We caught up with Owen, the Head Keeper of Mammals, to find out a little more about him, what he does here at Paignton Zoo and why he is so passionate about wildlife conservation…

 

Which department do you work on?

The Mammal Department - and I work alongside some of the other departments to help get larger tasks planned and completed.

How many species do you care for?

I help to oversee the care and management of around 46 mammal species, from the dormouse up to the giraffe and everything furry in between (bar the domestic mammals). 

What is your favourite animal at the zoo and why?

I’m a bit of a generalist to be honest and take an interest in most species - even if it’s not a mammal! There’s always something really interesting or “cool” about any animal. If pushed for an answer, I am partial to carnivores both large and small, small mammals and maybe a rhino or two. I guess the carnivores are where my real interest lies, and you can’t help but fall for Mani and Sita the rhinos when you get to know them.

Did you always want to be a keeper?

I did! Well at least to work with exotic species, anyway. My parents used to take me to visit zoos and safari parks when I was a child, so I blame them entirely for my obsession with animals and zoos now. This led to me wanting to become a zoo keeper. My grandad used to have David Attenborough series on the telly in his house too, which may have taken effect!

Why did you become a keeper?

I wanted to care for exotic species and help in the conservation of their wild counterparts, so being a zoo keeper totally fits the bill on both counts.

When did you become a keeper and where?

I became a keeper back in March 2005, when I started at Newquay Zoo, one of our sister zoos in the charity, as a trainee small mammal keeper. I was looking after what was called the ‘Calli’ section back then - short for Callitrichids (the group name for marmosets and tamarins), as there was a number of those species on the section, plus some small carnivores, rodents and lemurs.  

How did you become a keeper?

By studying in animal and zoo related areas at college and volunteering at zoos, firstly Birmingham Wildlife Conservation Park in the Midlands and then Newquay Zoo in Cornwall for a number of years before a job I was eligible for came up. This also meant that I took a keeper job whilst having around 3 months left on my foundation degree which wasn’t easy going with a full time job!

How long have you worked for Paignton Zoo?

Around two and a half years, how the time has flown by! I’ve worked for Wild Planet Trust for over 14 years now and have been around for 18 years if you include volunteering.

What is your typical daily routine at Paignton Zoo?

I don’t think there is a routine with my role, as every day is different and random things get thrown into the mix regularly. I do spend a lot of time working on section alongside the Mammal keepers, plus a bit office time on occasion to catch up with emails and reports. This means I get to catch up and work closely with the Senior Head Keeper of Mammals and Curator of Mammals too. 

What is your favourite part of the job?

Working with the amazing animals that we keep, plus being surrounded by likeminded people in the organisation who are passionate and dedicated to the species we house and the conservation of them in the wild.

What is the most rewarding part of your job and why?

Knowing that you’re part of something bigger that really helps make a difference with conservation (it’s what we’re here for), when the Mammal team are happy - and whenever we’re successful in breeding an endangered species (it’s what the breeding programmes are for)!

Why do you feel that’s zoos are important?

Without them a number of species would be extinct already. Zoos keep and manage potential safety net populations whilst supporting in-situ conservation and whilst providing education, so I feel they’re invaluable for the future of not only the planet’s wildlife but the places the species live. Also, good zoos constantly look to learn, research carried out by zoos helps to improve animal care as we constantly look to improve on the good that we already do.

Why are you passionate about conservation?

It’s hard to imagine a world without species like rhinoceros, polar bears or tigers. The species that live here are entitled to be here, as are we, and it’s our job to ensure they survive. I’ve seen first-hand some of the horrid things animals have had to endure, like snare wounds and trafficking, which drives me. We as a species have done some pretty poor things to the planet over our short time here and we need to fix that.

What is your most memorable experience here at Paignton Zoo?

Difficult to pick one to be honest. There’s been some events and situations that have really stood out for me, but I think getting the news that we were free of TB has been huge, not only for me personally but the collection as a whole. It really hit us hard and was an incredibly difficult time for us, but with the hard work of the Mammal Department & our Veterinary team, we’re clear of it now.

Do you work closely with any conservation projects?

Yes, I have links with Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, one of the conservation projects that Wild Planet Trust supports. I visited the project, known then as the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Programme, in Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam back in 2007 to help and learn. I got to go back out there last year to work alongside them on the conservation of Owston’s civet. I worked with them on endangered species conservation, both in-situ and ex-situ, and attended a workshop on the future of the species.  

If you could pass on just one message about conservation, what would it be?

It’s our job as humans to ensure the survival of all species, it’s amazing what we could change for the best if we all just took a step in the right direction. Try doing something, however small, for the betterment of the planet. You’ll be surprised what can happen!

Are you a studbook keeper? If so, please tell us a little more… 

I’m the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) Coordinator for Owston’s civet, an endangered small carnivore from South-East Asia. I’ve been doing this for around five years. I manage the captive zoo population genetically, demographically (both integral in making up new pairings for the longevity of the captive population) and aid in the captive husbandry of the species within the European population as well as the Owston’s civets held by Save Vietnam’s Wildlife. I was lucky enough that my old head keeper was managing two EEPs and asked me if I’d like to take on the civet studbook. After biting her hand off for the opportunity I was sent on courses to learn how to manage a captive population. I’d also cared the species for a number of years at this point, gaining valuable experience in captive husbandry. I do it because I REALLY like the species, it gives me something to work towards and it means I’m part of the bigger picture at a European and international level.
 

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