An inside view on the best job in the world!

An inside view on the best job in the world!

By Rachel Ducker

Rachel Ducker visits the Suffolk family attraction, Africa Alive, and catches up with some of the park’s key zookeepers.

Being a zookeeper may sound like a dream job for most animal lovers, but there is a lot to it than you might think.

Set in 100 acres of Suffolk countryside starts your African adventure, a walking safari with full of animals and a Farmyard Corner.

At the centrepiece of the zoo’s attractions – the ‘Plains of Africa’ and Emily Payne – keeper of the Giraffes.

Emily  Payne – Giraffe Keeper

How long have you been working with the Giraffes?

I have only been with the Giraffes since October, however, I have been at the zoo for three and a half years, but this is my first big animal section.

What’s your daily routine?

Its recently changed as we’ve been luckily enough to have Graham, our new animal manager, arrive, so our teams have changed – I now work with the Giraffes and the tortoises daily.

It’s like little and large?

Exactly, the first thing I do is to set the tortoises up for the morning, I then come down to the Giraffes and let them into the big paddock so we can have a good tidy up.

At this time of year, they get very chilly overnight, so we keep them inside.

A big part of the day is trying to keep them occupied, so we’ve introduced some tube feeders and trees. At present they have some willow and hawthorn, they really love the bark off those.

After this, I will go in and clean the inside of their homes – they make an absolute mess every single day – they are complete monsters! I then put some treats in there. Then I head back to the tortoises to get some fresh feed for them and after I potter doing various other bits around the zoo.

What inspired you to become a zookeeper?

Lots of people who work here say I have always wanted to be a zookeeper, it might sound silly, but I didn’t realise it was a real thing.

I went down the veterinary path, so I did a biology degree and spent a placement year at

Jersey zoo, this is when I realised that’s what I want to do.

It’s very competitive, a lot of places look for voluntary experience or an internship just because people tend to not have a very realistic view of what we do. It’s very physical and it’s not glamourous! You can get quite emotional too, if they become ill – it really does affect you.

Is it hard not to have favourites?

I really like Kiara who is the tall one, she’s our older female and is just so chilled – she is the least nervous animal, a lot of the Giraffes can be skittish, but she is not bothered by anything.

And you have some baby Giraffes here too where they born here?

Yes, they were born October 2020, a girl, and a boy. Both mum and daughter had a calf by our male, so it was very successful. We were so chuffed to have both born as they are an endangered sub-species of Giraffe, so we feel happy to have contribute to the breeding programme.

What’s the best part about your job?

That’s hard! It’s got to be the animals, they do something different every day, you feel accomplished with any bit of progress you make with them. There is always something they do to make you smile.

It’s a very good job but probably not in the way people would realise, a lot of the things we achieve are very practical, such as DIY, but we must be quite varied, whatever they need we provide.

Ryan Sharp – Lion Keeper

What’s the best part about your job?

Learning about them, getting to know all their different personalities and being there to share your life with these incredible animals, especially with the Lions. They are very specular and very scary!

You work with one of the most dangerous animals on site – how do you feel about that?

I think it keeps you on your toes! You need to be very strict with padlocks and ensuring everywhere is nice and secure, but it’s quite an honour as well to be honest – to spend your days with six Lions.

Is there a particular Lion you are drawn to in the pack?

This one here, Sarabi, she is just amazing; she likes to come over and spend time with her keepers.

How old is she?

She is 11 years old.

How many male Lions do you have?

We have three male lions, one with a mane and two castrated males.

This is so we can keep them all together as a family without any issues. If they were still intact, they would still have their manes, but this way it just means they don’t challenge dad as much.

Just like people, they have their off days and will argue, but dad is pretty good at keeping them in check.

So, what’s a typical day like for you?

First, we come down and count everyone, making sure everything is secure.  We will then go round and physically check the perimeter fence, then we test the electric that goes around the top – again that is just a deterrent to stop them climbing.

Then we give them their food, some days they will all be fed out in the paddock together, but other days we feed them separate just to ensure they are all having a balanced amount of food per Lion.

Have you ever had any worrying moment with them?

No not really, when you first start working with them, they do have a grumble every now and then, it does scare you a bit, but you get used to it.

What inspired you to become a zookeeper?

I used to come here when I was a child, I loved watching the animals, grew up with pets and it was a dream job.

I started an apprenticeship here and six years later I am here and working with the Lions.

The apprenticeship enabled me to gain a diploma and experience – I worked hard to get to be the Lion keeper.

Connor Holifield – Rhinos Keeper

Why did you want to become a zookeeper?

