EASTER Drylaw, sometime in the 1970s. “Dear Jim,” wrote the boy. “Can you fix it for me to bath a hippo?” The letter was duly sealed up and sent off to the late eccentric DJ Jimmy Savile, whose hit TV show of the time, Jim’ll Fix It, made the wishes of such youngsters come true. But not on this occasion.
“He never replied to me,” laughs Darren McGarry. “But it was years later and I was showering a hippo down, here at the zoo, and I suddenly thought, ‘Today I’m doing it’. It was really weird.”
Perhaps serendipitous would be a better word. Because, while fond of animals, as a 16-year-old keen oboe player, he was about to embark on his Highers with an eye to working in music when his careers office sent him along to Edinburgh Zoo for an interview for a Youth Training Scheme.
“I didn’t really know if I wanted it or not but by the time I got home from the interview, they’d offered it to me. Even then I decided I was just going to go for the first week because it was the school holidays and then I’d go back to study for my Highers.”
Twenty five years on and Darren is now head of animals at the zoo, responsible for managing all the head zoo keepers – now called animal team leaders – and all aspects of its creatures’ care, as well as having a say in the future direction of the zoo. And, of course, gearing up for the arrival of two giant pandas from China.
The zoo he cares for today is a very different place to the one he entered as a green teenager a quarter of a century ago. Floors and walls are no longer tiled and disinfected, environments are more natural, food is scattered or hung on trees and keepers are encouraged to build close bonds with the animals so that any medical attention is easier to dispense.
And 16-year-olds, like Darren, are no longer allowed – health and safety rules mean staff at the zoo have to be at least 18. But his early start did him no harm.
“I loved it straight away,” he says. “It was very sociable, like a big family. I suppose I grew up here. The first time I went to a pub was with the older zookeepers.”
He and the four others on the YTS were among the first in the country to study a new zookeeping course, mostly at the zoo but partly at Stevenson College, all for the princely sum of £17.50 a week.
“And I used to think I was loaded,” he laughs. “I used to think it was fabulous, this brown envelope you got on pay day.”
For two years, he shadowed the keepers, mucking out kangaroos, mixing parrot feed, raking paddocks and washing windows, by the end of which his pay had risen to £27.50 a week and he was offered a keeper’s job.
“Even then, I was only going to stay three or four years, then do something else” he says.
Instead the 41-year-old worked his way through different sections, in particular hoofed animals, and up the ranks, taking up his latest post six months ago. There have been hairy moments along the way – not least just a few years into the job when he accidentally let an antelope escape.
“It was a female who was in season, when their behaviour gets a little irrational because they get the urge,” he explains. He’d been hosing down part of their enclosure, not realising the wind had swung the gate open.
“She just walked right behind me and out the gate. I only realised as she walked past and I tried to shut the gate but it was too late. I did think, ‘Oh God, I’ll have to try to get her back in on my own before anyone sees’. But very quickly I realised I’d have to call someone.”
He got a written warning for that, the only one of his career. And he adds that most zookeepers have at one stage or another forgotten to shut a gate.
“You go to zookeepers’ conferences and you hear all sorts of tales,” he says cheerfully. “Tigers, chimps... We’ve had nothing like that.”
Most zookeepers also sport wounds, and Darren is no exception – a pygmy hippo chomped off the tip of his right index finger seven years ago as he explained to a dentist where the animal needed treatment.
Despite that, he says the hippos and rhinos are his favourite animals and he was particularly fond of Umfolozi, a white rhino.
“She was one of a pair of white rhinos who came here in the 1970s. She was fantastic, really affectionate, and they both loved to be rubbed. It was very hard when they died seven or eight years ago.”
Now, as his role means he’s not as hands-on with the animals, he’s not as close to any individuals.
“There’s none of the animals left which I worked with in my youth, none that I have a bond with, which you get when you work with them every day.”
But he’s no less passionate about his work or the work of the zoo, dismissing criticisms which have been levelled at Edinburgh, and at zoos in general.
“All these anti-zoo people, what contribution have they made to conservation?” he says. “I know I have helped to save endangered species. I know the white rhino was saved because it was brought into captivity in the 1970s and bred and let out into national parks.
“We have to do something about endangered species – 99.99 per cent of the time they are endangered because of humans, because of what humans have done. We have to have places where we can breed them, where we can learn about them.
“I am very comfortable in my shoes. We look after the animals here fantastically. I have no guilty secrets, I have nothing to hide.”
As to the future, he believes zoos will be part of that, learning to target more carefully their breeding programmes using DNA, ensuring the right sub- species are brought together. And as for himself, he says: “Who knows what the future holds? But I have no plans to go anywhere else.”