Not just for the pretty animals! — Education at the zoo

“Oh a Zoology degree, so you’re going to work in a zoo?” – A question repeatedly heard from family members, friends (and leaving certs filling out their CAO forms) to anyone inside the Zoology loop. “Well it’s not THAT specific,” I always started my monologue with.

That's me! These signs are scattered all over the park where one of us will carry out a 15 minute talk about our animals
That’s me! These signs are scattered all over the park where one of us will carry out a 15 minute talk about our animals.

Yet here I am outside the cheetah run in Fota Wildlife Park, waiting for a crowd of people to gather around so I can start a wildlife talk… how did I manage that?

Back in January 2014 and I was in my final year of my BSc in Zoology. My project was finished, so I had some time to think about where I was going (that’s a nice way of putting it… I was actually freaking out). Conservation work, teaching, veterinary medicine, postgraduate studies, research, consultancy – there were so many options. I knew I loved ecology, collecting bits and bobs from the wild and generally being outdoors. If I could be employed for such a past time then success! My bachelors alone hadn’t highlighted any particular path for me. So for those reasons, I did an MSc in Ecological Assessment. It was great in that it actually trained me for a specific job: a mediator between conservationists and the public. I cannot stress enough how important this role is for the future direction of environmental awareness in Ireland.

I heard of a job opening in Fota Wildlife Park in their Education Department. The Education Department here are responsible for any engagement with the public: tours of the park, animal talks during feeding times, patrols, ensuring the welfare of our beloved free-roaming creatures, team building exercises for companies and of course educating primary and secondary schools. So a lot actually goes on in the background while visitors are taking in the sights, sounds and smells of our menagerie. Depending on the time of year, I’m either out in the woods teaching schools, or in the park doing wildlife talks and patrol.

Our lovely team member jess giving a wildlife talk
Our lovely team member Jess giving a wildlife talk about our Cheetahs.

If a school is booked for the day, I check the rota to see the year and number of students we have. We count all our bits of surveying equipment and we bring our group out to the forest. Immediately we see the distaste of the students who wore nice shoes instead of old wellies. The talk usually starts with our woodland in general and how it came to be here. We show them our apparatus for recording the weather conditions in the woods, such as our thermometer, rain gauge and our compass. Following that we teach them how to find and collect some invertebrates. We use pitfall traps, beating trays, sweep nets you name it. As the students have a ramble in the woods, the screams usually start when someone finds a big spider, though I can imagine the spider is pretty traumatised too. We also tell them to hold their sweep net closed after catching something (instead of sticking their face in the net) but there’s always one student with flies in their face. “Sampling Error” I usually tell them. Next we move out of the woods to more grassy areas to show them how to survey the ground plants. We use line transects and a quadrats, the fundamental bread and butter of any ecological survey. We go through the results, walk through the statistics and more importantly: what can go wrong (better prepare them for third level right?).

A friend of mine (now doing a PhD) told me she remembers her leaving cert ecology trip to Fota. She liked it so much she went on to do environmental science in university. So not only do I want the students to understand what we’re teaching them, but I want them to enjoy it. Relish in all its wet, leafy, muddy goodness! And perhaps create more budding ecologists.

This Easter I’ve been moved into the park to carry out wildlife talks of our animals during feeding times. All our animals are either rescued or moved from other zoos. We are also exceptionally successful in our breeding programmes, particularly the cheetah where it’s population has almost bottle-necked in the wild. So far children between the ages of 3-8 have asked me the most complex questions about our animals… and are really keeping me on my toes! I’ve gotten thanked so many times for my help and loads of “oh wow I didn’t know that!” so that part is really rewarding for me.

Some of our free roaming kangaroos.
Some of our free roaming Grey Kangaroos.

We also have a lot of free roaming animals such as Ring-tailed Lemurs and Grey Kangaroos. It’s definitely worth it to let people see some animals unconstrained and in a more natural setting. But free roamers unfortunately come at a price: someone has to watch them. Every morning we have to search for them, count them and stand with them. They are cute, fuzzy and hundreds of children will want to touch them. It is completely useless trying to herd them into a spot where no one can see them… believe me, I’ve tried! They will go where they want, they will hide where they want, and sometimes they will steal a banana from a baby but such is life.

I found two... another fifteen to go!
I found two… another fifteen to go!

I’ve only been working here since September 2015, so it’s still early days for me. I initially came in looking for experience. But I found so much more in the park that I think I’d like to stay put for a little while longer. I might shuffle into environmental consultancy or perhaps try to juggle both. The post-college murkiness and lack of direction has happened to so many of my friends now. My advice would just be to relax and wait. I wasted so much time worrying about it and it seems silly now. I guarantee something will jump out at you. Right now for me it’s the lemurs!

Our resident troop of Ring-Tailed Lemurs… if only they’d stay there.
Our resident troop of Ring-Tailed Lemurs… if only they’d stay there.
Amy Spain-Butler
About Amy Spain-Butler 1 Article
Amy is an enthusiastic naturalist and an ecology postgrad. Currently working with a team of ecologists and zoologists in the Education Department at Fota Wildlife Park, Co. Cork. She is responsible for engagement with the public and promoting education about our wildlife.
Contact: Website

1 Comment on Not just for the pretty animals! — Education at the zoo

  1. Fantastic article Amy! Really enjoyed it! Must pay Fota a visit when I am back in Ireland next…. think my best “selfie” ever taken in Ireland was with one of Fotas quite confused kangaroo’s. Excellent advice for people in the limbo period too completely agree with you, once people remain patient and keeping searching something will come up for them! Hope as many school kids in Cork and further afield get the chance to go to Fota and be inspired by the excellent work done there by yourself and all the fota staff.

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