Tag Archives: ABWAK

In The Beginning…

My zoo career began in Spring 1987 when I got a lucky break and a job as a Zoo Education Officer based on my enthusiasm and general knowledge – I was not qualified in biology or teaching at that time. Today, it is much more difficult to get that first, (and second), break and get into the profession. So I was really pleased to be part of the launch of the new Zookeeper and Aquarist Apprenticeship programme at Sparsholt College this August.

The 24 month Apprenticeship programme gives participants a structured and supported way of learning the practice of zookeeping /being an aquarist both in work and with ‘college’ sessions.

The course induction at Sparsholt involved Jo Judge, CEO of BIAZA outlining the importance of zoos and the role of BIAZA and outgoing course coordinator Penny, outlining the course and welcoming all the students. Penny had pretty much created the programme and coordinated the ‘subject experts’ that will deliver aspects of the work to be undertaken.

My role on the induction was to inspire and excite the new apprentices about the profession they are entering into and introduce the role of zoos, giving a historical perspective and some thoughts on the modern ‘keeper’. I also took the opportunity to talk about ABWAK, the UK & Irish Zookeepers association.

As Sparsholt has its own licenced zoo collection some time was spent outdoors looking at the centre, and undertaking a brief “browse identification” exercise. And students also got enrolled onto the college computer network to gain access to the online portfolio system that will be their record-keeping mechanism throughout the apprenticeship.

The group were great to work with at the start of their careers. All much younger than the 34 years I have worked in zoos! and most very recently enrolled in the profession. I wish the apprentices all the best for the course and their work, and look forward to further contact in future.

NEW beginnings don’t just come at the start of a career. As I write this I am about to travel to the UAE and do some on site work with the EPAA, on their amazing new Sharjah Safari with whom I have a consultancy contract. Its been a while in the planning, I started discussions with them back in April 2019, and of course covid got in the way and delayed things more, but I’m looking forward to seeing the site for real, meeting and working with team.

Real People, Real Engagement… and more to come

July saw my first face to face engagements for over a year!

ZooStephen Communication and Presentation Skills workshop was run at Woburn Safari Park in July for members of staff from different departments that had joined since April 2021. This full day workshop was designed to give a range of background to zoos, practical communication skills and consideration of customer care issues.

The group were great and we enjoyed activities from story-telling to tongue-twisters and most importantly the day helped build confidence in speaking to others. Covid restrictions had just been lifted in England, however, we maintained comfortable social distancing and optional mask wearing in the session. It was so much better than via online systems and great to properly interact and react to the group’s needs.

Being invited to be the keynote speaker, and run a workshop, at the first UK Animal Care Technician’s conference was the other highlight of July. This had been delayed for a year, so UKACT2020 became UKACT2021 and thanks to the hard work of Joe Cooke and team at Halesowen College, West Midlands, and the attendees from all over the UK, it was a great success.

It was wonderful to be able to speak on ‘education and collaboration’ to a room full of people, to react and receive reaction. My workshop on demonstration and presentation skills was to give a flavour of how technicians can better be prepared for and to support student learning and activities. With good weather we were also able to enjoy lunch outside and spend time looking at the animal collection at the college.

Animal Care Technicians in colleges are responsible for a diversity of animals, whose main role is to assist the training and development of those who wish to pursue a career in animal care. The animal collections in some colleges are licensed zoos, and species kept range from rabbits and goats to iguanas and lemurs. There are also good collections of invertebrates and some aquatics.

Zookeepers have had ABWAK (Association of British and Wild Animal Keepers) to help their networking, training and development, for nearly 50 years, UKACT is providing a great network, using a facebook group and now this first, day long, conference for the animal care technicians.

Fingers crossed with the roll out of vaccines and appropriate mitigation the worst of the Covid situation is over. However, I am mindful of the disparity in vaccine provision across the world. However, I am very pleased to have just taken on two international projects, more will be shared in due course – these are with the Environment & Protected Areas Authority (EPAA) of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates; and with Orangutan Haven (SOCP and YEL) in Medan, Indonesia.

Career Advice & Preparing for job interviews

In my career I have interviewed a few hundred candidates, and gone through several thousand CVs and application forms. Fortunately, I have been on the other side of an interview just a few times. So it was good to use this wealth of experience and help create the first ABWAK Associate Members Careers Workshop held at Sparsholt College in mid March 2017.

Alongside presentations and activities from ZooStephen on my career, understanding job adverts, CVs, application forms and interviews, the day included advice on volunteering and networking from ABWAK Council member Daniel O’Loughlin (Sparsholt) and career case studies and question time with Kathy Doherty, ZSL Whipsnade Zoo and Meg Fieldhouse, Marwell Zoo.

