"If it's a choice between the branch going over the edge and you going with it, let go of the branch".
Good advice, as it turns out. Giraffes are stronger than their dainty ways would have you believe, and hand-feeding them, even from a raised platform to accommodate their height, comes with its own problems.
We're spending a day as zookeepers at London Zoo, testing out the Keeper for a Day programme and getting to know the animals better. We've already cleaned out the camel enclosure, getting rid of the, erm, presents they left us overnight, and stocking up their food supply to see them through the morning (they need to be fed a total of four times throughout the day, or else they get the hump).
Moving onto the giraffes, we're relieved to find that the keepers have got there early and already mucked out, and we're just in time to feed them. This is where an awareness of a giraffe's strength comes in. We're holding out branches while they delicately strip them of leaves using their lengthy tongues, but when they give the branch a tug, we're reminded that they can easily kill a lion with a swipe of that neck, let alone pull us over the fence. Fortunately, breakfast passes without incident.
Next up we're heading into the listed Casson Pavilion, better known to most visitors for its past life as the elephant house. It's now home to tapirs, and bearded pigs, among other species, the elephants long-since relocated to Whipsnade Zoo. But we're not just going inside it, we're going underneath it, into a secret basement, the existence of which remains unknown to most visitors.
It's a bit of a time warp down there. While the facilities are all very modern (the area is used as an area to prepare food for the many hungry animals), zoo posters, both recent and vintage, line the walls. The oldest we spot dates back to the time of Guy the gorilla, the latest advertises Land of the Lions, which opened in March 2016.
Once we've finished having a gawp, we get down to the important business of weighing and chopping food — mainly fruit and vegetables — for the bearded pigs. It's for breakfast the next day, so we're not feeding them, but we do give them a few boiled eggs on our way over to see the giant tortoises.
Faced with the trio of sizeable female Galapagos tortoises — Polly, Dolly and Priscilla — we carry out the most bizarre activity of the day: washing and polishing their shells. Giving their legs a little tickle encourages them to raise their heads, necks and shells (or 'carapace', as we learn it's called). This comes with its own dangers though — we're warned not to put our fingers underneath the carapace, lest a lot of tortoise (females can weigh upwards of 100kg) comes down on them hard.
Our final stop before lunch is Penguin Beach. Home to over 80 penguins, mainly Humboldts, things tend to get messy here. We're handed a broom with which to clean the rocks, and before we know it, we've got ourselves a few helpers.
Lunch in the staff restaurant is followed by our highlight of the day — feeding the colobus monkeys. It's like a game of whack-a-mole, feeding the whole troop through the fence, filling one hungry mouth only to be confronted by another, and another. One even reaches through the fence and taps us on the shoulder, polite but firm, when he feels he's being left out of the feeding frenzy.
Once the food is gone, the monkeys quickly lose interest in us. Heading to the Animal Adventure section of the site, we're promised a chance to get up close with two species — coatis and meerkats.
The coatis are shoo-ed out of their enclosure by Karen, a keeper with 21 years experience, in order for us to scatter food around the place, helping to keep them busy and active by looking for it. After hiding pieces of carrot in logs, and burying other fruit, we take a seat on the ground, and brace ourselves as the racoon-like animals are released. Before we know it, they're crawling all over us, having a good old sniff and burrowing around.
Our final stop for the day is the meerkats, one of two colonies of the creatures here at the zoo. Again, we sit on the floor and watch them run backwards and forwards among us, getting to know us, and in one case, taking a particular interest in our footwear.
Our day as zookeepers ends with drink and cake in the zoo restaurant, exhausted and ready for a shower, but having made a few new animal friends.
Like what you see? Keeper for a Day runs weekdays throughout the year and needs to be booked in advance. You'll help keepers with day to day activities such as cleaning, preparing food, and enrichment activities, as well as getting up close to some of the animals. Junior Keeper for a Day programmes run during school holidays.