It’s Thursday, almost the weekend. But for wardens at the zoo, where everyday is a work day, it’s actually the middle of the week. The powerful Storm Ylva, is buffeting the far north and Lycksele is witnessing almost brutal levels of snowfall and extreme gusts of wind. But it makes no difference here. Animals still have to be looked after, fed and counted.
Fate and the work schedule have placed Maj-Britt Lundqvist in Ylva’s path. But several decades-worth of work experience have prepared her for such punishing conditions and she guides the vehicle up the slippery snow-covered slopes as the windscreen wipers work frantically to provide a little extra sight. Today’s feeding routine, featuring bales of hay, cans of water and buckets of crushed meat, will be unusually demanding.
Fortunately, the hours spent over the course of a year working in snowstorms are few. Not that it matters much; our warden from the coastal village of Lövånger regards her role, a childhood dream, as being the “the best job in the world”; one she has held since the 1980s.
She explains: “Despite having to follow many routines it never gets boring for our tasks are extremely varied. We could be training the seals in the morning only to head out to the forest later to cut new branches for feeding the cloven-hoofed animals.
“The seasons bring their own variations. Spring is when it, literally, comes alive as many of our animals produce new offspring. During summer the zoo is packed with visitors so we need to look after them too. We organise guided feeding tours and open up the children’s zoo. In winter the snow makes the landscape magical and the year rounds off with the Christmas Park in December.”
After 30 years at Lycksele Djurpark zoo, Maj-Britt has developed a close relationship with the animals, particularly her favourites: Totta, a 22 year-old grey seal, and Miessi, a reindeer calf who lost her mother at birth and found a new one in Maj-Britt.
“She’s my little baby,” says Maj-Britt as she, having first thawed the gate lock using a gas burner, enters a paddock. Nothing is simple on a day like today.
Chris Cockerill, a biology internee from the University of Manchester, in the United Kingdom, who normally enjoys a calmer daily routine, views the amount of snow brought by Storm Ylva as an almost supernatural phenomenon.
“I am used to harsh winds and the UK can have very raw winters but I have never seen so much snow before,” he says smiling broadly.
“My college friends will be so jealous,” he adds before using his mobile to capture a photographic memory of a musk ox in its wintry surroundings.
A third of his internship has already elapsed since he arrived in September and in that time he has learnt a lot. Not least that a wolverine is not only a fictional character in an X-Men film but the English word for a järv, one of five Nordic predators.
But there is also much to discover outside the zoo and he is particularly looking forward to the light summer nights. At the moment, he is spending much of his spare time photographing the Northern Lights, which are, in his opinion, “unique”.
Ida Lund, a senior high school internee studying land management, grew up further north, in Älvsbyn, and has seen the lights many times. They are not so unique to her, but are, she says, just as beautiful.
She and Chris continue a deep discussion about the lights as they carry out their chores, only pausing when they enter each paddock to empty buckets and carry in fodder and bundles of hay. The debate resumes once they are back in their warm vehicle, which they use to travel between the enclosures.
Once all the cloven-hoofed animals have been taken care of, it’s time for lunch. Then it is the predators’ turn. Wolverines, polar foxes, red foxes, and wolves. Even a shy lynx can be glimpsed through the whirling snowflakes. All eagerly await their portions of crushed meat. At the top of the hill the snow lies undisturbed. This is where the bears live and they went into hibernation a few weeks earlier.
Before a welcome warm coffee break, the Gute sheep have to be fed. They are just some of the zoo’s many domesticated animals, a few of which, such as the mountain and Jämtland goats, are part of its conservation programmes.
“We work closely with other zoos and have several threatened species including bison, musk ox, polar fox and a local variety of chicken from Bjurholm,” says Maj-Britt.
The coffee cups are emptied and the fingers warmed up once more, but the light of the day is beginning to fail – and it’s only two in the afternoon. Time to feed the seals. The falling snow has eased and conversations can be heard over the clapping of eager fins signalling: “More, more!” The wardens are kept busy until all the buckets are empty.
The rest of the day is spent on other duties away from the animals but, no matter the what the weather or time of week, warden and creature will meet again 24 hours later.
Text & foto: Thea Holmqvist
Translation: Duncan Kemp