Sarah McGregor, Team Leader of Predators at Whipsnade Zoo, spends her time caring for the animal kingdom’s top predators – from Amur tigers to African wild dogs. She talks about working with the world's biggest big cat, and why her most memorable moment involved some honey water and a syringe!
When did you know you wanted to work with animals?
I think I’ve always known, ever since I was small. I was constantly asking my parents for pets – and told no – which must have spurred me on because, as soon as I turned 18, I got a job at a zoo! I wasn’t sure what animals I wanted to work with, so I volunteered with lots of different animals, but as soon as I met Whipsnade’s big cats and bears I was hooked. Carnivores have such strong personalities; I knew I wanted to work with them.
Has anything surprised you about the job?
Everyone always seems to be surprised that my job isn’t mostly petting and cuddling the animals – far from it! Being a zookeeper is a lot of hard graft, in all weathers, but that’s part of the satisfaction. The harder we work, the better our animals’ lives are going to be; from fun jobs like making new enrichment for the African wild dogs, to the less glamourous jobs like clearing a blocked drain in their enclosure. Everyday we walk into the Zoo and with the attitude of ‘how can I make your day great?’ – and whatever it is, we get on with it!
I know you’re not supposed to have favourites – but do you?!
I am very lucky to be on a section with so many amazing different species, but one of my favourites has to be the tigers. I have worked with our three Amur tiger males – Czar, Dmitri and Makari – since they were born at Whipsnade in 2017, and it’s been a privilege to watch them grow into the individuals they are today. I will never tire of seeing them climbing the feed poles in their enclosure after we have tied meat or enrichment up high for them. It gives them such a good workout, stimulating both their muscles and their hunting instincts!
What’s been your most memorable moment as a zookeeper?
Training Colombo our sloth bear to let us take a blood sample from his paw for health checks. Now that Colombo is getting a little older we take blood samples every six months to make sure he’s doing OK, and the best way to do it is without anaesthetics. I spent weeks training him to reach his paws into a specially made compartment in his enclosure so our vet nurse Karla could take a blood sample. While this is going on I feed him honey water via a syringe, which is his favourite reward. I was really proud when we finally managed it!
What are you most proud of?
This is going to sound cheesy, but being part of ZSL! My colleagues are working to protect so many different species and ecosystems around the world, and I get to share that work with our visitors – all in the presence of some of the world’s most endangered species. I couldn’t be prouder to work for ZSL.
What do you do when you’re not at the Zoo?
I have two children at home, as well as the animals at work, so most of my free time is spent being a mum! One day I’ll have time to pick up hobbies again but, in the meantime, it’s all about ferrying them to golf, tennis, swimming and regular visits to the Zoo on my days off! I love it.