Come December-January, snow all around, freezing weather… It’s that time of the year when many of us, especially those in Zürich and around, do not want miss the opportunity to pack ourselves in the warmest of clothes and head to see the penguin walk and feeding at the Zürich Zoo! But imagine what it would be like feeding and caring for these ‘Happy Feet’ creatures. Lakshmi Natarajan at the Zürich Zoo does exactly that! Over a chat with Manasa Mukka, Lakshmi says, “Of the past eleven years, almost eight have been spent exclusively caring for the King and Humboldt penguins, so these are the creatures that know me best!”. Here’s her story.
A techie with a Masters in Computer Applications, Lakshmi loved her work culture at Infosys back in India. Then in 2004, she quit her job, packed her bags and moved to Zürich along with her husband. As they settled in the new country together, they explored Europe, made new friends and of course worked on learning the new language. “Learning “Hochdeutsch” was a real anticlimax as we still didn’t understand “Züritüütsch”! I have always enjoyed playing badminton and my search for a badminton group led me to find the Zürich International Women’s Association, where I continue to enjoy playing badminton and bridge and discovering more of this beautiful country on hikes and day trips.”
But while she settled, Lakshmi was also constantly looking for opportunities to care for animals. Her love for animals is not new. “When in high school, a couple of friends and I had spent one Saturday volunteering at the Blue Cross of India shelter in Besant Nagar, Chennai. All I remember is that we spent a fabulous afternoon playing with the puppies in our attempt to “socialize” them!! In India, volunteers are always encouraged and welcomed at animal rescue homes.”, she says.
After many phone calls to animal shelters in and around Zürich, Lakshmi realized that the concept of volunteering for animals is not as widespread here. Then her husband Girish suggested checking the Zürich Zoo’s website. “I really thought this was a long shot since I do not have a degree in Wildlife Biology. And I was thinking that I am unable to find an opportunity to volunteer with cats and dogs, so how will they let me work with wild animals?”, she reminisces.
It was only then Lakshmi got to know that Zürich Zoo has a continually evolving volunteer program where one can work as an assistant to the animal keepers. Lakshmi applied around the end of February 2006 and there was a long waiting list. She finally saw her dream come true four months later when she began volunteering at the Zürich Zoo. “On my first day, I was assigned to the area called Himalaya that encompassed the Amur tigers, snow leopards, red panda and all the owls. Imagine my thrill as an Indian on being told that I was going to be in the Himalaya region for the next two weeks! On day two, I stood only a few feet away from three Siberian tigers – with a barrier in-between of course – and I was absolutely hooked! I even made my own amateur version of a David Attenborough-style introduction about the three tigers!!”, she recollects.
When her two weeks were up, Lakshmi asked if she could work two more, and then two more. But working as an animal keeper, even if it’s the role of an assistant, is, of course, a far cry from a desk job. “I started off doing two weeks at a time, before taking a break for one week, but my cooking and housework suffered during that second Zoo week, so I started my current schedule of volunteering every alternate week.”, she says.
Over a decade later, Lakshmi continues to be a volunteer at the Zoo. Lakshmi’s typical workday begins at 7:30 am. “Even after all these years, waking up at 05.45 is still so difficult for a night owl like me and I barely manage it!”, she laughs.
Lakshmi spends until 09.00 hosing down the penguins’ inside enclosure and sorting out and distributing breakfast – grains, pellets and salad – for the ducks, geese, cranes and storks in her care. After Znüni, the morning snack, she prepares the fish for feeding the penguins at 10:30. “Since our penguins do not have a saltwater pool, we insert salt and vitamin tablets into their fish to make sure that they get enough in their diet.”
Watching the penguins getting fed is a big attraction for young and old alike, and this is also Lakshmi’s favourite part of her day. “This is really my quality time with the penguins!”, she says.
Next is a check on the incubators and filtration systems. There are different tasks to then get through depending on the season. “In spring, we set out wooden nests for the ducks where they can lay their eggs, so these need to be monitored on a daily basis. In summer, we have hatchlings that need food and water plus their enclosures cleaned. In autumn, we turn into gardeners, mowing and raking the enclosures.”, she explains.
The Penguin Parade
“In winter, the King penguins are in the outside enclosure and if the afternoon temperature is below 10 degrees Celsius, we do the “Penguin Parade”. We open the door to their enclosure and the King penguins march out in unison and walk all the way up to the camel enclosure. They take a short break there so they can be photographed by their adoring public, and then march right back into their enclosure. It is completely voluntary and those that do not want to walk along on any given day are allowed to stay home!”, Lakshmi explains.
But what is it like volunteering for animals back in India? “I have visited the Delhi and Mysore Zoos in India and have found both of them to be exemplary. I could not have imagined working in a Zoo in India before, but after this wonderful experience here, I would love to volunteer some time at Wildlife SOS in Bannerghatta, Bangalore.”, she says.
A Volunteer and a Zoo Tour guide
From a full-time techie job to volunteering at the Zoo, Lakshmi has had varied reactions from her family and friends. “I have loved animals for as long as I can remember and I believe my mother is to blame for this! So a particular highlight was to be able to get my mother to feed the penguins and walk with the camels. My mother worries about my proximity to wild animals and the extent of hard physical labour! My father, having been Director of IIT Madras and a true academic at heart, has found it most difficult to adjust to my career switch, but the reaction he gets when he mentions that his daughter works in a Zoo, is always wonder, or admiration, so I believe he is starting to feel more positive about it too!!”, says a content Lakshmi.
“My family has also been encouraging me to write a blog or book of my anecdotes. My poor husband has had to hear every single detail about every single workday these past eleven years, so it was a source of great relief to him when I started the job of a Zoo tour guide in September 2014.”, she laughs.
Since then, Lakshmi doubles as an ambassador for the Zoo and takes groups of children and adults around the Zoo. “And the bonus is that I now get paid to talk about the work and critters that are my passion.”, she adds.
Browse through the gallery below to take a tour of the Zürich zoo.
More than Animal Care!
Working at a Zoo is a lot more than caring for animals, and for Lakshmi too, it’s been a place of learning, experience and experiments. “I am happy to now be an integral part of the Zoo, but the Zoo has given me so much back too, albeit in terms of “psychic income” rather than money.”
As anyone who has a pet can testify, spending time with animals and birds is just so relaxing and fulfilling (I am still working up my courage to work with reptiles and amphibians!!!). The animal keepers are a wonderful group of people and I have made some friends for life there. The Zoo is my fitness studio, given that I do 5000 steps on a tour of the Elephant House! My volunteering gave me the golden opportunity to hone my language skills and 90% of my tours are in German! Furthermore, my previously non-existent Züritüütsch skills have flourished there and although I restrict my speaking Züritüütsch to the forgiving critters, I now understand pretty much all of it I hear.
Clearly, Lakshmi doesn’t miss any aspect of her earlier job and feels fortunate to be able to follow her passion. “I do what I really want to do, with the emotional and financial support of an obliging husband!!”.
This winter, the Penguin Parade began on the 7th of November and will continue through March, so if you haven’t seen it yet, be sure to catch it this year.