for one species and have a special hands-on magic moment.
Lemur Magic Moment:
Spend 30 minutes learning how the keepers look after the different species of lemur that live at the zoo. Help make and hang up enrichment feeders in their enclosure. Then prepare for a close encounter as you enter the large lemur exhibit and feed the lemurs at close quarters.
Meet the resident pair of Indian One Horned Rhinos, Bertus and Samir, in the keepers only area. Help the keepers to feed the rhinos a special treat, and give them a tickle while you do it. While doing so, you’ll learn all about the creatures and how the zoo is helping with their conservation.
Birds, bugs & beasties
Magic Moment: Costs £35
Meet some of Edinburgh Zoo’s weird and wonderful animals in a 30-minute close encounter. This magic moment also includes some animal handling and may include creepy crawlies, snakes, frogs, lizards, vulturine guineafowl, hairy armadillo and giant rat. Enjoy . . .
Penguin Magic Moment:
Spend 45 minutes with the famous Edinburgh Zoo penguins. Help keepers with the popular Penguin Parade, then join the penguins in their enclosure for their afternoon feed. Be warned – the penguins are very nosey so expect a very close encounter.
Magic Moment: Cost £50
A 30-minute experience spent with the zoo’s feathered friends. Enter three large bird enclosures, meet some of the residents up close and give them their final feed of the day (bird species can change but may include pelicans, sea eagles, cranes, lorikeets).