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Just over three years ago, I became a part time Receptionist at Paignton Zoo. I’d worked in a reception many moons ago - in a cash & carry - but I don’t think it really prepared me for this varied and sometimes chaotic environment.

Reception is staffed from 9am to 5pm, seven days a week and 364 days a year (we’re closed on Christmas Day). From the moment you arrive and switch on the walkie-talkie system and the computer, the switchboard seems to light up like a Christmas tree and it’s ACTION!

You never know who is going to be on the other end of the ‘phone: staff calling between our three zoos, salespeople, business calls, visitors asking about opening times and mobility scooter hire. Then there are the weird and the wonderful calls... Mainly they are for Mr Raff, initial G, or Mr Ross, first name Albert, or Mr Lion, initial C. We get these on a weekly basis, but they start to increase a few days leading up to 1st April… Sometimes the caller is the one who has been fooled, sometimes the caller is trying to prank us.

Reception is a hub of activity first thing, with staff arriving, volunteers signing in and, on the odd occasion, someone carrying cakes because it’s their birthday – not sure how that tradition started but no one complains. Check the TV screen at the service gate to let in deliveries, then deal with the e-mails and have a cup of tea.

Through the walkie-talkie system the Zoo comes alive over the airways. Staff talk to each other about helping out, borrowing equipment, seeing vets, dealing with deliveries. The post arrives and needs sorting, the internal mail is ready to go to Living Coasts and Newquay Zoo and the outgoing post and parcels start to build up ready to be franked and collected. Then the Zoo opens at 10.00am and the bustle REALLY begins.

The switchboard buzzes with calls and there’s a steady stream of people arriving for interviews or appointments, there might be film crews and journalists, and occasionally some bring gifts of unusual and often quite scary animals in plastic containers for keepers to identify.

These can vary from very large and strange looking stick insects to colourful beetles and spiders of all sizes. I was once presented with a baby gull with a broken wing wrapped in a jumper. These waifs and strays have been found in gardens, sheds - and once a red bellied toad was found in a hot tub. Can they be identified by our keepers or helped by our vet team? I just like it when they are taken away…

I look after Lost Property, too. Lost Property comes in two forms: items left in the Zoo, found and brought to Reception; and queries about things that might have been lost on site. Articles lost can vary from children’s cuddly toys, dummies and drinks bottles to cameras, wallets and jewellery; we try our best to reunite items with their owners.

Sometimes the lost things are children separated from their families. We use the walkie-talkie system to alert all staff. Reuniting a child with their family is a big relief and it’s so lovely to see the family smiling and happy once more with hugs all round.

Very occasionally, the radio needs to be used for emergencies: first aid callouts or the unthinkable - an animal out of its enclosure. First aid calls are rare and animal emergencies very rare, thankfully.

Reception can look and seem chaotic at times, with a lot of people and talk, but we receptionists try to stay calm and keep control of the situation. Patience, tolerance and a good sense of humour are all important qualities!

The ‘phone is ringing again, the radio is busy, the postman has arrived to collect the mail, a visitor is being treated by a First Aider and staff are passing in and out but I’m still smiling, cup of tea beside me on the desk. I need a t-shirt that reads Keep Calm, I’m a Zoo Receptionist.

Tracey Bridgman

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