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Your zoo: Tales from one of our longest-serving staff members

As we approach our official 100th birthday, we want to share with you some of the amazing stories we’ve heard from former and current staff, visitors and people who feel a close connection to Paignton Zoo.

Jason ‘Jay’ Knight has worked at Paignton Zoo for 38 years and is one of our longest serving staff members. Starting off on a youth training scheme in 1985, Jay spent the best part of 25 years working as a senior mammal keeper before switching to horticulture.

“I’ve worked with most of the animals that you can find here on site,” he tells us. “I’ve done quite a lot of weird and wonderful things in that time. Some highlights would be breeding black rhinos and being involved with transportation of rhinos throughout Europe. I hand-reared an Asian lion cub. I’ve been to animal behaviour conferences in Arizona and South Africa and been involved with fieldwork in Zimbabwe for carnivore research, in association with the Dambari Reserve.”

Wild Planet Trust has been working with the Dambari Wildlife Trust to conserve the unique environment of Zimbabwe’s Matobo Hills since 1997.

Jay meeting Dambari keepers edited
Jay meeting keepers of Dambari Field Station, where he spent 3 weeks helping scientists on a large carnivore study

Reality TV star

“During the late 90s, the zoo was involved with a TV programme called Zookeepers. That was on primetime BBC back when there was only five channels available. I reluctantly got involved with being filmed so that was my 15 minutes of fame, I suppose.”

Jay filming BBC
Jay sporting his famous mullet on the BBC show Zookeepers

“I had BBC Bristol come to Zimbabwe with me for about 10 days or so filming. It was fun, but it was better when the BBC went home and left me there with the researchers – that’s when the real work started.”

“I worked with the carnivore researchers. They were there tracking and monitoring hyenas and lions and doing head counts of carnivores, looking at how they interact with each other and how higher populations of one species can affect the population numbers of other species. So it wasn’t just the carnivores, it was their prey species as well – always looking for snakes and birds as well as mammals and crocodiles. And yeah, there’s just not enough eyes to see all the wonders out there.”

Favourites and highlights

jay with elephant edited scaled
During his time as a zookeeper, Jay worked with all of the mammals that called Paignton Zoo home

Having worked with such a diverse range of species within the zoo, we wanted to know if Jay had a favourite animal:

“It’s hard to pick favourite animals from all my time with working with them because they’re all pretty nice. I love working with rhinos, giraffes, big cats… But inevitably, some animals just don’t like you back. As a zookeeper, there was an orang-utan that hated me because I’ve got a good relationship with another orang-utan, so it can become a bit political!”

So no favourite animal! We asked him about his proudest moment instead:

“In 2007, we had successful birth and rearing of a black rhino calf called Zuri. She later went off to Chester Zoo, where she grew up and then bred herself. You can’t really get much more successful than that.”

zuri and mother sita edited
Zuri with mother Sita, who still lives at Paignton Zoo

On the subject of baby animals, he also recalls: “Devika was an Asian lion that was rejected by her mum so I was asked to hand-rear her. I’m quite pleased to have actually hand-reared a big cat. It was the only time I worked with big cats for 20 plus years and that was around the same sort of time that I became a father as well. I’ve got a picture somewhere of Devika with a bottle in one arm and my oldest daughter with a bottle in the other arm.”

Jay bottlefeeding Devika lion cub
Jay was tasked with hand-rearing Devika the lion cub back in 2000

Jay also notes that its not just the animals that stand out for him: “I joined for the animals, but its also some of the people I’ve worked with that stand out. I ended up making some great relationships with people I’ve worked with over the years. There are some amazing people that have worked here, though quite a few have long since left the zoo and the local area, but have become friends for life.”

Time for a change

After 26 years of working as a zookeeper, Jay wanted to switch things up a bit:

“12 years ago, I wanted a change so I trained and qualified in horticulture. I’ve not turned my back on animals at all, but now it’s all about weird and wonderful plants instead of weird and wonderful animals. My current role is Senior State Operative, which involves supplying food for the exotic animals we’ve got here. A lot of it we try and grow ourselves or forage from what we’ve got as natural resources on site.”

We asked Jay what some of the biggest changes were that he has seen since he first started in 1985:

“In the mid 80s, zoos were already starting to change, but there was still remnants of the old style of zoos and still some enclosures which were very questionable in terms of welfare standards. But they were being addressed. You could see that the change was happening from that point onwards. It was all about conservation, recreation and education. All the things that we now associate with good zoos were quite evident and that was how we were going to go.”

Living with nature

We finished our conservation by asking Jay what it is about Paignton Zoo that’s special to him:

“I’m attracted to wonderful plants and animals because I’ve worked with them all this time. But I think the site itself, even without all the extra, is amazing because it’s full of native wildlife. You know, we’ve got owls and grass snakes and bats and woodpeckers and so on. I’m fascinated by that. And the area is lovely, with all the different habitats and topography. We’ve got woodlands and waterways and rocky areas up by the takin. So yeah, I love working here for that reason.”

We’re celebrating our centenary year. To discover more about Paignton Zoo’s 100 year history and our plans for the year, click here.

GloWild at Paignton Zoo

17th November 2023 – 2nd January 2024

We will be ending our centenary year in style with our biggest ever festive event!

Join us after dark for an immersive light experience featuring a variety of beautiful, interactive light installations, entertainers and a silent disco.