Keeping up with the Keepers

Industrial placement: that bonus year between second year and what-for-most-people-is-third-year-but-for-you-is-fourth-year-but-is-still-basically-third-year year. That year when people ask you if you’re a student and you reply ‘technically yes but not really…’ Sort of like a year abroad, but in the UK. (Also known as a sandwich year, which, in my opinion, sounds tastier).

So what does one do on an industrial placement year? This is where it gets complicated. Many people are probably imagining science students dressed in immaculate white lab coats and goggles playing with chemicals/bacteria/DNA/fire (delete as appropriate) in an impeccably clean laboratory. This, however, is not always the case, as I realised when I found myself on my third day stood up to my waist in water fishing leaves out of a pool whilst penguins swim around my legs, tourists take pictures of me and I prayed my waders remained watertight. Maybe I should backtrack a little…

I decided I wanted to take a placement year at the start of my second year for a variety of reasons, the main one being that I wanted to take a break from education to do something relevant and worthwhile (after fifteen years full time education it’s not surprising). Months of filling in applications, tweaking my CV and attending interviews eventually led me to a small zoo on the South Coast where I hold the prestigious title of ‘research placement student’. As a zoology student I suppose I should have expected it, but I still get a kick out of people jokingly asking if my zoology degree means I will end up working in a zoo, and I get to tell them I already do.

So what am I hoping to achieve by writing this column? I suppose firstly to show that not all research happens in labs and not all scientists wear white coats, but I suspect most people know that already. In my mind I want this to end up like a Darwin or Durrel-esque chronicle of my journey of discovery through the natural world, though it’s more likely to be a series of awkward situations and a ‘learning curve’ of experiences which will hopefully encourage more people to take advantage of the industrial placement scheme (all accompanied by pictures of cute animals to keep things interesting).

For my first two weeks I was put to work with the keepers at the zoo in order to get to know the staff better, learn about the animals and generally be able to find my way around (the fact it was a week and a half before I realised we had a sloth is beside the point). Whilst having far too much fun to possibly list all my favourite moments, personal highlights include: feeding lions with giant novelty sized tweezers (novelty until you realise the size of a lion’s mouth when the size is suddenly justified); using impressive gymnastics to take branches into the red panda enclosure, where I was politely informed it WAS possible to unhook the electric fence and enter normally through the gate; attempting to clean the enclosure of a crowned lemur who mistook my sponge for her lunch; training Donny the armadillo to follow a red dot on a stick; watching Sulawesi crested macaques play with flowerpot enrichment (which it turns out have the same voice-changing properties of a Darth Vader voice changing helmet) and watching penguins after their lunchtime feed.

Yes, I did do my fair share of poo-shovelling along with other not-so-nice tasks including digging worms out of a bag of dirt, raking enclosures in the rain and de-yolking dead chicks so they can be fed to carnivores. My wheelbarrow-driving also left a lot to be desired, leading to comments about ‘women drivers’. I’m going to be honest, by the end of each day I was tired, dirty and smelling ‘interesting’. But it was that good kind of tired when you know you’ve been productive.

But all good things must come to an end and all too soon my two weeks with the keepers were over. I had some experiences I will never forget and had learnt huge amounts about animal husbandry, nutrition and how a zoo works. It was time to wave goodbye to 8AM starts, the busy food room and steel toe-capped wellies and prepare to start in the education and research department. But not before an opportunity to utilise my impressive collection of Durham fancy dress and enjoy a local 80’s themed night with my new colleagues.

I think it will be a good year…

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