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Doctor Dolittles ensure Hanoi zoo growls with delight

By Tung Dinh   February 17, 2020 | 11:00 pm PT
Doctor Dolittles ensure Hanoi zoo growls with delight
Phuc placates a lion at Hanoi Zoological Garden. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh.
Having spent the past 20 years caring for zoo animals, two capital zoo keepers can detect health conditions based solely on the odor of waste.

8 a.m. at Hanoi Zoological Garden, 49-year-old Nguyen Quang Phuc opens an iron door designating the bear, tiger and lion enclosure. The smell of animal waste lingers in the air. Passing a disinfectant tray, the keeper approaches the cages followed by fellow staff members.

Hearing footsteps, a 200-kilogram lion strolls towards the metal grid as Indochinese tigers, Barbary lions, sun bears and moon bears slowly wake. Some rub their manes against the steel, others growl in greeting.

In a small corner, Phuc pulls a wire opening the door to the public gallery. "Phi, out!" he calls to the lion, who reluctantly obeys.

As the lion exits, Phuc and his colleague close and lock door before starting their clean up.

Around 10 a.m., zoo staff deliver beef, pork and chicken to the feeding bay. 

"Phi eats 5 kilograms of beef and ribs, while Cham gulps down 3.6 kilograms of ribs, beef and chicken," one keeper explains.

After preparation, the door is opened and the "pets" recalled for breakfast. Some animals are fed twice a day.

Hanoi Zoological Garden holds over 500 animals divided into 6 categories: ungulates, monkeys, crocodiles, civets, small-sized creatures and wild animals.

"Spending your days with zoo animals is a fate very few get to enjoy," is the unofficial view of keepers, some of whom have worked here over two decades.

Ha Thu Phuong is one. The feeding manager says taking care of animals involves learning about their characteristics, diets, nutritional requirements and supplementary demands.

"The worst thing is they cannot speak," Phuong explains, adding keepers are required to observe facial expressions, actions, breathing and calls to monitor each animal. Inspecting animal waste each morning is essential.

"Some think it’s disgusting, but we rely on the waste to inform us if animals are healthy."

Many keepers treat their charges like babies. Tran Thi Ngoc, who has worked at the zoo since 1997, has a special relationship with 2-year-old lion Cham.

In January 2018, Nam, a Barbary lion, died one week after delivering a male cub.

Not allowed to enter the cage during delivery, keepers set up an observation camera. Not until Cham let out his first growl did they relax.

Though Nam’s death proved destressing for everyone at the zoo, Ngoc continued feeding the baby lion, applying massages to stimulate his urinary flow. On cold winter days, she covered him in a warm blank and rubbed his belly just as if he was her own offspring.

From among 10 keepers, Cham obeys only Ngoc, who sometimes uses food to coax him like a "baby" of her own.

Lying with the tiger

Nguyen Quang Phuc is the most senior team member, having worked at the zoo for 26 years.

Phuc recalls the time a Binh Duong tiger had its cartilage removed, with him spending the entire night beside the cage in vigil.

"Their tongues are very sharp. If they lick their wounds, the sutures can part. I had to bang the cage a little to distract the tiger," Phuc recalls.

Following surgery, the tiger refrained from feeding or drinking, forcing Phuc to cut and skewer the meat to make it more appealing, to great effect.

"The tiger had always gulped down 5 kilograms in one minute. After the surgery, he ate only 2 kilograms of chopped meat, that made me very happy."

Phuc and his colleagues are weary when called out at night, which usually indicates something amiss with one of their "pets". With zoo animals falling sick without notice, keepers commonly pay them visits at midnight or in the early morning. 

Phuc often spends days at the zoo caring for a sick animal.

"Without exaggerating, I may look after them better than my own children."

To Phuc and his colleagues, healthy animals and visitor appreciation are the best rewards.

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