Recently I’ve become a writer who doesn’t write much. I have ideas, many a day, of what to write, but somehow I never get round to making them a reality. I’m blaming this latest case of writer’s block on my new occupation, so I’ve decided to write about that. I have been accepted as a volunteer at Paradise Wildlife Park in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire. It was the longest application process for a voluntary position I’d ever experienced, but after interview, induction and trail day I was successful.
Volunteering in a small aquarium in Cumbria could not have prepared me for work in a zoo. Although far from large with only around 400 animals (in comparison with Chester Zoo’s 20,000), Paradise Park still requires plenty of hard work and for me it’s a physically demanding and challenging role. I anticipated this beforehand and should have been ready, and yet I still came home from my first day with aches in every limb, rashes on my arms from the hay and mysterious scratches from the day’s manual labour. As is expected of all volunteers, I spent most of my time with what the animals left behind (you cannot believe how heavy camel poo is) and in the July heat I worked up a significant sweat.
And the funny thing? I loved it. Three years of university has been a mental workout but not so much a physical one. My arms are little more than jointed matchsticks, and just as strong. Volunteering at a zoo will be such a great opportunity to build up some strength. There is also something immensely satisfying about scrubbing a paddock clean, even though the moment the animals are let back in they completely rearrange the fresh bedding and christen it with droppings.
If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked “So what’s next?” since I came back from university, I could retire without having started a career. I still don’t know what I want to do or where I want to be. While I still love writing and photography, I feel a pull in a new direction – the daily grind of contributing towards a successful and high quality zoo. There is something very appealing to me about caring for wild animals in a place that values them (that’s the important bit) and sharing my passion with other people. I watched the Small Mammals keeper giving a talk as she fed the red pandas and I had an urge to join her, but my knowledge of red pandas is really quite limited. I want to study them, I want to know everything there is to know about these animals, and share that with people. And I believe I can do that by writing but also by being there among them.
I’m fully aware that becoming a zookeeper is an incredibly gruelling and challenging process. I’m also aware that my current academic background will not help me in that mission. Every keeper I’ve spoken to so far has begun by volunteering, and worked their way up the ladder. So I have joined Paradise at the very bottom, and the only way to go is up. I’m inspired by this, and know that I have to pursue it.