A career Q&A with animal keeper Paul Johnston.

Posted by: Sarah Ryan
Posted on: 8th January 2016
Posted in: Conservation, Research

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Calling all adventure seekers and animal enthusiasts! We’ve met with Knowsley Safari Park’s Paul Johnston, who tells us about all the tasks, skills and benefits involved in the role of a successful animal keeper. What’s more, Paul works with some of the most magnificent animals in the park – including lions, tigers, wolves, deer and antelope! If you like the sound of working with some rare and wonderful species on a day-to-day basis, then make sure you read over this Q&A to find out exactly how to begin your keeper journey!

  1. What made you want to be a keeper?

From a child, I always had a fascination with animals, and always wanted to work with them as my chosen career. The dream was always to be an animal keeper.

  1. What is one piece of advice would you give to someone wanting to be a keeper?

Gain as much varied work experience as possible in any type of animal work: farm, veterinary surgeries, stables, pet shops. It is all valuable experience, and it shows dedication. By sacrificing your free time in order to develop the skills, you are paving the way to achieving your career goal.

I attended an animal college as well as university, but during all those years I worked with animals as a Farm Attendant, College Lecturer, Animal Technician, as well as gaining work experience at a local pet shop and safari park. By the time I gained employment as an animal keeper, I had 11 years of experience of working with animals.

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  1. How important is work experience in becoming a keeper?

It’s vital. The skills that you develop on work experience, like how to muck out animals and how to assess behaviours between animals cannot be found in a text book, they have to be developed ‘on the job’.

In my experience, I completed work experience at a local farm for 2 weeks when I was 15, I returned during the summer holidays to gain more experience and from this I was offered a job there at 16, and spent the next 11 years working there developing and implementing breeding programs for a variety of livestock species.

Universities today are saturated with students that want to work with animals but not all want to be zoo keepers, many want to be researchers out in the field. I personally found university a little overwhelming, I knew I had to complete my degree in order to be considered for an animal keeper position as most collections asked for a degree qualification, but a lot of what I know is learnt ‘on the job’.

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  1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of your job?

There are many advantages to my job! I come to work every day knowing I am making a difference to the species in my care. I look forward to planning births, monitoring pregnancies, watching the youngsters grow, or just watching the animals behave naturally.

Each day I think, I am so lucky to be doing this job, it’s something I wanted since I was a child, and I am now fulfilling that dream. Not everyone can come home from work and say they have seen a baby rhino be born, or target-trained an elephant to deliver foot care! There are so many opportunities that come with the job, networking with other keepers at other collections, visiting other collections, or attending conferences across the world. It’s an amazing opportunity to have, and one that you should take full advantage of.

Disadvantages to the job are few and far between, most is usually when things do not go to plan, but that is a major implication of working with animals, as everything is on their terms. A major disadvantage is losing animals, sometimes difficult decisions need to be made and although it is upsetting, you cannot dwell too much on it, as you have a multitude of other animals that need your care also.

If you’d like to find out more about being an animal keeper, take a look at the Knowsley Academydesigned especially for 15-18 year olds, or our inspiring animal encounter sessions! Comment below if you’ve got any extra tips, or be sure share with anybody you think might be interested.

Article by: Sarah Ryan

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