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Livin’ the dream

on 28th August, 2016

Now that she’s got her first summer season with us under her belt I asked  Vicky Jennings, our new head animal keeper about her work. She always knew she wanted to work with animals and told her parents at the age of three that she would be a zoo keeper one day. Discover how she got her dream job and why it really is as amazing as it sounds…

Tell us about your job as a head animal keeper…

What’s a typical day for you like?

With over 100 animals, there’s always something going on with one of them. I get here early and walk around the exhibits to make sure the animals look good.  I work an eight-hour day,  typical tasks include preparing food and feeding animals, providing fresh bedding and water, ordering feed and bedding, cleaning out pens and enclosures, checking for sign s of distress, disease or injury in animals, helping to care for sick animals under the direction of a vet, checking enclosures, cages and barriers for signs of wear or damage, answering visitors’ questions and giving talks and encounters, monitoring accommodation conditions, such as temperature and humidity, keeping daily healthcare records, 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 or animals falling ill, veterinary procedures like the time when our male Serval Jabari had to be caught and gently restrained so that our vet Andrew could administer a contraceptive implant, as well as my favourite; births – you always need to expect the unexpected! 

What are the best bits about your job?

“EVERYTHING!! What’s not to love? I feed monkeys, zebra and gibbons 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 whatever is new in their environment.  I also love training – gone are the days when zoo creatures were trained for cheap tricks.  Everything the animals are taught is for their own well being, allowing veterinary checks to be less invasive and reduce the risks involved.  We use positive reinforcement to teach them how to do things. Harley the dominant male within the group of Mandrills is learning how to touch a particular target, for which he is rewarded with food. Every time he does this correctly, we have a clicker. That becomes a noise that he recognises, so he knows he’s got it right.     He is one of our cheekiest Mandrills as he likes to throw a tantrum if he doesn’t get his way but he always cheers up with a bit of apple as a treat!  By teaching him to stand still, we are able to carry out an all-over body check. We have a look at his skin, we look in his eyes and ears.

Did you always want to be a zookeeper?

Absolutely! From the age of three!  I’ve always had a keen interest in animals, yes. When I was younger I always had many pets, including cats, dogs, chinchillas and guinea pigs and I always loved helping to care for my grandparent’s chickens.

My father was always keen to take us to any zoos, wildlife parks or children’s zoos he could find, although Flamingo Land and Chester Zoo were are families favourites and when I was only 15 I undertook work experience at a local pig farm. So I suppose this all meant I was set out for a career working with animals!

What subjects did you love at school?

Honestly? – Music – I had a huge crush on my music teacher!  But I also loved biology – I went on to take ‘A’ level biology amongst other subjects.


What happened after school – what qualifications did you achieve?

I studied for a Higher National Diploma in Animal Care, and progressed to A BSc Hons in Applied Animal Behaviour and Training at Bishop Burton College where I was able to experience all aspects of animal keeping at a professional level.  I was able to learn about birds and aquatics, invertebrates and reptiles with mammal species ranging from small domestics (rabbits, rats, mice, chinchillas, guinea pigs etc.) to mo re exotic species such as lemurs and marmosets.  I was also able to work with livestock on the College farm and take up opportunities to visit other animal collections across the UK and Europe to research other species.

Later I undertook a Diploma in the Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals (DMZAA) an internationally recognised distance learning programme, whilst working at the Highland Wildlife Park.

Where have you worked before coming to Lake District Wildlife Park?

I first I worked at Flamingo Land in Yorkshire working with hoofed stock such as tapir and zebra, then I moved to Twycross – The World Primate Centre in Leicestershire because the zoo has the largest collection of monkeys and apes in the Western World, and I wanted to increase of experience of primate care.  Next I had the opportunity to work at The Highland Wildlife Park specialising  in Scottish wildlife and endangered animals of the world’s colder climates, including Amur tigers and polar bears.  Promotion came in a move to The Yorkshire Wildlife Park, commonly referred to as YWP, is a wildlife park located just outside Doncaster as deputy head of carnivores.

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

People often have the image of a keeper only holding and cuddling an adorable baby, such as a koala or cheetah. But there is much more to the job—animals are not just cute, cuddly things. Working with animals can be dangerous, and there is injury potential to keepers and animals. You need to keep up with the latest safety precautions and training on zoonotic disease prevention. The work can be hard, dirty, and tedious. You should have a realistic view of the job before making animal keeping your career objective.  If you really do want to be a zoo keeper, two things;

Education – While you’re in school, learn as much as you can in your science classes. In college, choose a degree program in animal-relate d fields like biology, zoology, botany, ecology, conservation science, or animal behaviour. Take as many different courses in those areas as you can, and graduate with a bachelor’s degree in your chosen field. (Here’s a BIG hint: the competition for jobs caring for animals is so strong that you really HAVE to have a college degree these days to be considered.)

