I didn’t know what was draining me more, the process of moving to a new country, the heat and humidity, the rock hard beds which the Vietnamese seem to insist on or the mountainous, daunting and exciting tasks laid before me at the zoo.
After a week I was utterly exhausted.
But what we had accomplished in the zoo in just one week was astronomical, especially as I was not expecting much success at all. By western standards the zoo certainly needs improvements but there was so much to do, so many places to be and so many ideas but only one of me who didn’t even speak the language. The first few days were a question of orientation and attempting to understand how the zoo worked and what kind of people worked there. But I was surprised at the eagerness of some of the keepers to get started and before I knew it we were making enrichment together and watching the positive impacts on the animals.
It’s still a battle, a war almost. The magnitude of what we are trying to achieve with a challenging environment, limited resources and the curse of ignorance requires an alarming amount of sheer will power. And it can be a struggle akin to wading through the swamps of sadness in the never ending story. If you let it, it will take you under and drown you very easily. And on some days the temptation to just succumb, admit defeat and go home is overwhelming.
But one day it was suggested I show the keepers how to make some ice blocks. I made one, gave it to the Sun Bears and it was enjoyed thoroughly. What I failed to understand at that moment was just how big a break through this actually was. I didn’t realise none of the animals had ever been given one before. I didn’t know that the keepers had previously never been shown how to make one. I just did not think that this generally standard piece of enrichment was such a big deal, both for the keepers and the animals.
The next morning I opened the freezer to find another ice block had been made without me even being there and the keepers were keen to use it. Over the next few days we gave ice blocks to several species with the biggest success being the Lions. They were playing with it so much they had to take it in turns to have a rest whilst the other one attacked it some more. Two and a half hours later they were still playing with it!
We had plenty more successes that week including branch provision which caused me to go on a foraging mission to collect them. This resulted in some curious questions and one irate woman shouting at me in Vietnamese until I backed off. I accepted the fail only to come in the next day to find a Bear playing with a branch. The keepers had seen what I was trying to do and managed to make it happen. The Bear was having an amazing time destroying the branch and looking further on other Bears were having a similar joyful experience. I very nearly cried.
I had meetings with hugely energetic people, all with plans and ideas of their own as well as the suggestions I was receiving from the army of zoologically knowledgable people I knew I could rely on. I was buzzing with ideas of my own too and had pages and pages of notes written down as well as useful bits of Vietnamese and crudely drawn enclosure ideas.
It was a completely chaotic riot of extremes and emotion.
All in all it had been a week in which I had forced myself to hit the ground running which was definitely the best thing I could have done. The country I am in may never feel like home but thankfully animals (and often keepers too) give me that sense of belonging. I know not every week can be like that first one, fresh off the plane and full of warrior-like gusto. I know there will be more days and weeks in which I want to give up, more failings to undergo and difficult lessons to learn. But at least during this first challenging week it can be said that a difference was made. And really, what else are we put on this planet for than to turn a negative into a positive in whichever way we can.