I get asked these questions regularly… how did you become a zoo keeper? What qualifications do you have?
It’s definitely a difficult industry to get into with very few jobs available and a lot of people leaving university with zoology degrees looking for work, but it’s all about proving yourself to be hard working and reliable.
I think of myself as privileged to be where I am today but I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for all the hard work I put in. I always get asked what my qualifications are and the truth is I didn’t really have any when I started out! So many people spend thousands of pounds getting a degree and working hard to get good grades but I wasn’t one of those people. It really depends what you plan to do, and where in the world you plan to work, as to whether or not you need a degree. If you want to work in the conservation field or in a country like America that generally requires degrees then I would absolutely recommend getting one. I find it hard sometimes not having the scientific knowledge behind me that you would learn at college or university as it is very important for certain aspects of the job, like knowing the classifications or Latin names of animals and knowing the science of animal behaviour (especially if you want to train animals). Don’t get me wrong though I am learning all that stuff by funding online courses and reading lots of books!
So where did I start and how did I get to where I am today…?
Well it started in 2012 when I was 21 and I made a friend who wanted to get into falconry. Neither of us knew anything about falconry so we decided to volunteer at a falconry centre and learn everything there was to know about the sport and how to care for the birds. I volunteered for 6 months at this centre, several days a week, before or after my paid job. I ended up working at least 12 hour days between the two but I loved it and it was worth every minute. Whilst I was working as a lifeguard and volunteering at the falconry centre, I found out my local zoo, Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, did apprenticeships so decided to go and volunteer there as well, every Saturday, to find out what it was like. After 4 months of volunteering at Noah’s, an apprenticeship position became available so I applied for it and luckily bagged myself the job. During this apprenticeship I learnt loads, I did a very basic level 3 animal care course and got loads of practical experience. I did two and a half months on each section (Africa, big cats/South America, primates, birds/reptiles and domestic hoofstock), and found a love for working with big cats. After my year apprenticeship finished, I was offered the opportunity to stay on for 1 more year as a trainee keeper, but was informed that a job would not be available for me at the end of that year. I decided then that I wanted to gain more experience at other collections and keep learning as much as I could, so I volunteered for two weeks at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust and for two weeks at Exmoor Zoo. I worked my butt off to prove my worth at both of these collections and luckily my hard work paid off, Exmoor Zoo offered me a job a week after my work experience finished! Amazing right? I felt so lucky, and I was. Unfortunately the job wasn’t for me, I wasn’t going to be able to progress the skills I wanted to at this collection so I contacted another zoo near by about jobs. Thankfully my timing was just right and they had the perfect job available, a keeper role working with birds and small carnivores and training some of the animals for daily shows. Here is where I really learnt all about positive reinforcement training (R+)! I learnt from a really incredible trainer and mentor, Zara Jackson, whom still to this day I am truly grateful for having the pleasure of working with and learning from, as without her I wouldn’t be where I am today. 2 years I worked at Combe Martin Wildlife Park and I loved every minute of it. I’d learnt all about the benefits of training with R+ from Zara, and together we decided to transition the bird of prey training from traditional falconry to R+. This is where the world of R+ training really opened up for me, I could push the boundaries, I was constantly learning new things and I found my passion in birds and husbandry training. There is always more to learn, more knowledge and skills to gain, and so I decided to apply for a job at a big collection. It was a bird keeper position with a huge variety of species and I was super excited to learn all about these species I’d never worked with before. I got the job and before I knew it I was leaving behind some incredible friends and moving myself and my (then 3) rescue parrots, 400 miles north to the next place I would call home. The species I got to work with at Edinburgh Zoo were incredible; flamingos, pelicans, storks, vultures, parrots and even cassowary!! What more could a bird nerd ask for? But training animals is where my passion was at and I didn’t really get to achieve that and push myself or improve my animal training skills. So after 18 months of gaining a lot of knowledge about new species, and realising my real passion, I started my next chapter.
I moved to Gloucester, not too far from my home town, and for three years worked at WWT Slimbridge, assisting on a new project of free flight birds for educational demonstrations as well as training birds for husbandry care. It was an amazing experience and setting up a display from scratch had always been a dream. After years of moving around though, I started to realise how much home meant to me and when the opportunity to move back to my home town and be close to family and friends again, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. So I’m back where it all started for me, Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, but I’m back with a wide variety of experience, knowledge and lots of new ideas.
Along side all of these jobs and the volunteering I’ve done, I attend at least 1 training conference/seminar a year. These are always self funded but sometimes zoo’s will help fund them. Last year I went to Dominican Republic to attend IAATE‘s annual conference and it was so unbelievably amazing, I learnt so much from so many incredible trainers. I never want to stop learning and I’m hoping to go back each year!
If you want to get into a zoo keeping role you need to expect to; get mucky and smelly, move hundreds of miles if necessary, volunteer a LOT of hours to get experience, attend conferences and seminars to expand your knowledge but also to network (these will cost money!), but most of all you will need to expect to never stop learning! I don’t believe in ‘experts’, there are definitely professionals and don’t get me wrong there are a lot of people in the animal world that really know their stuff, but science is constantly changing and there is always more to discover and learn, so don’t become cocky and arrogant, be open and willing to share everything you learn, even the mistakes along the way, because without mistakes we don’t learn.
If you’re someone that is looking for a career in animal care then I really wish you the best of luck in pursuing your dream, keep fighting for it because it’s totally worth it when you get there!