This is part 2 of my placement year blog post. If you’ve missed part 1 be sure to go back and have a read (otherwise this next bit won’t really make sense!)
My year in industry placement was at Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust in Paignton in Devon. Specifically I was based at Paignton Zoo, one of 3 zoos owned by the trust. First, a little background about my location. Devon – a place that everyone seems to have visited “when they were a child”. For me, I had heard very little about Devon, even less about Paignton. However, everyone I talked to about my placement, whether it be family friends, elderly ladies at bus stops or cab drivers, knew about Devon and Paignton Zoo. It seemed to be a place full of happy memories and summer holidays.
I arrived with my suitcases full of things, driven 4 hours by my parents to Devon. On first arrival I realised that Paignton was a classic English seaside town – it had seen better days. After settling into my new house (5 minutes walk from work – score!) and getting to know my flatmates, who were soon to be my colleagues and friends for the next year. I arrived at the zoo for my first day “on the job”, I fell in love as soon as I arrived. I walked in bright and early to be greeted by the sound of gibbons singing at the top of their lungs – what better way to start the day? The first couple of weeks was a whirlwind, meeting all of the staff, countless tours of the zoo to meet the all of the animals (over 2,000) finally culminating in keeper weeks.
Keeper weeks were, and still are, one of the most tiring but exciting experiences I’ve ever had. I spent two weeks going around different departments working alongside keepers and vets on their daily schedule. I worked alongside keepers in the Lower vertebrate and Invertebrate, Mammals and Bird departments. I even managed to have sneak peek of what the vets get up to! It was a truly insightful experience – I shovelled lots of poo and got up close to lots of incredible animals. From tiny spiders, cheeky Hamadryas baboons and orangutans to the graceful resident African elephant. Overall however, the biggest takeaway from the experience was how close knit the zoo staff family are. They deal with a lot everyday, from managing dangerous animals to hand rearing the smallest chicks. I have never met a group of people who are more dedicated and caring. Everyone was friendly, passionate and willing to help out. Most of all there was of plenty of laughter!
After the whirlwind of keeper weeks, I settled into my own department for the year – the Field Conservation and Research department. I was in a team of 6 placement students from universities all around the country. We each had our own projects but worked in the same office space – it made for a real bonding experience. I began to get stuck into my research project: Investigating the physiological and behavioural impact of UVB lighting on captive brown spider monkeys. That basically means; look at how UV lighting affects, the minerals in and the behaviour of, the resident brown spider monkey group. As with every scientific project, I had my work cut out.
In between my reading, alongside the other placement students, we would often go for walking breaks around the zoo. These could vary in length, from 10 minutes to 1 hour, and would involve walking around every part of the zoo meeting the gorillas, zebras, cheetahs and frogs. However, one part of the zoo was our favourite – the petting zoo filled with goats. We instantly fell in love with the resident goats, spending many an hour petting them and taking selfies as they lived the high life. In fact, we loved them so much that we dedicated a day of the week to them: “Goat Fridays”. As the name suggests, we visited the goats on a Friday each week to give them plenty of cuddles. If I’m honest, we did this plenty of other times during the week too, when we needed a little booster.
Zoo life for the animals can sometimes get a little repetitive. To keep them interested and active, the keepers often make enrichment for the animals. The placements students were enlisted to help make paper mache pumpkins and snowmen during Halloween and Christmas for the baboons. It was a really fun experience – hours of work destroyed in seconds as the troop compete for the treats inside. If there is one thing I’ve learnt from my placement, it’s a strong paper mache game.
As the year went on, I really got to know my project subjects – brown spider monkeys. Paignton has a wonderful close knit group, each with their own individual personality. I spent countless hours sitting observing them, noting their behaviour and location every minute on the minute. There were of course downsides to this, when it was freezing outside I still had to sit and observe them as they were in their heated enclosure. I was wearing as many layers as possible, I don’t do well in the cold, and even invested in hand warmers. Desperate times call for desperate measures. However, as time wore on and I spent more and more time with the spider monkeys, they began to recognise me – coming up to the glass to say hello and often vocalising when I approached the enclosure. For me that was a really special experience and one I won’t forget in a hurry!
Wait…It’s almost all over!?
As the end of my year began to draw closer, I reflected on what I had gained throughout the experience. I had experienced many unique things – who can say they work within 10m of exotic animals on a daily basis!? I had made great friends, colleagues and memories I would never forget. I had learnt how to work as part of a team, lead my own project and to cope when things go wrong (it turns out they do a lot during research projects). Best of all, the whole experience culminated with me presenting my work at the Annual BIAZA Research Conference at Edinburgh Zoo – a real achievement!
Coming back to London
Coming back to London wasn’t that tough, I fell straight back into the hustle and bustle. I was grateful for the constant tubes and buses – a stark contrast to Devon where it’s vital to have your own car. Adjusting to final year university was a little harder, the workload hit me like a tidal wave. Ah well, back to the grind for one more year…
Overall, taking a year out to complete a placement was an incredible experience. It taught me many skills. I made many friends and memories and it gave me an amazing insight into working life. I still stand by the fact it was one of the best decisions of my life. Would I recommend it? If you ever get the opportunity – seize it with both hands and go for it!