...we can only be human together...
...we can only be human together...
...we can only be human together...

I've been working at the University of Ibadan zoo for 41 years, starting as an attendant and now a supervisor

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06 July 2022
8 minutes read
I've been working at the University of Ibadan zoo for 41 years, starting as an attendant and now a supervisor

On 29 November 1992, some members of a white garment church in Ajibode area of Ibadan, Western Nigeria,  came to the University of Ibadan (UI) zoological garden. 

They did not come as a group rather they bought their entry tickets individually. 

They gathered in a place to preach while some of their members shared tracts to visitors to the zoo.

It was around five-thirty in the evening when visitors to the zoo were supposed to be leaving and some animals had to be locked in.

As I got to where the ostrich was kept, I saw people running towards the lion cage and screaming.

I dashed to the cage and I saw a man inside it. He held a cross in his right hand.

The female lion who, apparently, had been sleeping and was woken by the noise, ran towards him, then stopped. It was a self-defence move: she must have believed the man came to attack her.

But the man was calling on the people, saying that God had given him powers to do this and that.

The next thing, the lion pounced on the man and dragged him to where she had been sleeping before and started eating him. 

I was the only zookeeper on duty….

My name is Tony Ojeabulu and I have been working at the zoo since 1980.

I am from Oria in Esan South East Local Government Area of Edo State, although I was born in Lagos State where my dad, Onikolase Okoduwa Ojeabulu was then working in a customary court and my mum, Hannah, was a trader.

My time in Lagos was short as my dad was transferred out of Lagos when I was little.

I was also little when my dad died in our village leaving my mum and five children, all male.

My uncle, Benjamin Ojeabulu, who was then working in UI's catering department brought my older brother and, later, me to Ibadan. That was in 1970.

I attended Army Children's School Mokola and Irepolodun Community Grammar School, Akanran, but stopped in Form Three because my uncle could no longer continue with funding my education as he had too many responsibilities of his own.

I then worked for one woman selling engine oil at Agbowo, in the UI neighbourhood. 

There was no shopping complex there then.

It was during this period that one of my uncle's friends whom we called Oga Mike told him that there was a vacancy at the UI Zoo. Oga Mike, whose full name is Michael Iyoha,  also from Esan, was then a supervisor at the zoo. He was trained by Bob Golding*.

On 25 November 1980, I filled that vacancy of a zoo attendant after some process.

I began my journey here with the primates. Then we had a male gorilla named Haruna, a female one named Imade and a chimpanzee named Zeta. Oga Mike, who in 1987 left the zoo to join the University of Ilorin zoo, and eventually retired eight or ten years ago, gave them the names. Only Zeta is still alive. 

As a zoo attendant, I was responsible for cleaning the cage and serving the animals food.

On the first day that I started I was afraid of working here but after a few days I began to get used to it. The routine then was that Oga Mike would open the gate, go in first, holding a stick, and I would go in to sweep. There are some animals who would go to eat their food when served, while some would not. That stick is for those ones who refused to eat.

I have gone through all the sections - primate, reptile, carnivore, herbivore, aviary - and headed everyone of them. For each, I got a different training. Primates are like human beings and they are sensitive animals. If you make any mistake while locking them in, they could come out on their own. For instance, if the padlock is not well locked, they can pull it and come out of the cage. Carnivores are different. They cannot unlock a padlock. Yet, they are more dangerous. They are more interested in their food. That was the situation with that man whose name, Abodunrin, we later found written in the Bible he had in the polythene bag he was carrying. Another thing we found in the bag was a rope which he had knotted into a loop. It seemed that he had wanted to use it to leash the lion and hold it like he caught it in his trap and take pictures. In fact, there were a man and a lady who took photographs of him when he was attacked. We suspect those were press people whom he had invited to see him perform a miracle of sorts. If he had succeeded, he probably would have used it to attract people to his church.

There are two doors in the lion's cage. Between the two doors, there is a sliding door which the keeper can pull for the lion to cross into the space for food. The keeper has safe access to clean the cage and place food there while the lion is in the other room. 

I have had several mishaps along the way.

I have two stitches in my buttocks from a monkey's bites.

Sometime in October last year I was rubbing a hyena's head through the cage and I do not know what came over the animal to want to cut my thumb.  But he was playing with me too….I have been the one taking care of him since the day in 2014 he and his mate, who is dead, arrived from the north.

Anyhow, my passion for the job remains deep. Being a zookeeper, one, you must have interest in the job, two, if you have any problem bothering you, once you reach the zoo gate, you drop it there. When you close, you can pick it up again. Because, you cannot be thinking of any problem and working with animals. It is like going to war, you cannot make a wrong move. It is a dangerous job. You cannot be too careful.

We used to have more animals than now. If you came to the zoo then you would not want to leave. I hope our management will bring that time back. It is possible. 

I have just about two years left to retire. I have indeed come a long way from from being an attendant through several levels of a zookeeper, including being chief zookeeper and finally a supervisor. The supervisor's job includes observing the animals, and ensuring they are well and well-fed or need medical attention. If, for instance, an animal does not eat as he used to, or the movement becomes sluggish, or he just lies down without any movement, then there is a problem. In case of the carnivore, if the animal refuses to eat or does not eat well or the stool is watery or there is mucus on the face or the eyes are reddish, there is a problem. When some of the animals are I'll, we either catch them manually or we dart them, to take the blood, urine or stool samples.

Along the way,  I have learnt refrigeration and air conditioning; from 1987 to 1990. I used to close at one 0'clock in the afternoon then, so I had time for the training.

I had wanted to learn to be an auto mechanic but I was told that I could not learn it part time. 

It is all good.

*Robert Roy Golding, known to many as Bob, died on 4 January 2022, aged 84, in Bristol, United Kingdom, where he was born and raised. Read a tribute to him here


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