Above: Cathriona is pictured with Sapphire the giraffe
Gaeilgeor Cathriona Ní Scanaill, (29), from Ballyvourney has always had a big ‘grá’ for animals. The assistant warden at Fota Wildlife Park in Co. Cork grew up with a father who was a wildlife ranger with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and her childhood memories are filled with reminisences of bats and herons and hedgehogs.
The animal lover strayed a short time, unsure of what kind of a career exactly she wanted and how to go about following her dream of working with animals. She worked in retail for a while and studied Environmental Science and Waste Management and Field Ecology before deciding to volunteer at a wildlife park. When she heard there was a seasonal position available at Fota, Cathriona went for the interview and hasn’t looked back since. Six years later and she has worked her way up to the position of assistant warden.
Cathriona talks to Mary O’Brien, giving a glimpse of what life is like behind the scenes at Fota Wildlife Park.
“The best part of my job,” Caitriona explains, “is being involved with the conservation and breeding programmes at Fota.”
Fota Wildlife Park participates in the European Endangered Species Breeding Programme (EEP) for several different animals, including the Cheetah, Lechwe, Scimitar-horned Oryx and European Bison.
European bison were driven to extinction in the wild in the early twentieth century as the result of habitat destruction and severe hunting. Through the captive breeding of the species in European zoos and a series of reintroduction projects, the population has gradually begun to increase.
In 2014 six female captive-bred bison from Fota Wildlife Park, Highland Wildlife Park (Inverness-shire) and Port Lympne and Howletts Wild Animal Parks (Kent) were transported to the Vanatori Neamt Nature Park in Romania. There, the bison joined an existing herd of European bison, who were introduced into the park from captive populations in Germany, Sweden and Switzerland, contributing to an important reintroduction programme for this species that was once extinct in the wild in Romania.
Over-hunting, coupled with habitat destruction, led to the extinction of the Scimitar-horned Oryx in the wild during the early 1990s. However, a number of zoological facilities – including Fota Wildlife Park – have assisted north African governments in reintroducing the antelope into a number of National Parks in Tunisia, Morocco and Senegal in recent years.
“One of our males went over to a reserve in Tunisia,” says Cathriona. “He is the dominant bull in a group of 17 animals and has successfully sired a number of calves.
“His displays of wild behaviour – including being wary of humans and protecting the herd from other possibly dominant males – demonstrates the success that re-introduction programmes can have.”
While at Fota, Cathriona has achieved a Diploma in the Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals and has recently completed Wildlife Rehabilitation Course.
At present, Cathriona is assigned to the Hoofstock section at Fota, which include giraffes, rhinos and bison. A typical workday for the assistant warden involves observing and feeding the animals and cleaning out their enclosures. “It’s physically demanding and there’s a lot of cleaning involved but I love it,” she says. “You come to know the personalities of the animals and learn to be aware of their moods, as they can be stubborn at times!
“All the 12 giraffes have different personalities. It’s a mix of bulls, cows and calves of all different ages, so a nice family herd.
“A giraffe’s gestation period is 15 months,” explains Cathriona, “so when the calf is born after that length of time it’s just a great feeling. You see them head off to different wildlife parks and zoos. These are the things that I like about the job.”
Giraffe mothers give birth to their calves while standing. This means that the first experience for a baby giraffe is a 6ft drop to the ground.
Giraffe calves have been born at Fota since the early 1980s, most of them have ended up in zoos and parks in Australia, Belgium, England, Scotland and in both Belfast Zoo and Dublin Zoo.
“The job takes a lot of dedication but there are so many great and exciting moments,” says Cathriona passionately.
As a non-profit organisation, the park funds itself through its memberships and gate income, which sustain Fota Wildlife Park in its vision to inspire people to understand and conserve the biodiversity of the natural world and also to continue with their educational programmes. Fota Wildlife Park now features the Asian Sanctuary, which houses endangered species such as Asian Lions, Sumatran Tigers and Indian Rhino.
Fota Wildlife Park Memberships start at €117 and offer the following benefits: Annual pass to Fota Wildlife Park; two Fota Wildlife Park Newsletter Magazines; 10 percent off all Children’s Activity Camps and ‘Go Wild’ experiences; free admission to Dublin Zoo and concessions to selected UK zoos.
See www.fotawildlife.ie for full details or to book your membership and for full terms and conditions or call 021 4812678 (ext 210).