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Volunteer Spotlight: Tony Byers

To celebrate Volunteers’ Week, we are showcasing some of the incredible volunteers we have at Paignton Zoo, by chatting with them and finding out more about the crucial roles they play in supporting our charity.

Today, we’ve caught up with engagement volunteer Tony Byers, who generously donates time out of each week speaking to our visitors and answering any questions they may have.

Can you tell us about your role as a volunteer at the zoo?

“I have been taken on as an engagement volunteer which, as I see it, is to help our visitors get as much as possible out of their visit to Paignton Zoo. Sometimes that is simply helping with directions to the nearest snack bar or a specific enclosure, but it is mostly about providing additional information on the animals in an entertaining way. 

I am not an animal expert but I can often help with some of the more interesting details about the lives of the animals on view, their names, their ages and their individual personalities, and at the same time explain how the work of the zoo is assisting with their long term survival. Yes, it’s about information and education but it’s also fun. A few unusual and amusing facts told with a smile can turn a simple day into a much fuller experience – at least that’s the aim!”

Can you share a memorable experience or story from your time volunteering?

“There are two specific instances that stand out for completely different reasons. The first was a gentleman visiting the cheetah enclosure with a young boy and girl in tow (I’m guessing both at around 5 years old). When Kitwana (the male cheetah) jumped out of the tree towards the female, the young boy yelled with excitement ‘Do you think they’re going to fight?’ to which the girl replied in a rather bored and world-worn voice, ‘Of course not, silly- they’re not married!’

The other instance concerned a lady who approached me with a long list of questions about the animals and the work of the zoo. Most were not too difficult but a few presented a bit of a challenge. She seemed satisfied with the answers and left. Much later in the day she returned specifically to find me and said that she had relayed these facts and stories to a group of children who lapped up every word, and said how it had made their day. She probably didn’t know it but it made my day as well.”

240606 PZ Tony Byers Volunteer LR BC 07

What does a typical day look like for you as a volunteer?

“I usually start just before the zoo opens and make my way to the Education Dept. The staff there are excellent and provide me with any developments since my last visit, new or moved animals, any ongoing or scheduled maintenance works that day, and an idea of booked visitor numbers and organised parties. This helps me plan my day. They are also a good source of information on existing animals including details not available elsewhere such as their names, ages, background etc.

From there I visit the main areas I intend to cover to see if they are accessible and the animals visible (some like to keep themselves hidden). By that time the visitors are coming in and it’s time to welcome them. I tend to spend most of the day in a limited area (those animals I know the most about!) changing occasionally to any other areas of specific interest, such as a new arrival or a particular event. Lunchtime is the most difficult, mainly because I get so involved (I talk too much!) and forget to eat. I try to find a quiet corner for my sandwich and cup of coffee – not easy when it’s busy and you are in uniform, so you’re never really off duty.

By about 3pm things are usually getting quieter and my legs are telling me to call it a day – time to return the radio and clock off!” 

240606 PZ Tony Byers Volunteer LR BC 06

What advice would you give to someone considering volunteering at the zoo?

“Do it! When I first started I was really nervous and managed to get lost 3 times! But the other volunteers came to the rescue. They showed me the way around, how they approach the public and how to deal with new situations – they were great! You soon learn how it works best for you. Most of us are not animal experts, so I would recommend limiting yourself to a couple of areas that interest you most and make a few notes on the animals in that area. Everyone has their own way of doing it but I use an app called ‘One Note’ and build up a few bullet points on each one as you go.

Keep at it – it gets better all the time! It really does. You quickly learn that the ethos is one of friendly help. All the staff you see on a daily basis, from catering through to keepers, will give you a cheery wave and helpful advice even if they don’t know you that well. You soon get to know the personalities of the animals in your area and I swear that some of them recognise you before long!

If the weather is poor and visitors few, you still have acres of space to wander and enjoy – it must be one of the best unpaid jobs in the world!”

Big Help Out

On Sunday 9 June 2024, Paignton Zoo will be hosting a volunteer recruitment fair on the lawn outside the Island Restaurant between 10am and 3pm.

You will be able to find out more about some of the amazing volunteering opportunities we offer from the current volunteers team.