It was 1986, I was just turning 17 and at the end of my first A level year at the Lancaster Royal Grammar School. At that time the School ran an internal grant travel grant scheme and I put in a proposal with my friend Andrew Westgarth to travel and work at Jersey Zoo (Now known as Durrell Wildlife Park). The same year the Zoo was in the news after a boy (not me) fell into the gorilla enclosure and was guarded by Jambo the gorilla. I had left the island before that happened, so this blog must be about something else.
Whilst at the zoo we worked in the garden and much enjoyed our time there. It was a long hot summer and the plants had grown very quickly to the point where the garden produce needed urgent rescuing from the weeds. We were introduced by the head gardener to the overgrown vegetation and asked if we wanted to help clear the vegetation.
Jersey Zoo allotment, summer of 1986
Ordinarily the idea of spending an internship at a zoo pulling out weeds would not appeal, but the gardener, instead of offering us a pitchfork and trowel brought out a petrol-powered strimmer, complete with ear-guards, visor and protective gloves. I was geared up and ready to go.
The gardener left me to it and pointed to an area that needed clearing. It was very overgrown and I set to with the enthusiasm of a newly minted 17 year old in charge of a petrol-powered strimmer for the very first time.
An hour later the gardener returned to find me grinning, covered in the mushy remains of the weeds and proud of my efforts to move the allotment forward in terms of its productivity. The animals would surely enjoy the produce more if it was given access to sunlight, un-choked by promiscuous weeds?
I can’t remember the name of the bushes, or exactly what the gardener said, but it was something like ‘where are the blueberries?’
It was at this point that I remembered some of the vegetation had been a bit tough when I applied the strimmer. Ordinarily, and in the domestic setting, I would guess that the line would break. But this was no ordinary strimmer. It was designed for the toughest conditions. Including the clearance of the Zoo’s entire stock of blueberry bushes on that hot, summer afternoon.
Amazingly I was allowed to continue working at the zoo and towards the end of the time we were there we had an opportunity to meet Gerald Durrell in the garden. He stood close to the spot where I had mown down the blueberries and posed for this photo
It was during my trip to Jersey Zoo that I started to think about my future career in some detail. I was determined at that time that it had to be something to do with biology, animals and would involve international travel. Cue my applications to Universities that offered courses in Zoology. Not, as someone later asked, to study zoos, though I could see where he was coming from.
The zoo has gone from strength to strength. I expect that some of their success is based in very small way, on the lessons learned from my experiences. Specifically, I hope that they learned never again to put grinning schoolboys in charge of anything that contains a petrol-driven motor.
I am an epidemiologist based at a UK Higher Education establishment (Durham University, if you are interested). My research interests are primarily within the domain of Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). I believe that the only way we can effectively tackle complex problems affecting populations living in tropics and sub-tropics is through trans-disciplinary collaboration. My working definition of transdisciplinary is undertaking research alongside so-called 'stakeholders' - groups and individuals who do not call themselves 'researchers' but whose experiences and knowledge can be used to great effect when combined with the experiences and knowledge of the research community. You can read my online CV at the link below.