This week, the new series of BBC’s The Nine to Five, hosted by Stacey Dooley, is released on BBC iPlayer – with one episode featuring teenagers learning the ropes as apprentice zookeepers at ZSL London Zoo.
It’s also National Apprenticeship Week, so to celebrate, we asked ZSL’s Joe Bostock-Jones, 25, to tell us a bit more about what life is like as an apprentice zookeeper at the world’s oldest scientific zoo…
How long have you worked at ZSL London Zoo?
I’ve been an apprentice zookeeper at ZSL since June 2019, so a little over 18 months. It’s certainly been a unique experience, especially since a lot of that time has been spent with the zoo being closed, due to national lockdowns. But despite the pandemic, the animals have still needed us, so we’ve been here every day feeding and caring for them all. The animals come first, always.
Zookeepers are already a tight knit, supportive bunch, but having such important work to do in such difficult times made us even closer – albeit while working 2 metres apart at all times! No day is alike when you’re a zookeeper, so having to adapt to the ever-changing situation was good practice for the job in general.
When did you first know you wanted to work with animals?
There wasn’t really a zoo near where I’m from in the North East, but I went to Chester Zoo often when I was staying with my grandparents, who live close by. It very quickly became the first thing I asked to do whenever I went to visit, and as soon as I was old enough to think about a career I had my heart set on working for nature in some way. I spent a lot of time outside in the countryside, usually on the North Yorkshire moors, walking and camping: I just loved being outside surrounded by the natural world. At college and university I studied biology but realised I wanted to be more hands on with animals and remembered my visits to the zoo as a child. I decided that being a zookeeper was what I was meant to be.
How did you become an apprentice zookeeper?
During my university summer holidays I worked at a small butterfly house in my local park, where we also looked after some reptiles and meerkats. I then interned at Chester Zoo for a year, working with the rhino team before getting a job at Mayfield Animal Park in Sheffield. Nine months later I saw that ZSL London Zoo had open positions on its apprenticeship scheme, and while my time at Mayfield was brilliant, the opportunity to work at one of the world’s leading zoos while gaining important qualifications in animal care - and to work with threatened species and contribute to global conservation - was really exciting. I applied for a position and was lucky enough to get it!
What does the apprenticeship involve?
My apprenticeship will last two years in total and is a mixture of academic and on the job learning. Day to day I do what every zookeeper does, preparing food, feeding animals, cleaning, training - as well as shadowing the rest of the team. Then there is the more academic side of things, comprising regular workshops at Capel Manor College in Enfield, which are currently being taught remotely and cover topics such as the role of the modern zoo, animal enrichment and ethics.
Being part of a group of apprentices at ZSL has been really valuable, as well as learning from such experienced zookeepers. Being able to ask around if I’m ever stuck with coursework is such a bonus, and all the apprentices enjoy swapping stories of the animals we work with, which is both educational – and entertaining!
Check out a sneak-peek of the hopeful apprentices learning the ropes in BBC iPlayer's new episode of Nine to Five, streaming now:
What are the best and worst parts of being a zookeeper?
Working so closely with a range of animals every day is a real privilege: you get to know every animal individually and experience them growing and learning – just like us, they each have their own personalities, likes and dislikes and it’s only by working closely with them that you get to discover what these are.
For example, two young babirusa pigs Budi and Beth arrived at the zoo last summer as part of the global breeding programme for the species, which is classified by the IUCN as Vulnerable in the wild due to hunting and habitat loss.
It's been amazing watching them grow into themselves: both a bit shy when they first arrived, Budi is now a confident little pig who loves nothing more than a friendly ear scratch, while Beth is a bit more reserved but is a clear fan of broccoli. They’ve grown close over the past six months and are very playful together, so fingers crossed we hear the pitter patter of tiny hooves soon!
I also love having such an active, hands on job where I get to spend a lot of time outdoors (in all weathers), and this has definitely been particularly valuable over the last twelve months. The variety is also great, as no two days are ever exactly the same: I could be helping to train camels, stripping leaves off branches and packing them in barrels for our giraffes, or cleaning a hippo pool – you don’t ever get bored.
Working long, physical days can definitely be tiring and takes a bit of getting used to, so it’s not for the faint-hearted. And although it’s necessary, working weekends also means you will probably miss the odd get together with friends or family which can be tough if you live a long way from home. But it’s all worth it.
Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?
I hope I’ll still be working in conservation in some capacity, either as a zookeeper still or helping to inspire others to work with nature. Many of my colleagues had vastly different careers before becoming zookeepers – former mechanics, bankers, make-up artist, teachers – all of whom decided they wanted to work for wildlife and changed their careers. When the Nine To Five apprentices were at London Zoo, I spent a lot of time answering their questions about zookeeping, breaking down the barriers they imagined might be in place to working in conservation. It’s never too late to change your career to one that supports the natural world, or volunteer for a wildlife organisation, and I think inspiring people to do that would be an amazing next step.
Watch the brand new episode of Nine to Five, now streaming on BBC iPlayer, in which Stacey Dooley takes five 16-18-year-olds into industries crying out for young workers to give them the ultimate work experience.
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