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Volunteering at ZSL London Zoo

Updated: Apr 27, 2021

Because fleece isn't just for Bargain Hunt!

Last week, I managed to finally complete a volunteer shift at ZSL London Zoo - something I have been trying to do for the last six months. I was beginning to think that I was a jinx because although I'd completed all of my training and induction back in November, twice I signed-up for a shift and twice we went into another lockdown a matter of days beforehand and twice the shift was cancelled. This time though, I signed-up and everything went ahead, leaving me thinking that we might actually be making our way back towards some sort of normality...

I decided that as this was my first shift, I'd get going by doing a half-day and ease my way in. The half-day shift starts at 9.30am and finishes at 2pm, which I figured would be a good introduction to zoo volunteering. I made my way to the service gate and signed-in there, before wandering into the zoo towards the building where all the volunteers are briefed (I'd previously been there for training). Luckily, a volunteer called Graham saw me looking a bit lost when it came to getting into the building, so he helped me out by telling me the code, and we had a good chat (he's a Watford fan and he's been volunteering at the zoo for a decade). The shift started with a half an hour briefing to let us know about any updates that we needed to know. The briefing consisted of safeguarding updates and general zoo information - the new lioness should be arriving in the next week or so to keep Assam the lion company and hopefully give us some Cubs, and the giraffes are feeling quite shy at the mo. We also had a reminder of the alarms, which is very useful at the zoo because they have two alarms: if the alarm goes off outside, it's an escaped animal alarm and you have to get inside the closest secure building. If an alarm goes off inside it's a fire alarm so you have to get out. I was then issued my volunteer fleece (so comfy and warm) and I was ready to go!

So, how does volunteering at the zoo work?

You're having a Giraffe...

It's all pretty straightforward, and designed so you don't get bored. I did a four hour shift, and because this was my first time, I was buddied-up with a woman called Gill, who’s been volunteering at the zoo for 10 years. I was to spend my whole shift with Gill and she was to show me the ropes, which she did very well. For every hour that you work, you are sent to a different part of the zoo, so I spent time in four different parts; the giraffes, squirrel monkeys, rainforest and roaming around the lion.

Unfortunately, there's a bit of building work going on around the giraffe paddock to make it bigger, and they don't not huge fans of it, so they’re not keen to come out to see the visitors. Gill and I were joined by a woman called Debbie, and we spent a pleasant hour at a table with some props, which included some vet's tools, a big bone, some de-barked wood (because the giraffes had eaten the bark), some examples of foods the giraffes eat (pellets, veg) and a jar of giraffe poo (which looks a bit like rabbit poo but slightly bigger). I had a cheat sheet, which had the answers to any questions that the visitors had about the items and it also provided me with some knowledge about giraffes in general. The giraffes are one of the main attractions at the zoo, so it was a real shame that they didn't want to come out. Me and my jar of giraffe poo didn't make for a like-for-like replacement, but I do like to think that the visitors learned something from us. Luckily, the Pygmy hippos who live next door to the giraffes were out and about, so they provided some entertainment as they are generally very cute.

...Then it was Monkey Business

After our hour with the giraffes, we went on to the squirrel monkeys who are now my new favourite animal (the penguins used to be my favourite). It's a walk-through enclosure where you're able to walk among them, and they are incredibly naughty, but very entertaining (it's an 'enclosure', but it's an open air space which is why visitors are allowed in). When in there, masks have to be worn at all times because as primates, monkeys are susceptible to Covid and can catch it just like we can. There are 19 squirrel monkeys in total, they hail from Bolivia and they love a backpack. We had an incident when one of the monkeys jumped onto a visitor's bag, but she was carrying her daughter who got a bit frightened. This made the monkey try to get closer to the girl to see what the fuss was about and he swiped her face mask and took it away with him into the bush. Everyone was fine and no one was hurt, but it's safe to say that the little girl had an unforgettable experience at the zoo that day. I didn't escape completely myself, as one of them snuck up on me and tried to undo my shoelace. As volunteers, we were there to warn the visitors not to get too close to the monkeys, not to try to touch them (they're biters) and if they did look interested, make sure you unclench your hands (as they think you have treats). They really were a joy to be around though because they are so boisterous and childlike - and mischievous.

Couldn't see the rainforest for anything...

Next on my list was the rainforest area, to undertake a job similar to the first one at the giraffe engagement table. It was another engagement table, because visitors haven't been able to enter the rainforest area but the zoo is still really keen for people to engage with what's in there. It's home to Marilyn the sloth and her baby Truffles, as well as Bandit the monkey, bats, anteaters and lots more rainforest creatures. The rainforest area isn't open to visitors at the moment because it's completely closed-in without much fresh air circulating - this is so that they can recreate the rainforest atmosphere. Normally, it's one of my favourite places to visit because there's so much to see, and it's always fun to play spot the sloth (they're generally right in front of you, but because they're so still, they're really easy to miss). It's such a shame that visitors (and volunteers) aren't able to enjoy the rainforest, as it really is a fantastic part of the zoo.

Gill and I were joined at the table by Kyle, who has been volunteering at the zoo for about eight months or so. He's really been swotting-up on his zoo knowledge, so he was very interesting to talk to and the hour passed really quickly. He knows the names of most of the animals and has managed to get to know the zoo really well since starting - he found out about the volunteer role through his old school teacher, and I'm sure he'll become one of the best volunteers we have.

...then we were just lion around

After the rainforest engagement table, we headed off to the lions, or lion as it is at the moment, because we are waiting for the lioness to arrive. Assam is really beautiul and, in true cat-fashion, he spent the whole time chilling on his podium while the passes-by gazed in awe. Gill and I were due to spend time in the undercover part of the lion attraction, which leads you up to the high platform to view the lion arena. We found that it created a bit of a bottle neck though, so we roamed around the outside, where people would stop us to ask questions (where are the toilets, when is the lioness arriving...) and we'd give recommendations about what the best attraction for toddlers would be (always the penguins - not sure if I trust those naughty squirrel monkeys).

Overall, a good day!

It was really good to don the red fleece and finally volunteer at the zoo. I met some really nice people, a lot of whom have been volunteering there for years, and I am looking forward to going back in a couple of weeks. It felt like quite a long day, being on our feet the whole time, but it was great to be around animals (and people) for the first time in what has felt like an age.

If you're interested in volunteering at London Zoo, or indeed Whipsnade Zoo, you should check out their websites. As a charity, ZSL are regularly looking for new volunteers, and they are all super-friendly. It's also a great way to spend your spare time, surrounded by some truly magnificent creatures.

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