I'm going to the zoo (zoo, zoo), How about you (you, you)?

I'm absolutely thrilled to announce that I'm going to be volunteering at ZSL London Zoo as a Volunteer Steward. It all started when I read an article in the Metro at the beginning of August about how London Zoo was looking for volunteers, and I thought 'who wouldn't want to hang out at the world's oldest zoo for free'?

I applied as soon as I could, but because of huge demand I didn't get through straight away and was really disappointed. Then, at the beginning of September I heard from them out of the blue... they were recruiting again and inviting people to taster sessions - so I got in there quick and booked myself in. From the role description, it sounded really similar to the volunteer role I undertook at the Cricket World Cup, which was essentially being friendly and helping people get around (while also getting to watch some cricket which was awesome). Instead of getting to watch cricket though, you get to wander around a zoo which in itself is actually really relaxing and quite mindful. It's strange when you think that life hasn't really changed for the inmates at the zoo, other than it's a lot quieter. Let's face it, if you're a sloth who's just had a baby (like Marilyn, who's just given birth to baby Truffle) you're going to want a bit of peace.

Taster Session - What did that involve?

The taster session at the zoo is designed to work out whether or not the role is right for you, and if you're right for the role. It was a two hour session with about 30 people, and we were led to the tent/auditorium near the gift shop to be introduced to Emma and Ruby (the volunteer coordinators) and split up into groups of three so that we could have a wander around the zoo for an hour.

I was put in a trio with two women called Zoe and Keshini. Zoe's a writer and Keshini works in wardrobe departments in West End shows (like me in hospitality, business is a bit slow/non-existent at the mo). The wander around the zoo allowed us to see the zoo, but also enabled us to speak to the volunteers and chat to one another about volunteering.

We stopped a volunteer called John who has been volunteering at the zoo since 2008. It was great to chat to him about the positives of working at the zoo (the behind-the-scenes visits, getting to know the zoo keepers and picking up knowledge you didn't know you wanted to know!). He was also pretty clear about the challenges; the role involves a lot of standing, so you need to be fit for it and it also requires you to be friendly at all times. This sounds pretty straightforward, but like in all customer-facing situations, it can be challenging. If the weather's bad and the animals don't feel like coming out, some people get annoyed and can react by being rude to volunteers. When your back and feet start to hurt from standing around for a long time, you can't just switch off and not help people when they need it. This is where my hospitality training comes in quite handy, as well as growing up having to work in my parents' gift shop. Some people are just made for these types of roles and for others, it's their idea of hell - I know my partner genuinely feels fear when he thinks about having to talk to strangers...

And then there was role play...

Urgh... role play.

After our walk around the zoo, we were led back to Barclay Court (the main area with the big map) and taken up to the staff area, where we were given tea and chocolates and settled down for the second part of the taster. Role play. The thing about role playing is that in theory it's necessary, because you need to see that candidates are able to perform the roles that they are going for. The fact is though, it's uncomfortable for everyone involved. I can talk to absolutely anyone and make conversations last hours, but being in a staged situation like role play is really unnatural for me. I've not come across anyone in my life who enjoys role playing, but until we come across an alternative that will produce the same results, I think we're stuck with it...

We were split up into groups of six and sat at large tables where we were given an animal factsheet and told that we were to explain to the rest of the group (as if they were zoo visitors) some factoids about this animal.

I was given the Mary River Turtle. Here are some factoids about this fascinating little creature:

  • It's a freshwater turtle endemic to the Mary River in Queensland, Australia. This unfortunately means that its habitat is really restricted

  • They are a cloaca-breathing turtle, meaning they can breathe underwater for up to three days!

  • They breathe underwater using special glands in their reproductive organs (now that's what I call a multi-tasker)

  • They're an endangered species, which is further complicated by the fact that they don't reach breeding maturity until they're 25 years old

  • It wasn't identified as a species until 1994 - before then, people used to keep them as pets

After that, the group was given scenarios and asked how we might react if we saw a child feeding an animal biscuits or if we came across a visitor who didn't want to wear a mask within the rainforest enclosure. This was all fine, but I'm just not a fan of role playing (in case you hadn't noticed). After that, me and Keshini went for a wander around the zoo to the places we missed the first time round. Regardless of the result, I was happy to say that I'd made a new friend as a result of heading up to north London that day.

Needless to say, I got a response from Ruby within 24 hours. I've been invited to volunteer with them (pending good references) and I'm super-excited about starting with them. It seems like a superb environment and everyone we spoke to seems to really loves being a part of the team there.

Watch this space for more...

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