City of Joburg

Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo

Johannesburg Zoo


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Agnes Maluleke, a curator in the Johannesburg Zoo's carnivore section, is unfazed at working with fierce creatures, but respects her charges' natural instincts and formidable teeth and claws.

lowcarbon1UNDER the hot Johannesburg sun, Agnes Maluleke makes her way to the cheetah enclosure to check on the animals' well-being.

"Working in the Zoo is not child's play and definitely not for the faintedhearted," she says, pointing to her trousers, soiled while trying to fix a drainage problem in an animal enclosure.

Maluleke, a curator at Johannesburg Zoo, has a diploma in nature conservation from the Tshwane University of Technology and a bachelor of science in botany and microbiology from the University of South Africa. She is passionate about her calling, caring for animals, and says the Joburg Zoo has become a second home, where she knows the intimate details of almost every animal that lives there.

A lifelong passion for animals

Maluleke says her profession requires patience and genuine love for animals; she developed this love early on: "When I was a little girl I used to follow my grandfather around the homestead … I used to watch him speak lovingly to his chickens, goats and cattle."

Joining the Joburg Zoo in 2004, Maluleke started off as a zookeeper in the primates, reptile and fish sections as a learner zookeeper. A year later, she became a zookeeper in the carnivore section, being promoted to curator in November 2009. Zookeepers are responsible for the daily upkeep of animal enclosures, and grooming, feeding and stimulating the animals.

"Curators are basically managers of sections, while keepers are more like supervisors," says Maluleke.

"I am responsible for the carnivores, including the lions, African leopards, Siberian tigers, cheetahs, bears and the wild dogs, and other smaller animals."

She is unfazed at being in charge of the some of the world's most feared animals; instead she is fascinated by them: "It is an interesting section that keeps you on your toes. Most visitors who come to the Zoo always want to see these animals."

She talks about her charges as if they were human: "The Siberian tigers do not get along; Lacey is very disrespectful of her mother. She was abandoned at birth by her mother and was hand-reared by one of the zookeepers," she says, adding that the tigers are her favourite animals; "I love the Siberian tigers; they are full of surprises and interesting to observe. They do things that you would not expect them to do.

"I will never tire of watching them just be. I will always have the utmost respect and admiration for them."

Despite her love for the tigers, Maluleke says they still need to be treated with caution, as they can be unpredictable.

Of the two male wild dogs moved to the Zoo from the Hoedspruit Endangered Wildlife Centre in Hoedspruit, in January, she says, "The wild dogs have adjusted well to their environment. They only fought each once and I think it had to do with the politics among themselves. Fortunately, the pair did not sustain any severe injuries."

Her biggest worry at present is finding suitable female partners for the pair, to start breeding; wild dogs are an endangered species and breeding them in captivity can help ensure the animals' survival.

"I am currently looking for females that are not genetically related to them. I have sent in requests to different wild dog breeders in the country. I have not had any luck yet; I guess I will have to be patient."

There are also the quarrelsome brown bears that fight often; Maluleke says, "We always keep a close eye on them because of their hot temperaments. Up to now we have not been able to figure which bear klaps the other first."

A day on the job

lowcarbon1Her typical work day starts as early as seven in the morning, with a brief meeting with the section keepers and animal attendants, before she heads off to check on the animals in their enclosures.

There are daily routines, but every day brings a new challenge or adventure to a curator's life, she says.

"You need to be on top of the game and ensure that everything is in order."

She says she has to be exacting when helping conduct health examinations on her charges; "For all planned anaesthetics, the animals are starved 48 hours prior to the procedure. In most cases things go very well and animals return to the enclosure to recover from their illness. With old animals the risk is too high; you can lose the animal during anaesthetic."

Maluleke says her day-to-day tasks vary; she works on everything from animal welfare and enrichment, to staff scheduling, job assignments, staff guidance, training and feedback, exhibit quality, and visitor experience. She also liaises with other zoos. She returns to her office at midday, every day, to check her emails and catch up on administrative duties.

But the real work, she says, is observing the animals' behaviour and bodily changes to make sure they are happy and healthy.

And although the position may seem ideal for someone who likes animals, animal curators have to make some tough decisions, such as about acquiring new animals and finding homes for those in need.

"I prefer to acquire animals that are captive-born with good genetics, especially from dealers with a good reputation, but as for finding new homes for those in need, it is always a big challenge. It is difficult to let go of animals you have built a good relationship with. You cannot control what will happen to them in their new homes," she says, adding that captive-born animals find it easier to adapt to their new environments.

Maluleke says her job poses many challenges, the biggest of which is dealing with visitors who throw items into the animal enclosures. She says, "Some of these items cannot be digested and cause sudden death of some animals at times."

She talks emotionally about the 2005 death of Felicia, a Cape fur seal, after it swallowed a leather jacket with foreign objects in the pockets that blocked its digestive system. "My heart broke when she died. I loved that animal and used to feed her regularly."

The Zoo now displays signs asking visitors to not throw any items into the animal enclosures.

She says it's also challenging to deal with animals that find it difficult to cooperate with zookeepers because of bad past experiences.

"We try our best to make such animals comfortable and release those that fail to cooperate with the keepers into the wild."

Maluleke's day usually ends at 4pm, after checking the animals and meeting the zookeepers to catch up on the day's developments. She concludes; "There is never a boring moment at the zoo; when the office becomes restrictive, I just lock my door and take a walk; I prefer to be out there with the animals."