A Week In The Life” is a weekly Zikoko series that explores the working-class struggles of Nigerians. It captures the very spirit of what it means to hustle in Nigeria and puts you in the shoes of the subject for a week.
The subject of today’s “A Week In The Life” is Mr. Emeka, a Zookeeper. He talks to us about being friends with animals, some of the hazards that come with his job and his plans to open his own zoo.
I arrive at work around 7:30 a.m. today. The first thing I do is sign in my name in the attendance register. Even though the workers union has told us to stop signing attendance, we still use a register in the zoo. This is to allow us to know the number of people at work at any given time, especially since we’re short-staffed. At 15 minutes to 8 a.m., some of my colleagues begin to troop in, and we make small talk before the zoo officially opens at 8:00 a.m.
A few minutes later, our supervisor comes in, and we all rush to our duty posts.
The zoo is divided into different sections — primates, carnivores, reptiles, etc. — and I manage the carnivore section. However, I’m also helping a colleague out in the reptile section today.
One of the first tasks of my day is cleaning the cage of the softshell tortoise. This involves turning the tortoise upside down, taking it out of its water habitat and changing the water. But it doesn’t go as planned. Every time I try to turn the tortoise, it tries to bite me. And after remembering the PTSD from the last time it bit me, I don’t struggle too hard. I let it be.
The snakes are relatively easier to handle once I release chicks to entertain them. When they are done feeding, they’ll remain still and then I can come back to clean their cage.
After going round and ensuring that all is in order in the reptile section, I move on to the carnivore section. Here we have the lions, spotted hyena, civet cat, jackals. My other colleague has fed the animals and most of them are resting. The spotted hyena is running up and down so I move to its cage to play with it; I rub its nose and it tries to lick my hands with its tongue. I take special care to hold its neck so as to ensure that I’m not in danger of being bitten.
As much as we take care of the animals, it’s also important that we take safety precautions because sometimes accidents happen on the job. Just last year, a baboon bit a colleague on his laps and yansh, and we had to rush him to the hospital. Another time, an ostrich bit another colleague who ended up fainting. Someone else’s fingers got bitten by a horse. These are all the happenings of a regular workday.
Despite all of these, I love the job. I equate it to a soldier’s job because it’s like facing war, and when you’re at war, no matter what you meet, you have to see it through. You don’t look back.
I love animals. I really do. In fact, I don’t have any human friend that I can sit to gist with for 5 minutes. I prefer animals to human beings because not only are they more reliable, but you can also predict their behaviour. You know what to expect from an animal, but with human beings, you’re always guessing. In the past, I tamed a civet cat and was taking it around like a dog. I’ve also tamed a python that I was waking up and sleeping with in my house. I used to take that python everywhere with me too. It’s sad that I had to sell both the python and cat to a zoo in Lagos.
If you ask me to pick a favourite animal, I’ll say crocodile. I don’t have any reason why. I just like how easy going the crocodile is.
If you ask me what I’ve learnt from spending time with animals, I’ll tell you this: stop killing animals. The best way to prevent wild animals from harming you is to stop eating meat. Mostly because they can smell the meat from other animals on you. As a rule of thumb, my diet consists of only fish and snail. All these are part of the reasons why the animals don’t harm me.
Today is a good day because there are visitors who have come to see the animals. I’m excited because I get to show off my skills of “talking” to the animals and seeing the visitor’s faces widen when the animals respond. I can’t wait to show them my cool call and response trick with the lions. This is going to be so much fun.
I’m not happy today. As much as I enjoy playing and caring for animals, I can’t help but think about how we’re risking our lives every day. We don’t have protective gear, we don’t have dart guns in case of animal escape and we don’t even have proper capturing equipment. My director is trying his best, and I can see his commitment to the zoo — he gave us borehole water for the first time in years — but he needs help. The zoo needs help both in form of donations for the upkeep of animals and even additional staff members. It’s just too much. I’ve been attacked by a spitting cobra before, and I couldn’t open my eyes for 9 months. After several hospital visits, I eventually turned to traditional medicine of a sacred leaf mixed with breast milk before I could finally open my eyes.
We’ve also had a situation where erosion washed off male and female crocodiles from the zoo into a nearby river, and we couldn’t retrieve them. A couple of years down the line, they reproduced and infested the whole river with their offsprings.
I know my director is trying and we can all see his commitment to the betterment of the zoo. I’m just praying every day that almighty Jesus will send a helper to him. A helper that will help us and also help the animals, then I can be happy again.
During a tour at work, some visitors were curious about the cost of some of the animals. After a lot of pleading, I broke it down to them like this:
Baby baboon is between ₦100,000 – ₦150,000.
Chimpanzee is between ₦400,000 – ₦1,000,000.
Gorilla is up to millions of naira. Like ₦6M upwards.
Giraffe, depending on height, goes between ₦1,000,000 – ₦6,000,000.
A hippopotamus is between ₦600,000 — ₦3,000,000 depending on size.
Small-sized python is between ₦50,000 – ₦60,000. Medium size python is between ₦100,000 – ₦200,000. Big ones go for as much as ₦600,000 -1,000,000.
Lions start from ₦5M and above.
I laughed at their shock at the prices. It’s always a good day for me when people come around to see the animals, and I want to have this feeling forever. A lot of why I’m working hard is so that I can start my own mini-zoo back home in my village when I retire.
I have big goals, but I’m also learning to take things one step at a time and enjoy the process. Some days all I can do is focus on what’s directly in front of me. And as of now, at this moment, that’s Animal Planet, where I get to observe my favourite people in the world in their natural state. For this small joy, I’m super grateful.
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