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Meet the keeper: Stuart Parr, Senior Keeper of Mammals

Get to know our Paignton Zoo team…

We caught up with Stuart, the Senior Keeper of Mammals, to find out a little more about him and what he does here at Paignton Zoo.

So Stuart, what did you want to be when you were little?

I’ve always wanted to be a zookeeper. It was never really a decision for me – I always knew that was what I wanted to do so I pursued it from an early age.

Can you tell us a little bit about the journey of your career and how you came to work at Paignton Zoo?

When I left school I went to college for two years to study animal care and science. I was really lucky to start working in zoo keeping straight out of college – I first worked at Colchester Zoo with bears and big cats. I’ve worked at various zoos throughout my career, and I’ve tried to work with a different species in each role, gaining qualifications as I progressed. The end goal was always to end up working at Paignton Zoo, so I was glad to get a job here in 2017 and I became Senior Keeper of Large Mammals in 2018.

Can you tell us a bit about your day-to-day routine, what tasks you have to do?

Every day I work from 8am until 5pm. My working days include weekends, bank holidays and Christmas. A large part of my day-to-day work is animal husbandry – cleaning up after the animals, preparing their diet and feeding them. I also frequently help with veterinary procedures and attend various team meetings.

For someone wanting to start a career as a zoo keeper, are there qualifications or certain experiences that people need?

The Diploma in Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals (DMZAA) is one of the more standard qualifications, and you can do this either voluntarily or once you’ve got a job as a keeper.

Lots of zoo keeping jobs require experience, so getting voluntary experience is very beneficial. It also gives a good indication of whether you want to do the job – there are lots of parts of the job that would be challenging to cope with unless you love what you do (I smell of animal wee quite a lot!).

I’ve found that having both qualifications and experience is the best way to do things – it’s such a competitive industry, so sometimes having work experience behind you gives you an edge above other candidates.

What qualities or personality traits do you think a person needs to work with animals?

Empathy, resilience, a good work ethic and attention to detail are all key to the job. It really helps if you’re a positive person and have a sense of humour – it will help you get through the challenging times. Physical fitness is a must as there’s a lot of manual labour involved, and you will most likely end up talking to zoo visitors, so being good with people is a great help.

The thing that really sets great keepers apart is their thirst for knowledge about the animals they look after and their true passion for zoo keeping.

What are the highs and lows of being a zookeeper?

There are lots of good and bad things to expect when looking at a career in zoo keeping! Starting with the bad: you’ll most likely work outside in all weathers, cleaning up after animals and dealing with lots of poo! You’ll also have to deal with sick or injured animals, so you need to be resilient. There are some real challenges to face, but the rewards far outweigh the negatives for me. I stop and smell the roses regularly because I work in a beautiful environment with absolutely incredible animals that are a privilege to spend time with, let alone care for.

Which animals are the naughtiest?

I would say the primates! Orang-utans can be pretty sneaky!

What are the challenges about your job?

It’s quite a challenging job in a lot of ways – there’s a lot of physical labour and you have to work in every weather – from heavy rain to snow to hot sunshine! Sometimes you have to deal with animals you see every day moving to other zoos or becoming unwell or dying, and that’s quite mentally challenging, but it’s all worth it for the relationships you build with them along the way.  The hardest bit is the unsociable hours which means I unfortunately work most weekends and miss out on family time and a social life.

Tell us some of your favourite memories working at Paignton Zoo

Some of the best bits have been zebra births: we had two foals born in the past year and it was really special to be a part of that. I helped to move the father of the foals, Jabali, down to Paignton Zoo a little while ago, so it’s been great to see how well he’s settled in.

I love working with the giraffes, too, and having so much contact with them is one of the best parts of my job. It’s a real privilege to get to know them and for them to start to recognise you – one of our giraffes, Joanna, is quite standoffish, so it was amazing when she started to approach me for the first time.