I used to work at Pleasurewood Hills with the Sealions, so with animal experience, when I saw this job come up four years ago and I decided to go for it – starting off as an apprentice.

How long have you been looking after the Rhinos?

I have been with them for seven months now, they are my babies at the moment!

So obviously you were involved in the birth of the new baby Rhino?

Yes, I was, I have been working with the mum for the last six months and towards the end of the pregnancy.

What was it like?

It was such an amazing experience, a once in a lifetime one!

I hear it was all done naturally.

Yes, we didn’t have to intervene at all, she gave birth at around 6:45am – we all rushed down here to be with her.

I was going to ask what has been your highlight so far – but I guess the birth tops it?

Definitely, this has been my career highlight. She is a little angel but a monster as well, she trashes the joint!

How did you come up with the name?

I didn’t pick the name, all the keepers put names onto a list, one which had an African meaning, and then we let the public decide on social media. They chose ‘Zawadi’, which means gift, as she was born around Christmas time it seemed fitting.

What’s your daily routine with them?

In the morning we come in and make sure everyone’s ok and well, I then give them breakfast – then we decide who is going out onto the paddock.

Does the little one goes out?

Yeah, she’s been out a couple of times, she loves running and chasing mum.

Do you ever find your job stressful?

Its quite a hard question really because every day is completely different, with new challenges. I stress about the little one, making sure she’s fed well – it’s quite a responsible job.

If anyone wanted to become a zookeeper, what advice would you give them?

I would say, try your best, I didn’t do very well in school, but I worked hard in college. It is difficult to get into a zoo – but keep being persistent, I applied three times for my job here.

And you got the one with all the spotlight this year!

Yeah, I never gave up and this has been my passion ever since.

Charlie Pells – Lemur

How long have you been looking after the Lemurs?

I have only been with them recently, just two months, I started at the zoo in November, so the Lemurs are the first animal I have had the pleasure to look after.

Why did you want to become a zookeeper?

I have always wanted to be a zookeeper; I went to university to study for the job. I have a love for animals, it’s not just a job for me.

What’s your day-to-day routine with them?

In the morning I will come down, check they are all ok, feed them, then I will do a little bit of training with them, clean them out and that’s about it.

So, you have four at the moment to look after – any particular one you warm to?

Yeah, there is one, he is called Theo, he has little fangs and wrinkles on his face, he is adorable.

I have noticed that lemurs have a characteristic where it looks like they sun worship why is that?

Most of them have black bellies, so it is mainly to get heat and absorb the sun, or what we have of it in this country.

Do you have any highlights of your time here so far?

I think the baby Rhino being born was always going to be a big highlight for everyone here at the Zoo, but specifically with the Lemurs, I love training with them, its engaging for them and for me also. I find it interesting.

Is it hard to not get emotionally involved with your animals?

To be fair, I think you are always going to a little bit, as you saw when I came over, they rushed to see me, they know who I am now and there is a connection.

Is there ever a time they are not approachable?

If they are not, they just won’t come over to you, they will sit up high in the trees or on top of the hut, so you generally know when to not approach them. Most of the time, they will come over – especially if I have food. It can be a little stressful when they don’t want to go inside the hut and then it’s a waiting game.

For anyone who thinks your job sounds good what would you say to them?

Being a zookeeper is more about experience than anything else, try to volunteer, if you can do, that’s what’s going to help the most.

James Holl – Savannah animals

What animals do you look after in the savannah area?

I normally move around, I am mainly looking after the ostrich, zebra, and Blesbok. I also help out with the Rhinos and buffalos.

What are your daily tasks?

I get in half an hour early everyday – just to get ahead. We collect the animal diets, feed them, and check them over, then we prep them to go out into their relevant areas. After this, we do a little cleaning. We have to clean the whole Savannah paddock!

It’s quite a big area isn’t it?

Especially every day when we have the Rhinos the Giraffes – plus everything else on there – they make a lot of mess!

I guess that could be the only downside to your job?

[laughs] It is part and parcel of the job.

What are the highlights of your job?

Well of course the arrival of the baby Rhino, and any births – they are always special. Also interacting with the wild and exotic animals and overseeing their care.

Do you have a favourite animal?

The ones I have worked with the most are the Lions; I have watched the two younger Lions grow up.

How did you get into this job?

I did a national diploma in animal management but Its best to try and get some experience. I applied everywhere, and luckily; I got a job here.

So, you relocated?

Yeah, I am from near Middlesbrough.

I wasn’t going to mention your lack of Suffolk accent!

[laughs] My ‘northerness’ has toned down! You have to be prepared to travel for the work if you want to work in this field. I am certainly committed.

For more information about season passes and ticket to Africa Alive see –

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