Zoo Watch: Marking International Zookeeper Day with 36-year veteran

Zookeeper Joy Lear, 59, with a herd of nilgai

Zookeeper Joy Lear, 59, with a herd of nilgai - Credit: Archant

As part of a new series of articles from ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, and to coincide with this week’s International Zookeeper Day, veteran keeper Joy Lear recounts on a career spanning 36 years at Whipsnade.

Zookeeper Joy Lear, 59, with a herd of nilgai

Zookeeper Joy Lear, 59, with a herd of nilgai - Credit: Archant

It was a blistering hot summer in 1979 when I first started working at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, or Whipsnade Wild Animal Park as it was known then, as a seasonal trainee keeper.

I have now just celebrated my 36th year working at the Zoo and at 59 years of age I still have the same enthusiasm for the job and for animals as I did when I started as a sprightly 23-year-old.

I grew up in the nearby village of Kensworth and remember coming to the Zoo with my mother as a child, and while my parents were both great lovers of wildlife I guess it was Whipsnade that really sparked my intrigue with animals.

When I started at Whipsnade I was one of a very few female zookeepers. In those days the job was very much male-orientated – a bit like the job of a lorry or bus driver might have been at one time – and as a female keeper you felt like you had to prove yourself.

A year later, though, in 1980, I was given a permanent contract and soon moved on to work with a host of African animals, such as giraffe, antelope and hunting dogs.

Perhaps the single animal that sticks in the memory is a large female Asian rhino named Roopa. She was such a character and lots of fun to work with because she was so mischievous. I worked with her for almost 20 years and she had a reputation for stealing zookeepers’ broomsticks and eating them!

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With the good times, though, there have inevitably been tougher times during my career. The hardest part of my job is losing animals that I might have worked with for all their lives. There were two Przewalski’s horses in particular – Atti and Jane – who I grew very fond of and when they became very old and passed away it was terribly sad, almost like losing a friend.

We marked International Zookeeper Day on Tuesday (October 4) and I think it is very important to recognise the hard work, dedication and level of expertise that all zookeepers have, and to celebrate this.

In an ideal world all animals could live safely in the wild, but sadly, we do not live in an ideal world and due to poaching and deforestation and many other factors, the world is not always a safe place for animals. It is important therefore that we, as zookeepers, continue to conserve these endangered species as best we can.

From an educational point of view there is nothing quite like being able to see and smell, and in some cases touch, the amazing animals we have in zoos like Whipsnade and I think giving people that opportunity is vital to them feeling empathy for wildlife and a willingness to contribute towards helping us protect the natural world.

My 37th anniversary of working at Whipsnade Zoo is coming up next year but I don’t plan on stopping there. I want to see where I am at in four years’ time in 2020, by which time I will have served over 40 years, and only then will I think about going part-time – I would miss the animals too much to leave for good!