What’s it really like... to be a zookeeper?

What’s it really like... to be a zookeeper?

Dream of working with animals? Oliver Whiteway, 23, is mammal keeper at Chessington Zoo. Discover how he got the job and why it really is as amazing as it sounds…

“THE GORILLAS ARE MY FAVOURITE – YOU HAVE TO EARN THEIR RESPECT”

Dream of working with animals? Oliver Whiteway, 23, is a zookeeper - or mammal keeper at Chessington Zoo. He always knew he wanted to work with animals and started volunteering at his local children’s farm when he was just 14. Discover how he got his job and why it really is as amazing as it sounds…

Tell us about your job as a zookeeper...

“I’m a mammal keeper at Chessington Zoo, which is part of the Chessington World of Adventures in Surrey. I’ve been here for nearly three years, and I work mainly with the carnivores and gorillas – which I love! At Chessington we house a very successful breeding group of western lowland gorillas, which includes a mature adult male (also known as a silverback), four adult females and three offspring – and I spend a lot of my time with these mammals. 

I work an eight-hour day, generally 8am to 4pm – but things can (and often do) crop up which means my hours can change and I sometimes have to cancel plans and rearrange my social life! The kind of stuff that might crop up includes stuff like animals falling ill, veterinary procedures, team building exercises, births, deaths and construction jobs – you always need to expect the unexpected!”

For a full – and fascinating! – breakdown of Oliver’s workday, see “The secret life of a zookeeper

What are the best bits about your job?

“EVERYTHING!! What’s not to love? I feed tigers, lions and gorillas for a living! No matter what mood I wake up in, the animals always manage to put a smile on my face – but the best thing about my job is the ‘enrichment’ I make for the animals. ‘Enrichment’ is about improving the animals’ quality of life – so this could be building new structures, ponds and feeding poles, or hiding food in cardboard boxes, puzzle feeders and hessian sacks. There’s nothing better than watching the animals enjoy themselves as they investigate – and sometimes rip apart! – what’s new in their environment. This part of the job is very rewarding. 

“I love the fact that my days are so varied too – one day I might be building a new platform for the lions, and the next day cleaning out the otter pond. Plus I’m outside all day, in all weathers – snow, hail, rain, wind and sunshine – which I love.

Did you always want to do this as your job?

“I’ve always had a keen interest in animals, yes. When I was younger I always had pets – and when I was only 14 I started working Saturdays at my local children’s farm. So I suppose this all meant I was set out for a career working with animals – I just wasn’t sure where I would fit it!

“Because I knew I wanted to work with animals, I went to Sparsholt College in Hampshire to do a Foundation Degree in Animal Management. This covered all bases, I learned about domestic animals (the animals you keep as pets), farm livestock and exotic animals – like the ones you find in zoos. The course was mostly based in a lecture hall, but it did have a strong practical and hands-on element too. It gave me a good base knowledge for me to progress my career further.” 

What happened after your foundation degree?

“After I finished my degree, I still wasn’t sure which direction to focus my career. Did I want to go down the farming route or into the zoo world? Because I had some farming knowledge from working at the children’s farm, I decided that as I enjoyed it I should get some more experience on a commercial farm – one which produces meat for the supermarkets. 

“I contacted the NSA (National Sheep Association) to find out if they knew of any farms that might accept me as a work experience student. They quickly put me in touch with a farmer on the Isle of Wight – and I did five weeks work experience with him. I learnt a lot and thoroughly enjoyed it. The farmer was invited me back two years in a row to help him with the lambing season – this was paid work. 

“Although I enjoyed farm work, I couldn’t find paid full-time employment because jobs in this sector are so often get passed on to the next family member. I decided to find some work experience with a zoo instead…”

How did you find your work experience?

“I contacted 3 zoological collections – Longleat Safari Park, Amazon World and Chessington Zoo – and managed to get work experience for two weeks at Longleat and Amazon. I discovered that I loved the variation of species they had, as well as the mix of day-to-day tasks.

“My final work experience was at Chessington Zoo, and lasted six weeks – this was great because I got to do a week working with each department. This was when I discovered that I loved the carnivore section, working with the lions and tigers. The work was varied, often very challenging, and when I got home I couldn’t stop talking about the cats!” 

How easy was it to get a job afterwards?

“I was very lucky – near the end of the placement at Chessington Zoo a job was advertised for a Trainee Mammal Keeper. Jobs like this don’t come up very often, especially at trainee level, but I was in the right place at the right time – I’d proved to my colleagues that I could work hard and efficiently, so I went for it, and got it!” 

What subjects did you love at school?

“None! While I did work hard at school, I’m just not really an indoor type of person – so sitting at a desk and taking notes was never something I enjoyed much. But I knew it was important to focus on the science-based subjects if I was to go on to do the science based Foundation Degree in Animal Management.”

What advice would you give someone who wants to do your job?

“Volunteer, volunteer and volunteer! It’s easy to make a CV look good – you can have good grades and lots of qualifications – but you still need to get out there, apply yourself, meet people and get noticed. Lots of zoo jobs go to people who have proven themselves by doing work experience and volunteering. So get as much work experience and volunteer work under your belt as you can. Doing the job for free, in your own time, really shows that you’ll be a dedicated member of any team and gives you an advantage over other applicants with less work experience. 

“As well as zoos, it’s a good idea to find paid work or volunteer at vets, local farms and even pet shops – as they can all be a great way to get valuable knowledge and experience of the industry. And when you’re job hunting, make sure you look on Biaza and Zoo jobs. 

“Also, don’t expect to get rich being a zookeeper – you wont! We do it for the love of the job, the animals and the fantastic people we work with, and not to become millionaires. The perks of the job far outweigh the size of the pay cheque!”

Do you have favourites among the animals?

“Yes, the gorillas are my favourite – and always will be. If you’ve never worked with gorillas it’s difficult to explain, but they are very special. Their intelligence never fails to amaze me. It’s difficult not to be anthropomorphic towards them, which means putting human emotions on them, like calling them happy or sad. When I work with them I often see a full range of emotions coming from them – for example they get excited when they have tasty food or new toys, and depressed when they lose a family member. 

“You don’t see these emotions from many other species, which in my mind sets them apart from other animals. Also, you need to build a mutual respect and a good relationship with gorillas, as they’re naturally very wary and cautious. This is something that has to be earned and can take time.”

Can you tell us a funny or unusual anecdote to do with zookeeping?

“Gorilla keepers often work their entire careers never seeing a gorilla in labour – as a gorilla is usually very secretive when she gives birth. I saw Shanga, our youngest female, aged 11, give birth during a public talk I was giving – after just one year of working with them. That’s something I will never forget.”

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