Peter Watson, Lead Keeper at Chester Zoo, on the importance of the littler mammals...
As a child I was lucky to grow up within easy reach of Chester Zoo. It was here that my passion for animals and the natural world was ignited with regular visits whenever I could persuade my parents to take me.
During these visits I would always enjoy seeing Asian elephants, black rhinos, chimpanzees, and many other zoo “ABCs”, however it was an unintended zoo occupant that provided me with my earliest zoo memory, the unassuming house mouse. Each visit would be an excited race to the old parrot house, where, with a little patience at the hyacinth macaw indoor aviary a small house mouse would appear from behind the radiator collect some fallen seed and then retreat to its hiding place. I could happily watch this activity over and over, until it was time to move on.
It was perhaps predictable and somewhat inevitable that I would acquire something of an obsession for any small and weird mammal, especially small rodents. This obsession has led me into a career working with animals in the place that started it all, Chester Zoo. Here I have been lucky to work with some amazing species and found myself surrounded by like-minded people.
Rodents account for around 50% of all mammal species, however, they often receive a bad press for being ‘dirty’ or ‘pests’, but as with all living organisms they serve an important role in any ecosystem. Perhaps due to this bad reputation and that many rodents are “little brown jobs” they are often overlooked in zoos, being deemed as boring or of no interest to the public. I have often heard the argument that many rodents aren’t of conservation value and so don’t have a place in the modern conservation zoo. I always point these people towards the huge diversity of non-threatened carnivores, primates or ungulates that are maintained, leaving this argument dead in the water!
When I first arrived at Chester as a Keeper almost 10 years ago, we had just three rodent species on display, with a couple more off show. Through the passion of a like-minded team and the support of senior staff we have grown our rodent species count to twelve, ten of which are on display. Something that seemed to initially come as a surprise to many was how a large group of small mice can make a very active and engaging display.
One of our most recent additions is the Barbary striped grass mouse (Lemniscomys barbarus), a very striking species native to North Africa. This species is housed inside Fruit Bat Forest, within an area that had previously been empty for several years. Since their arrival they have more than fulfilled their role within the collection as a visitor connection species, with a small crowd of people gathered around the viewing window almost constantly throughout the day. It is refreshing to walk past and hear positive comments from visitors amazed at how interesting they have found a small mouse. Just this week I was happy to be told by a parent that they must head to Fruit Bat Forest first on every visit as their five-year-old son just wants to see the little stripey mice, something that felt very reminiscent of my own early zoo memory.
As we continue to develop the zoo, I am excited to see rodents and other small mammals included right from the outset. Our Heart of Africa development will showcase a number of new rodent species, helping to highlight and hopefully encourage people to appreciate even the smallest of animals.
I am a strong supporter of a conservation-led collection, but I am also a fierce advocate of a diverse and representative collection. There is huge potential for zoos supporting conservation efforts for small rodent species, but even for those species that don't have a direct conservation role they more than make up for that in their ability to inspire the next generation of animal keepers and conservationists. So, as we shine a spotlight on all creatures unseen, I would urge anyone not to underestimate the power of the mighty mouse!
- Peter Watson, Lead Keeper at Chester Zoo
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