This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands
Getting to spend every day surrounded by penguins, giraffes and pandas is, understandably, a dream for many people – but it's a reality for Christiaan Luttenberg. For 25 years, he's been taking care of animals at the Burgers' Zoo in Arnhem, the Netherlands. The park attracts more than a million visitors each year, and as head zookeeper Christiaan is in charge of making sure that all the animals are looked after – not least his beloved aardvarks. I spoke to Christiaan to find out whether being a zookeeper is really a dream job, which visitors he hates the most and what he thinks about animals being locked up.
VICE: Is being a zookeeper really a dream job?
Christiaan: To be honest, I initially didn't want to be a zookeeper. I just never found elephants and lions to be as interesting as everyone else thinks they are – I actually think they're all a bit boring. At first I wanted to be an animal breeder at a petting zoo, but, unfortunately, that didn't work out because I didn't have enough experience. So, as the jobs are similar – someone who cares for animals and their surroundings – I eventually decided to become a zookeeper.
Do you have to love animals to be a zookeeper?
Oh no, not all zookeepers like animals. Why would you work in a zoo if you did? If you really loved animals you wouldn't want to see them locked up.
What's your favourite animal?
I don't really have a favourite, but I'm really fascinated by aardvarks. They are nocturnal, clumsy, unwieldy, stubborn animals that don't really give a fuck about anything. Some animals are grateful after you feed them, but an aardvark will just shove right past you before taking a 20-hour nap. Here's a fun fact: it’s really hard to figure out the sex of an aardvark. It's only when they are in deep sleep that you can check, by pressing on their genital area to push their genitals out.
What's the most disgusting thing about being a zookeper?
What I find really gross is having to clean out a drain that's full of slugs. You end up constantly squeezing the slugs while you're cleaning, which is just the most disgusting feeling. I once had a slug stuck in my boot that left a thick layer of slime on my sock that was impossible to wash off.
Do you think the animals like you?
I honestly don't think so. But either way, we consciously keep our distance – we don't try to bond with them. When they see us, they just know it's time to eat. The aardvarks sometimes push us aside just to get to their meal.
Should we pity zoo animals?
Well, any animal not in the wild is living in a space that's too small for them. But that doesn't mean they're necessarily worse off than they would have been out in nature. We do try really hard here to recreate their natural habitat the best we can. We've even built an area we call "The Bush", which is a big open space with a tropical climate that is fun for the visitors and staff, but also for the animals. Not only does it "rain" inside the enclosure, we've planted fruit trees so the animals can go and find their own food. The whole thing has this vibe of a sub-tropical paradise.
What smell will you never get used to?
The smell of elephant shit. Even if I only spend a minute inside the elephant enclosure, my family can smell it on me when I get home.
What sort of visitors do you hate the most?
The ignorant kind. Companies often organise trips for their employees, and it's often on me to give them a tour. The annoying thing is that they never seem to be properly dressed for walking around this sort of environment for hours. On top of that, they hardly look at the animals. To them, the zoo is nothing more than a backdrop – some scenery to walk through as they chat to each other. Also, it's remarkable just how many of our visitors are not afraid of the animals. Many people think the animals are tame, but, of course, they're not. Our creatures are wild animals, so they're dangerous.
Where do zoos get their animals from?
Usually the animals are offered on a website that is a bit like an eBay for zoos. Zookeepers stay in close contact with each other, so everyone knows pretty quickly when a new animal becomes available. And obviously animals reproduce, so sometimes we become overpopulated with a specific species. Recently, we had a bird that wouldn't stop having babies. At one point, they were knocking out a few hundred babies a year, which started to damage our plant collection. We eventually had to transfer quite a few of them to other zoos. The interesting thing is that, a while ago, it was really hard to get hold of that specific type of bird – we only started here with five or six. But now we've been able to supply them to loads of zoos.
Do animals often escape from the zoo?
Yeah, especially the chimpanzees. They have electric fences around their enclosure, but sometimes when there's a power cut or a large branch breaks and they suddenly have a path up one of the trees, they can sneak out. But we normally spot them really quickly. And when they spot one of our coloured vests, they immediately think we're bringing them food, so they head back to their area.
This article originally appeared on VICE NL.