Happy hippos, happy days| Photos, video

​This year, Taronga Western Plains Zoo turns 40. In the lead up to the birthday celebrations on February 28, The Daily Liberal will be featuring some of the lesser known stories of the zoo.

He was only supposed to work in Dubbo for four weeks, but 15 years later Taronga Western Plains Zoo keeper Anthony Dorian still calls the city home.

Mr Dorrian spent 18 years at Taronga Zoo in Sydney when he was asked to help fill a staff shortage in Dubbo for a month, during that time a three month managerial position came up.

“It was going to be three months and that turned to six and then nine months and I thought ‘I don’t want to go back’,” he said.

The keeper works mainly with ungulates, or animals with hooves like hippos and giraffe, and said he had seen a lot of changes in the way animals were cared for throughout his career.

“In the early days there was probably half of the keepers. You used to spend your morning letting the animals out, putting the feed out, cleaning their night yards and then spend the rest of the day putting them back in,” Mr Dorrian said.

Now there was a great emphasis on conditioning the animals, he said, such as the months he spent teaching Happy the hippo to open his mouth for keepers to check his teeth, and if need be, saw the points off.

“For us to cut those tusks back it used to be as high as 50 per cent mortality, you’d lose every second hippo you’d knock out. So to spend that time conditioning really benefits the keeper because it makes it more interesting, but it really benefits the animals as well because we can help with a life-threatening issue,” Mr Dorrian said.

When he first started at Dubbo, the keeper said they didn’t even hold talks about the animals, and the hippos were so unused to human contact they’d charge whenever a keeper got close.

As well as the medical conditioning, teaching the animals could also assist with moving them, Mr Dorrian said, such as when he spent nine months getting the eland used to being in a box so it could be transported to the Savannah exhibit.

It’s work like the conditioning and the difference from one day to the next that Mr Dorrain said ensured boring days were very rare.

“I sit here some afternoons and write my daily report and you can just sit back, and you won’t see anyone around, it’s super quiet and you just think ‘there might be a better place to work somewhere, but today I can’t see it’,” he said.

“Having said that, when it’s the middle of winter and you’re in really early and it’s raining and slushy you can think of better places to come to work.”

While there was always run-of-the-mill jobs that had to be done, Mr Dorrian said there were also times when he found himself saying ‘wow, in 15 years I’ve never seen an animal do that before’.

The days aren’t boring, but there can be challenges

Conditioning an animal can help keepers in a variety of ways, but teaching the new behaviour isn’t always easy.

 The Daily Liberal asked Mr Dorrian about the biggest challenge he has had in his career. He said trying to artificially inseminate at giraffe at Taronga came to mind.

“The aim was to eventually be able to use frozen semen from other countries. It’s only been successfully done once and that was at an American zoo and they used fresh semen,” he said.

The first step was getting her to stay in position, Mr Dorrian said, then getting her comfortable with human contact.

“That was a pretty big challenge getting an animal that wasn’t used to being confined and saying ‘I’m going to stick my hand up your butt and you’re going to stand there while I do it’. That was a pretty big one but unfortunately it didn’t come off,” he said.

Despite multiple attempts, the semen wouldn’t wake up properly for the insemination. Mr Dorrian said.