Life

Animals still fascinate Julie Mansell after 32 years at zoo

It is the end of a busy summer at Belfast Zoo, but the work doesn't end for long-serving curator Julie Mansell who tells Gail Bell why she was born to talk to the animals

Julie Mansell with some ring tailed lemurs in Belfast Zoo Picture: Hugh Russell
Gail Bell

THERE'S a big 'love-in' going on in the bushes up on the Antrim Road – and it's not a laughing matter.

Among the concerned observers is Julie Mansell, who is wondering where it will all lead: for a start, the chemistry between the 'lovebirds' is currently unknown and, so far, hasn't ventured beyond the 'smelling' stage.

It may not be the most romantic of introductions, bt it is all part of an elaborate seduction routine involving two rare striped hyenas at Belfast Zoo.

"It is a tense time, when animals are first introduced to each other," observes Julie, curator at the zoo where she will have worked for 32 years this November.

"They will circle around each other first, smelling each other, sizing each other up – it's part of the hyena love dance and is the next big challenge on my horizon. It can be one big dating scene here at times.

"It is always fascinating, no matter how many years I have worked here, to see how animals interact with each other and, of course, to see the end result of successful breeding programmes, with the birth of healthy babies."

And this year there have been quite a few baby animals delivered at at the zoo which is home to more than 1,000 animals and 150 different species, most of which are endangered or extinct.

These have included the first Andean bear cub born in Belfast in 22 years, eight gentoo penguin chicks, a baby giant anteater, four baby capybaras (the largest rodents in the world) and a Rothschild’s giraffe calf.

A baby gorilla has also been born in the past few weeks and, at the time of our chat, was yet unnamed and of unknown gender.

The gorilla clan, headed up by big daddy Gugas – himself just a baby when dumped outside the gates of Lisbon Zoo several years ago – are firm favourites with Julie who, as well as being responsible for the tightly knit group of eight gorillas, looks after the 'big cats', chimps, bears and lemurs.

One of three curators, each with a responsibility for a different area of the zoo, Julie has clocked up more time than most of the animals – only Tina the elephant has been in residence longer.

"And Delilah the gorilla is 53 – the same age as me and one of the oldest gorillas in the world," she muses, "although I have been here longer".

She adds: "I left just once, to swap jobs with the operations manager at what was then the Odyssey Arena (now SSE Arena) for the BBC's Fish Out of Water programme and I couldn't wait to get back.

"I usually dress down in trainers, shorts and fleece and they bought me heels and transformed me for a week. I was definitely out of my comfort zone."

Having risen through the ranks from zookeeper to senior keeper and then curator, Julie has, ironically, grown away from her beloved animals in the process.

"I miss the direct contact that I would have had as zookeeper, as I am now more responsible for people in the team," she explains, "but I am still on first-name terms with the animals and make a point of visiting them regularly.

"It has been a very busy summer and cooler weather helps bring families out – if it is too hot, people tend to head to the beach instead."

Living just outside Larne with her civil servant husband, it is a fairly easy daily commute, but even when she's at home with her two dogs and one cat, Julie can never quite switch off.

"It's hard, in this job, not to bring your work home with you," she says. "I will often be at home wondering if one of the cats was looking ill or acting out-of-sorts, or if a chimp was being unusually mischievous.

"One of the reasons I love the gorillas and chimps so much is the way they mimic human behaviour in many instances – they have moods, good days and bad days like the rest of us. Watching them is like a gorilla soap opera in action.

"When Gugas was first introduced to a new female gorilla, he took an instant dislike to her, so we got in a specialist to see what was going on. We had samples taken which showed up unviable sperm, but just when we thought he would never become a father, the first of his three baby gorillas was born. He is a brilliant dad now and it's great to see him play with the younger ones.

"That is a lovely part of the job, but of course it's dreadfully sad when an animal dies. You really see the group grieving and it is heartbreaking."

Originally from the West Midlands in England, Julie left school to work at Dudley Zoo where she discovered an instant rapport with the wildlife.

"The only thing I knew then was that I wanted to work outside and not in an office, so a careers officer sent me off to the zoo. I ended up working there for four years and my earliest memory was trying to catch a polar bear to see what sex it was."

She arrived in Belfast at a time when zoos in England were "getting a bad press" and when she says money was being pumped into the Cavehill facility – which today is still one of the top fee-paying visitor attractions in Northern Ireland, receiving more than 300,000 visitors a year, despite recent budget concerns highlighted by Belfast City Council.

"I saw good prospects in Belfast," she says, "but my friends thought I was mad, coming to look after animals with bombs going off a few miles down the road."

It's a decision she has never regretted and is proud of the zoo's ongoing appeal, the interaction between members of the public and the zookeepers, the work with schoolchildren and volunteers and, most of all, the successful breeding programmes in conjunction with other zoos.

"I always tell aspiring young zookeepers that it's hard work in all types of weather and you always need to be ultra observant, but if you have a love for animals and their wellbeing, the rewards are huge," she adds.

"You could be carrying a lion on a stretcher one minute and playing match-maker the next. I love this job; I'm very lucky.

"Over the years, people's perceptions of zoos have changed, as has customer expectation; the challenge is to keep meeting them well into the future."

:: A Halloween 'Boo at the zoo' event is planned for October 29 and a special 'zoo explorers' week for children – details at www.belfastzoo.co.uk

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