Penguin theft? I've seen it all at Dublin Zoo
Brendan Walsh always yearned to be a zookeeper, and after a lot of trying, writes Claire Murphy, he got his wish
HE was a Rose of Tralee escort and even auditioned for Big Brother, but Dublin zookeeper Brendan Walsh is most at ease around animals.
The zoo is part of our national psyche and, at over 180 years old, is one of the oldest and perhaps most progressive zoological gardens in the world.
Mind you, it did come very close to the brink in the early 1990s – but a significant grant and additional allocated park land meant the facilities for animals have been vastly improved.
Gone are the days of elephant rides and the monkeys' tea party.
In fact, chimps Betty and Wendy, now aged 51, are in a 'retirement home' of sorts within the zoo itself, which is still open to the public.
Staff are now driving the message of education, conservation and the welfare of the animals themselves. Crucial to this mission statement is a motivated and dedicated staff.
Ever since he was three years old, Brendan knew he wanted to work at the zoo.
"As a kid I thought I want to do it, but I never thought I could. I sent letters to the old curator from the age of 12 upwards – I knew it wouldn't get me a job but I wanted them to know my name," he said.
"When I started, there were no jobs being taken on anywhere in the zoo itself, so I applied to the restaurant and then it was my business to make sure I was known to the management.
"It is still hard to get in here now, it might have even been harder then. But I know I couldn't do anything else."
The Dubliner is now one of the lead keepers at the zoo and says he lives and breathes everything about animal management.
But although he knows he has an enviable career, Brendan says the responsibility with the job is great.
The dangers of working with wild animals were in the spotlight only a few days ago when a keeper was mauled to death by a tiger in an animal park in Cumbria, England.
Sarah McClay (24) entered a cage containing two Sumatran tigers which hadn't been fed, as they were on a "starve day".
She was immediately attacked and died soon afterwards.
"It makes us all think. They are horrible reminders, but they are good reminders," Brendan says of the incident. "Our mentality about our animals is that we love animals, but we don't think of them as pets.
"We really look at them as being animals that should be respected and remember that they are wild and in a split second they could cause you harm."
Brendan (34) was one of the three keepers who chased down the penguin thieves from the zoo in 2010.
The thieves somehow vaulted the gates of the enclosure, grabbed the bird and escaped in a passing taxi.
It was one of the most unusual events to happen at the city centre zoo, says Brendan,
"What was really weird about that story – I used to look after penguins and people used to say to me, 'My cousin nicked a penguin from the zoo and kept it in the bath'," he said.
"It never had happened, it was just one of those urban myths. I remember researching it and a Boston newspaper wrote an article, before this all happened, that it was an urban myth that started in Dublin. And then it happened in our zoo, of all places.
"The penguin was actually back within three hours, so it didn't miss a feed. Penguins are hardy animals," he added.
However, it is only a "small minority" of visitors to the zoo who cause trouble or try to feed the animals.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the downturn, the zoo's figures have been growing at a fast pace – averaging a 40,000 rise a year.
"I think it is because people have less money to go away for breaks. They spend a fraction of money and still get the entertainment and education," Brendan said.
"We are a company with charity status – the money that we make covers the cost of running the place and then profits go to other charities in the wild.
Although Brendan knows there are bad zoos, he says that the Dublin team are giving animals the best quality of life and are now heading up some of the world's best breeding programmes. "Every year we do something new here. On a day-to-day basis I would never be happy saying let's just carry on doing the same, especially when it comes to primates, they are so intelligent. If you give them an easy life, you are not doing them any favours."
Brendan said that there is absolutely nothing about his job that he doesn't enjoy – including the mucky task of cleaning up.
He starts his day with early morning rounds of all of the animals. Although it was commonplace years ago to take home some of the baby animals to hand rear, they now believe that the best place is with their mother.
At the moment they are keeping their eye on two female elephants who are showing early signs of pregnancy. They have trialled an unusual approach of putting coloured non-toxic glitter into the feed which will help identify the correct dung to test for increased hormone levels.
"Three of our oldest girls – we think two of them may be pregnant," he said.
Raised in Marino, Brendan's family were all animal mad and he soon made it his life's goal to pursue a career in the industry.
And he said that his 'never give up' personal motto made it possible for him to become employed on the grounds of the Phoenix Park facility.
"I think I was three or four – I don't remember not wanting to be a zoo-keeper," Brendan said. "My dad was very supportive, he always said, 'Whatever you want to do, there is nothing stopping you doing it'."