Kent is a wonderful county and full of all kinds of beauties; lovely wooded areas filled with bluebells and snowdrops, grassed hills, rolling country roads in and out of old picturesque villages, and fantastic views.
One of the best was in fact at Livingstone Lodge itself, overlooking the English Channel and with a sight, on a clear day, of France (not that the English cared much to see France I felt).
The opening night the lodges second season (my first) was where I met the animal director of Howletts, which is Port Lympne’s sister park and the first estate of the two acquired by the original owner, John Aspinall. We chatted quite a bit that evening and he left me his business card for if I ever needed any assistance with anything. A few days later I decided to take advantage of this brief encounter with him; Howletts was advertising a primate keeper position and I phoned and asked him if he could set Polly up for an interview, no more.
Sometimes all you need is the ability to get to the interview stage and he helped her with that. I was confident she would need no further help to land the position and I was right. She was hired and soon was leaving Linton and on her way down to Howletts, and closer to me.
Initially Polly had keeper accommodation on site which suited us quite well and was something to take advantage of in the evenings. It meant that for my two nights of the week we got to enjoy Howletts after hours. We would take a wander around the park in the evenings (a privilege for staff only) and simply the best time of day to enjoy the animals with nobody else around. We often said what a great experience this would be as a VIP tour offered maybe once a month for limited groups of guests; but that would surely have spoilt our fun. Polly was raising a moorhen chick at the time, a rehab case that had come down with her from Linton zoo, so this nothing little black ball would get its ridiculous long legs taken for exercise past the tiger enclosures and on down to the gorillas.
We couldn’t help but feel nervous at the intense interest the tigers would take in this tiny bird, and felt it was almost incentive enough for a big cat to come scaling over the roofless fence. But we all kept to our respective territories and the moorhen grew fast and was subsequently released down in Cornwall.
The zoo animals are much more natural in the evenings, everything is quiet and they come into their own. I’m not saying that the visitors were a disturbance as such; just that for most, this was the time to wake up, to call, to check their territory and generally exhibit some very innate behaviours.
Considering the fact that as a keeper your place of work is in full public view, we are daily having to politely smile at inane comments thrown by unthinking visitors – “look at that funny animal”, and “I wonder what that species is?”, and “what does this odd looking animal eat?”, and “does it talk?” etc, etc, etc; all referencing to a keeper inside an enclosure at the time. I’ve never been able to understand the ability to unintentionally disrespect someone’s workplace.
The majority of keepers today have some level of diploma or degree and in fact, most zoos won’t hire if you don’t. You’re a professional person, working for one of the lowest salaries in the UK, always outdoors regardless of the weather and spend most of your day knee deep in crap, literally. Most keepers I have met or worked with are highly knowledgeable of their animals, are hard working and passionate individuals that consider it a job for life. Most will endure the worst weather that England has to offer without any complaints, just because their animals mean that much.
Why they should have to endure ridiculous and sarcastic comments from public I don’t know. I still get it today, 17 years into an industry that is ever-progressing and where you can never know it all, and yet many that have watched some wildlife documentaries genuinely think their knowledge and passion is at least on a par. I can’t help but find it exceptionally insulting, and imagine medical doctors must come up against a similar situation these days. When will it be recognised that working with wildlife is not an extension of obsessive pet-collecting, but is a highly important profession that takes skill and talent, patience, ongoing learning combined with experience, and a lifelong dedication.
I take my hat off to the keepers I worked with at Port Lympne, they were a great bunch to learn from and work with and I am truly glad for the experiences I had.
In the end though, the onsite accommodation was just temporary and we needed to look elsewhere. What with my kids staying over periodically, and all our combined belongings crammed into one small room, it was never going to work permanently.
We ended up being lucky enough to find a place on the main road between Hythe and Canterbury. It had a pitch & putt golf course right outside our back yard and so we had fun boasting that we resided on a golfing estate. This became our home for the rest of my stay in the UK, and indeed it became the best of times for me, as a keeper, with my kids, and life in general.
Whilst out of the lodge camp season I applied for a vacant position in the large carnivore section at Port Lympne. I went through an above-board hiring process, and was fortunate enough to get the job on the basis of my skills and expertise, in spite of competition from people applying with academic qualifications. I felt very proud to have earned this post as I always felt slightly out of place in the zoo environment, given that the bulk of my wildlife background was centered round exactly that – wildlife, not captive-bred examples. Whilst I am not an academically qualified person for this vocation, I have many years of in-the-field experience, working hands-on and am mostly self taught, which I suppose counts for a lot in what can be a largely practical trade at the end of the day.
I thoroughly enjoyed working on the large carnivore section, as I did working with the keepers. On top of that it turned into a most marvelous period for my kids and I. We got to see each other regularly, and always managed to find wonderful ways to enjoy this precious time together.
That is the end of part III; I hope it was enjoyable enough to bring you back for part IV, the conclusion of my time in England…