The delegates, mostly at the start of their ‘zoological’ careers, engaged in discussion and activities designed to help them improve their own CVs, understand the recruitment process better, and prepare for their future careers.

The day was also designed to provide an honest appraisal of the job situation and employment in the ‘zoo industry’, and so delegates were made aware that jobs are very competitive, salaries still low, especially at junior level, and that many are using ‘volunteering and internships’ as additional routes to employment (but there are no guarantees, and risk of working for nothing). Sometimes being an excellent candidate is not enough, there is an element of what some call luck – being there at the right time, knowing the right people etc. Being the best candidate on paper doesn’t necessarily mean being the best person for the job. Unfortunately it is also true to say that the best person for the job may be passed over – and this may be because on paper they don’t have the best qualifications or experience, or they are over-qualified etc. It’s life, and it’s not always ‘fair’.  Be persistent, pursue the dream and passion… but be prepared to alter path and modify goals in the light of experience.

Feedback from delegates showed that 81% strongly agreed that the presentations and activities were excellent (with the remaining 19% agreeing excellent).  And comments included:

Really informative, found all of the talks really interesting and helpful.

Really interesting day to give insight into a process that is frustrating and usually comes without any feedback.

Really enjoyed the day. Excellent information about CVs and interviews which is really relevant.

The day was very beneficial to help me understand the positives and negatives of zoo work. Also have new ideas and changed path to achieve my goal.

Absolutely fantastic! I don’t think it could have been more helpful!

Thanks to Sparsholt College for hosting and to Daniel, Kathy & Meg for their input and to ABWAK.
More ABWAK Career Workshops are planned, and I offer careers talks as ZooStephen.

The importance of networking – in praise of ABWAK

For 160+ keepers, 4-5 March 2017 was a very full weekend of networking, talks, workshops and activity held at Colchester Zoo. The annual ABWAK Symposium was once again a huge success, and I was proud to be Chair of the meeting, and complete my term as Chair of the Association and be honoured with the new role of Vice President.

The weekend featured many different topics and taxa, but was framed around our theme of expanding knowledge and networks. The two keynote talks – David Field, Zoological Director ZSL and new ABWAK President on day 1, and Lesley Dickie, CEO of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (& Jersey Zoo) on day 2, focused upon both the importance of knowledge and of networks – but also the pitfalls of ‘fake news’, having trust, responsibility, ethics and honesty and having ambition, learning from failure, and being brave in career choices and development.

The network of zookeepers (and private keepers, along with those aspiring to be keepers through courses etc) has significantly advanced and grown since ABWAK was founded in 1974, not least with the development of the international network ICZ which held its first meeting in 2003.

I joined ABWAK in March 1987 when small groups of keepers met occasionally including for social activity such as inter-zoo quizzes, & the keeper training course (national extension college) was well established, but the network was small. However, over the years and especially so in the past decade, the association has become praised for its symposium and knowledge sharing, alongside its training role with well received workshops on a diversity of topics.

The ABWAK / keeper network is important and now has over 1000 paying members. It has directly helped many participants in both developing their own knowledge and practice but also in career moves. It is often those ‘casual’ relationships and conversations that lead to opportunities, and knowing who might be willing to volunteer to help on a studbook or have ideas and advice … as well as those that may be possible new employees or employers.

To this end, I’m delighted to be helping ABWAK deliver its first Associate Member workshop on 18th March at Sparsholt College, focusing upon careers and helping those aspiring to become keepers to improve their job selection, application forms and CVs, and interview techniques. Then once they have entered the profession to utilise the network effectively and contribute to the development of their profession into the future.

ABWAK – supporting keeper development

I’m pleased to announce publication of the March issue of RATEL, the Journal of the Association of British & Irish Wild Animal Keepers (ABWAK).  I have edited and produced RATEL for over 10 years now and it is great to assist the UK, Irish & International zookeeeper community to share knowledge and expertise.

March RATEL features articles including: Barbary macaque conservation; operant conditioning in otters; positive reinforcement for lions; anthropormorphism in a zoo; and mixed exhibit of warty pigs and spotted deer.

This issue comes out as we prepare to meet for our annual ABWAK Symposium at Folly Farm, in South Wales (5-6 March). Over 160 people will be gathered together for a weekend of networking, presentations, training. Guest speakers include TV vet Steve Leonard and Barbary macaque conservationist Sian Waters.

RATELMarch2016