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Zookeeper careers – what it’s like to work at a zoo

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Moving On sent student reporter, Amy Corcoran to Twycross Zoo to find out exactly what it’s like being a zookeeper.

Most people will have visited a zoo at some point during their childhood and will remember how exciting it was to see all those amazing, exotic animals, close up. Being a zookeeper comes high up on many kids’ wish lists, so on a recent visit to the world-famous Twycross Zoo, Moving On reporter Amy Corcoran asked five young zookeepers how they turned their dreams into reality.

Conservation plays a vital role in Twycross Zoo’s work and it’s the core objective for all the individuals who work there. We were met by senior ranger Emma Dunham, who did an exceptional job of showing us around and who was incredibly well-informed about all the animals cared for by the zoo. Like all the rangers and zookeepers at Twycross, Emma knew she wanted to work with animals from a very early age and hopes to become a keeper in the not too distant future. She loves her job as a ranger as it gives her contact with all the animals at Twycross on a daily basis.

Each section of the zoo has keepers who deal specifically with those animals. Sarah Green is the deputy head of the zoo’s primates section (primates are members of the group of mammals which includes apes, monkeys – and humans!) and she’s worked at the zoo for 12 years. In 2003, Sarah started out as a trainee keeper with primates, having previously studied for a National Diploma in animal care at Wiltshire College. Sarah applied to every zoo in the country for work once she’d finished her diploma and told us that the best part of the job is watching the animals grow and develop over the years.

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Primate nutritionist, Sophie Cooper (left) with Moving On reporter Amy Corcoran

Sophie Cooper is a primate nutritionist at the zoo and like Sarah, she moved away from home for the job. From the age of 16, Sophie did lots of work experience with animals and gained a diploma in the management of zoo and aquarium animals before studying zoology at Cardiff University, where she won an award for gaining the highest course grade in the country. It’s Sophie’s job to plan the diet for each individual primate and she told us that what she enjoys most about being a zookeeper is improving the animals quality of life and the fact that there’s always a challenge.

Grade two primate keeper James Lewis originally studied A-levels, as he wasn’t too sure what he wanted to do as a career at that point in his life. After A-levels James didn’t feel ready for a full time job and didn’t want to go to university so he chose to study animal management at Brooksby Melton College in Leicestershire, for two years. He then applied for an apprenticeship at Twycross and was taken on as a bird keeper six months later. As he’d also looked after small primates alongside the birds, he became a grade two primate keeper a few months ago.

As well as primates, Twycross Zoo has a variety of hoofstock and carnivores. Jenny Wright is a grade one animal keeper who works with the elephants at Twycross. Jenny has been working there as a zookeeper since 2009. She started studying AS-levels but decided that it wasn’t the right route for her. After getting some careers advice on what she should do next, Jenny began studying a 2-year diploma in animal management and went on to do a one-year apprenticeship at Twycross. Having worked hard to gain experience, Jenny was taken on as a trainee zookeeper and has since been promoted to grade one keeper.

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Grade two large mammal keeper, Suzy Smeeton

Suzy Smeeton is a grade two large mammal keeper. She studied A-levels and went on to do a degree in animal behaviour at Hull University. She did her dissertation at Twycross Zoo and worked there as an unpaid volunteer zookeeper for six months before applying for the zookeeper job she has now. She has worked at the zoo for three years and eventually, she’d like to work her way up to a senior position at Twycross.

Every zookeeper we met at Twycross was passionate about what they do and they’ve all worked incredibly hard to get there. They are proof that you don’t necessarily need a university degree to be a zookeeper but their determination also proves that simply loving animals isn’t enough to persuade a zoo to employ you, either. You’ll need to get as much hands-on experience in animal care and of working with as varied a range of animals as you can – at a vet’s, a local riding stables or at your nearest zoo or wildlife centre. You could then apply to do an animal management course or an animal care apprenticeship and go on to become a zookeeper but the competition for limited places is tough and you will have to be willing to move away from home to live where the job or apprenticeship is located.

About Lynette Daly

Lynette is the publishing editor of Moving On magazine. Moving On is devoted to helping young people make good choices for their future – education, qualifications and careers. Moving On really wants to motivate you! Our articles cover a range of topics to inspire and give ideas. Our magazines are delivered free to all schools, colleges and sixth forms in England and is also available online.

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