From volunteer to doctor - one man's zoo journey
Published: Jan 10, 2020The value of volunteering...
Wayne was born in Lewisham and left school at 16 with very few qualifications. When he came to Torbay he made ends meet working as a DJ. He was always mad about animals, but a year travelling the world made him realise how urgent the ecological crisis had become and set him on the road to scientific research.
My association with Paignton Zoo started back in 2005. I’d just finished an access course at Plymouth University; passing allowed me to pick a degree course. I opted for the BSc in Wildlife Conservation and knew I’d also need to get practical experience along the way, so I applied to be a volunteer with the Field Conservation and Research department, based at the zoo. The very first task they gave me was collecting germination data on an endangered meadow thistle being grown in the zoo’s greenhouses. It took all summer but I absolutely loved it. I stayed on, volunteering at the department for the next four years and doing all sorts of projects from helping with native wildlife surveys to spending three months in Kenya’s coastal forests searching for a critically endangered antelope using camera traps.
After my BSc, I decided to see if I could take the next step – and I was accepted onto the MSc in Zoo Conservation Biology which is jointly provided by Plymouth University and Paignton Zoo. This was a full intensive year of study with much of it taught by zoo professionals including vets, curators and scientists. I qualified in 2009 and then asked to join the Lower Vertebrate & Invertebrate Department as a research volunteer. Again, the work was really varied and interesting, everything from helping with animal husbandry guidelines and research into different species to helping with animal moves or enclosure designs. I told the curator at the department that I would like to do a PhD, so for the next four years we set about building up a viable proposal.
In 2013, the proposal was accepted by Professor Richard Griffiths at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, at the University of Kent. Paignton Zoo helped provide my first year’s stipend, set up costs and university fees, something I am incredibly grateful for. My study focussed on how zoo conservation and conservation in the wild can work in a complementary way. The first paper from the study, ‘Habitat preferences of the golden mantella in Madagascar’ was published last year in October. My PhD study provided important evidence on what this species needs to survive in the wild and also showed optimum temperatures and humidity regimes needed to keep them in captivity.
I completed my PhD in Biodiversity Management in December last year; it has been an absolute dream come true. I’ve been able to learn from and work alongside so many talented wildlife professionals and amazing species both here and in Madagascar. I’m not sure what happens next – ideally, a job in conservation or research with some travel would be great – but it’s without doubt an exciting new chapter!
My advice to anybody who has a passion for science and conservation is to get involved by volunteering for local wildlife organisations; by offering your time you really will make a difference, and you never know where it might all lead!