Hands--on Experience – Find opportunities to undertake voluntary work with animals.  Some places to look for volunteer jobs might be: local vets, Animal training classes (does your dog need obedience training?), Wildlife rehabilitation centres, Animal shelters, Farms or Horse stables and boarding facilities

Do  you have a favourite animal species?

I adore Howler Monkeys; I was lucky enough to travel to Costa Rica, where the sounds of Howler Monkeys are can be extremely scary for a first-timer in Costa Rica though these sinister sounds betray the fact that these are harmless, peaceful and vegetarian mammals mean no harm and use their vocalisations solely for communication – waking us with breath-taking trademark cries at 3.30 am. They could be spotted swaying on canopies around the resort and at time s slyly make their way into the cabins. However they do have a very clever trick up their sleeve though to keep humans who bother them away from their closely guarded groups – they pee innocently and pretend nothing happened. So you really don’t want to paddle beneath a howler monkey family next time you go kayak exploring…

Of all the animals you’ve ever worked with, which one did you bond with most?

Difficult, I made many close bonds over the years.  If I have to choose, then the male polar bear called Arktos at HWP.  Highland Wildlife Park devotes a huge amount of space to polar bears and the successful work of the Park in enclosure design and development is being mirrored elsewhere.  However as his keeper I got as close up as is safe and once, Arktos felt poorly; he had a sore foot, and he stuck out his bottom lip out to me, he wanted me to hold it through the mesh – to offer comfort like cuddling a small child.  He only displayed this behaviour towards me. 

Here at the Lake District wildlife park, I’ve got a real soft spot for Brian the Gibbon.

Have you ever had a reunion with an animal you haven’t seen in a long time…

Yes!  My dear Dominica, an Amur tiger – about a year after I left the HWP, I returned to visit old friends and Dominica threw herself towards me, head rubbing against the barrier and chuffing – Chuffing is a non-threatening vocalisation . It is often used between two cats who are greeting each other, during courting, or simply by a mother comforting her cubs, exchanging chuffs with their keepers in a way to express a greeting or excitement. In order to vocalise a chuff, Dominica’s mouth is closed and she blows through her nostrils, producing a breathy snort…

You’ve obviously bonded with some animals in particular. It must be tough when an animals gets sick or dies?

Luckily this doesn’t happen often, but when it has I’ve withdrawn to comfort eat chocolate, before remembering the happy times and toasting the experiences we’ve shared, secure in the knowledge they’ve had a happy life.  It’s really hard. . . . Unfortunately it’s part of life. We see it from end to end, though; we have babies here all the time, too.

Have you participated in any animal births? What is the experience like?

I think the most memorable was at YWP.  Four-year-old amur tiger Tschuna was hand-reared from birth after being rejected by her mother. As a result, our bosses at the park feared her maternal ­instincts might not kick in.   As she was about to give birth, she came to me and rolled over right next to the fence to get her back rubbed for comfort.  I then watched the birth via  CCTV because Tschuna had hidden away in the peace and quiet of the cubing den.  She was a model mum to three cubs Harley, Hector and Hope.

Why did you want to come to the Lake District?

One of the reasons I came to the Lake District wildlife Park was that I enjoy variation and getting to know lots of different animals, although I could also be completely content working with just one animal every single day. I am a keen primate keeper and particularly wanted the opportunity to work with Brian, the oldest known gibbon.  Working as a head keeper has also given me the opportunity to increase my people skills, working with a great team and also directly with the public.  At this wonderful park nestled in the mountains of the Lakes there is ALWAYS something different to do: cleaning, feeding, husbandry, training sessions, enrichment… I love to make time for those fun things like making amazing enrichment and just spending quality time with them.

Which animal at LDWP are visitors usually most excited to see?

Goodness, a tough question!  I think people enjoy the antics of the lively animals like the otters, gibbons and lemurs, but also the gentle behaviour of the tapirs as well as old favourites like the parrot.  And then of course we have adorable babies from tiny micro-pigs to lemurs and zebra.

Can you tell me a funny anecdote to do with the Lake District Wildlife Park?

Well, a bit silly really, but recently after taking a group of guests on a hands-on encounter with the ring-tailed lemurs I kept wondering about a bad smell, I couldn’t find the source and nobody else had noticed it.  Until I bent down to bottle feed Ernest, a little Cameroon lamb and out plopped a poo, right onto his head – cheeky Hughie the lemur had pooped into my hood whilst I was distracted!

Finally you tell me that the only thing that would make your life and your dream job complete would be finding your soulmate – Could you ever see yourself dating someone who ‘didn’t like animals’?

Never! I don’t think it’s necessary to find a partner who is your exact clone, but my love of all animals, nature and the outdoors is such an intrinsic part of who I am that I can’t imagine having much in common with a person who didn’t share these interests.  So if there’s a tall, dark, handsome man out there with a fondness for Canadian canoeing with a dog in the stunning North Lakes scenery….

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