We caught up with Sian, an Apprentice Keeper here at Paignton Zoo, to find out a little more about her and what her day-to-day role entails.
So Sian, what did you want to be when you were little?
I’ve wanted to work with animals for as long as I can remember – since around the age of 3 I think. For a while, I wanted to be a vet and then I decided I wanted to be a zookeeper.
What inspired you to follow a career working with animals?
It sounds cliché, but I’ve always preferred animals to humans. I’ve had pets my whole life, from hamsters to ducks to bearded dragons to dogs, and I’ve always loved looking after them. Being around animals makes me feel more comfortable and confident in talking to people – I enjoy talking to the public and teaching them about the animals I look after!
Can you tell us a little bit about the journey of your career – what did you do after school and how did you come to work at Paignton Zoo?
I left school at 16 and went to college to study for a level 2 animal care qualification, which, strangely enough, was based here at Paignton Zoo. As part of my course, I volunteered at a rare breeds’ farm to gain some experience. After that, I moved between a few different jobs before moving to Torbay with my mum.
I was looking for jobs when I moved here, and got an interview for the Kickstarter scheme at Paignton Zoo. This involved a 6-month placement with mentoring from experienced keepers. My placement was within the large mammals department. Near the end of my placement, the opportunity came up for an apprenticeship in the large mammals team, which I applied for and got!
Can you tell us a bit about your day-to-day routine, what tasks you have to do?
For my apprenticeship I do some college-based training, but most of my work is practical here at Paignton Zoo. Every day, I do a visual check on the giraffes first thing in the morning whilst giving them their morning feed. I hang out their browse and then head up to the takin to do the visual checks on them. I head back to the giraffes to let them out before I start cleaning the takin enclosure and feed them before heading back to the giraffes to clean. I like to take some time out of my day to make enrichment for the giraffes and takin to enjoy. Those are the only animals I look after at the moment, but I’m excited to be trained up on the zebras soon and hope to work with more species in the future.
For someone wanting to start a career as a zoo keeper, are there qualifications or certain experiences that people need?
I have a foundation course in animal care which has been a big help, but I would say that experience is the most important thing – volunteering and working with animals will help a lot when trying to get into zoo keeping.
What qualities or personality traits do you think a person needs to work with animals?
Team work is a really important skill in this role – I work with other keepers a lot and we help each other out all the time. We’re quite a close-knit group and even spend time outside of work together! To work with animals you definitely need to be empathetic and have a lot of patience. Moving animals around can be tough, especially with more reluctant animals like Florrie the giraffe, so you have to be patient to get them where they need to be.
What are the highs and lows of being a zookeeper?
I think the job is just a constant high – I’m surrounded by animals that I wouldn’t spend time with in any other career, which is a real privilege. It can be hard to work out in all weathers and the job is very physically demanding, but the joy that it brings far outweighs the hard times!
Do you have any favourite animals?
My favourite are definitely the takin! When I walk up the path to see them, their heads pop round the corner and they make their noise (which I think sounds like a bear). It’s always a warm welcome from them! I love the giraffes, too, especially since they recognise who I am. They like to sniff at me as I’m working, which is always fun!
Aside from the animals I look after, I love reptiles and I like to see the Komodo dragon and crocodiles when I get the chance!
Which animals are the naughtiest?
Lots of the primates can be quite naughty, from what I’ve heard! The giraffes are more cheeky than naughty – Tilly the giraffe loves to steal food and I sometimes catch them doing things like licking the cameras we monitor them with.
Can you tell us some of your favourite memories working at Paignton Zoo?
There was one day that I was cleaning out the giraffe bed and suddenly felt a weight on my head… it was Tilly, who had decided to place her chin on the top of my head! That was quite a special (and funny!) moment.
Another good time was when we made them pancakes, with their pellet and water, for Pancake Day. The best part of my job is when I make enrichment for animals and then watch them play with it – it’s amazing to see them use something I made for them.