IT'S feeding time at the zoo.
Lions, giraffes, squirrel monkeys, meerkats and marmosets all hungrily wait for their first dish of the day, a mammoth task undertaken by Hunter Valley Wildlife Park director Chad Staples and his team.
An average day begins as the sun laps at the horizon, the drawn-out, croaky squawk of the black glossy cockatoo and first snorts of the binturong ring out across wildlife park.
The team are flat-out, making sure everyone is fed, watered and catered to before excited families arrive.
"Mornings at the zoo are very busy, you never know what will be thrown at you until the day starts," zookeeper Chad said.
"We have to do diet preparation for the first morning feeds and you do need to start early, if you imagine a honeyeater in Australia, as soon as the sun comes up their little metabolisms are ready to start eating straight away.
"That's the way their bodies are designed and it's up to us to mimic what happens in the wild, so it's early starts and busy from the get-go.
"It's very rare that I go into a day with a plan and that plan stays the same."
The first keepers are in by about 6:30am, once it closes at 4pm the preparation begins for the next day.
Everyone has someone to look after, with 10 to 12 zookeepers on site, the team manages everything from the biggest giraffe down to the small marmosets or primaries.
"Everyone is on an individual diet and has a personality of their own, and some require special care which is why it was challenging the last few years," zookeeper Chad said.
"None of that changed whether we had visitors or not, so it's wonderful to be open and have a bit more normality again because we went through such a tough time."
A wildlife park is a living, breathing organism of its own. Life as a zookeeper is hefty work, loading heavy bales of hay for the camels, scrubbing enclosures, picking the perfect acacia branch for a picky giraffe and raking, raking and more raking.
It takes a certain person to do the job, zookeeper Chad said.
"Attitude is everything, so is the ability to want to learn," he said.
"It's important to have a lot of empathy, that ability to put yourself in the shoes of the animals you're caring for is crucial and to not ever think just because something has always been done a certain way it should always be done that way.
"You have to let the animals tell you what's happening - but I think having that ability to think on your feet, be a natural problem solver and look at situations from multiple perspectives is invaluable."
The zoo's icons are obvious winners with the public, with lions and giraffes drawing massive crowds.
But for the zookeepers - everyone has their personal favourites - even if they do make a mess.
"Every one of them has a personality of their own," zookeeper Chad said.
"When you start talking about the bigger, smarter animals, when they want to make a mess or do something out of the ordinary they can always do it.
"But everyone has their way of throwing you a curve ball, in a good way.
"It's one of the most fascinating aspects of the job and it's really rewarding."
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