Thousands of people visit Paignton Zoo every year to see its huge array of exotic animals, exhibits and attractions – but what’s it like to work behind the scenes in one of the country’s top environmental park?
Meet the keeper: Reptile keeper Sam Lomax is only 25 but she’s been at Paignton Zoo for seven years. Born in Bolton near Manchester, her family moved to Paignton when she was 11. She did a two year BTEC national diploma in animal management at Bridgwater College, and worked in the zoo car park in her summer holidays.
What do you love about your job?
The animals, of course, but also the people – there’s so much knowledge here. You have to know all about your species and your individual animals. Every day is different, and Paignton Zoo is an amazing zoo! I’m doing new things all the time – this is the year of the invertebrate at Paignton Zoo and in the spring we open a new exhibit called Investigate, all about how invertebrates have influenced human ideas and inventions, which is very exciting.
What’s a typical day for you?
8am – cleaning and feeding
I start with cleaning and food preparation – the main task is getting the on-show areas clean and tidy for when the zoo opens at 10am. It’s hard work because the Reptiles team is small, with four keepers and the curator, Mike Bungard. We clean windows and wash down areas like the snake enclosures. Snake poo is gross – it looks like runny scrambled egg and smells like blocked drains!
A well-earned tea break.
Now I train crocodiles, monitor lizards and giant tortoises.
10.30am-12.30pm – training and more feeding
Some more food prep, then it’s time for the giant tortoises. We’re a small department, so we all do everything, but one thing I specialise in is training. It’s not about tricks – we train animals to make things easier for them and for us. I went to Melbourne Zoo in Australia on work experience and saw them training their giant tortoises to walk onto scales to be weighed, and when I came back I asked if I could do that here.
Now I train crocodiles, monitor lizards and giant tortoises. I’ve been to zoo conferences and given presentations on the subject. Training usually only lasts for about 10 or 15 minutes – they get a piece of tomato or a strawberry as a treat when it goes well.
12.30pm to 1.30pm
Lunch in the department mess room.
1.30pm to 3.30pm – to the Reptile Nursery
Feeding time at the zoo again! I give pieces of orange and some crickets to the 15 geckos, then I feed the chameleons, which involves holding live crickets for them to take by shooting out their amazing sticky tongues.
3.30pm – feed the snakes
We have five big snakes in Reptile Tropics – anacondas, Papuan water python, Burmese python and reticulated python. They eat rabbits, rats or chickens – we alternate to give them variety. This job takes two keepers – it’s not safe to go in with them alone!
5pm – feed the crocodiles
This is another job that we have to do as a team. It involves a step ladder, a fishing rod and a tray of meat. One person climbs the ladder and holds the meat out over the pool on the end of the fishing line, and the crocs jump up to take it. It’s good exercise for them – it’s brilliant to see them move so fast!
5.30pm – home time
This is a physical job and there’s plenty of outdoors work. We have to carry on whether it’s cold, wet or hot – the animals come first. We also have exhibits which are really humid because of the tropical reptiles. But I couldn’t work in an office – it’s just not me!
This is a fairly quiet day. On top of this I do Keeper For A Day twice a week – that’s when members of the public come to see what it’s like to be a zoo keeper and spend time on different sections. Then there are the public feeds and the summer schools in August. At other times we might have things like vet inspections or environmental enrichment, which helps to stimulate animals mentally and physically and can include anything from novel scents and sounds to balls and boxes with food inside. Good reptile enrichment includes careful enclosure design and planting, training and seasonal variations in temperature and light levels. We are also able to feed them live insects, which is really great. As a zoo keeper I need the skills of a chef, animal behaviourist, navvy, farmer, cleaner and public speaker – It’s hard work, but the payoff is a close relationship with some amazing animals!