Drusillas Park

Gemma Romanis: How I became a Zookeeper – BIAZA mini blog

Posted: 19th July, 2022

Gemma Romanis – Head Keeper Drusillas Park, East Sussex

Many people often say what a lovely job I have and how lucky I am. I agree I’m fortunate to be where I am, doing what I do and participating in the bigger picture making a difference to animal welfare. This is the story of my career journey so far…

I have had a passion for animals since childhood exploring all things nature and was often found making my own worm farms in the garden (Didn’t we all?!). I seemed to have a way with animals and knew I wanted to pursue a career working with them. I dreamt, but never did I expect, I would become a Head Zoo Keeper.

At school I thought I needed GCSE triple science to have a career working with animals and persuaded my teacher to let me take the subject. I was always pushing myself to get the grades I needed but really struggled academically despite feeling like I tried harder than others in my classes. I took the exams and failed to get the grades I needed. I was devastated. I tried so hard but it just didn’t happen. Regardless, I remained focused and determined to stay on my path and to be someone who made a difference working with animals – I resat the exams and this time got the grades I needed.

It wasn’t until college, where I was diagnosed with dyslexia, that I now understood why I found studying so difficult. Doing A Levels at College was hard, not just academically, as I faced personal struggles with the sort of complications that life can throw at you.

As college was coming to an end, I wasn’t sure on my next steps and was a bit lost. I didn’t have good grades and felt university just wasn’t a place for people of my ability or for people like me.

However, at the compulsory career fair there was a university that stood out immediately and knew that was the place I wanted to go: Harper Adams University College. I felt that would be the making of me and would set me up for the career I dreamt of.

Little old me at university, moved out of home and in a very new, bizarre, but exciting environment. University life, the course, and the people were some of the best things I have experienced (second to being a zookeeper obviously!). For the first time I was around likeminded people with similar passions. I received the academic support which meant I finally excelled and loved every minute of learning about animal welfare and behaviour.

University came and went and then it was out into the big wide world unsure of what my next steps would be. I worked at a local cattery where I became the Assistant Manager. I liked the work but reached a point where I felt I was not being challenged and my time at university showed me that I wanted a job that constantly pushed me to develop.

I interviewed for various animal focused roles, but each time received the dreaded rejection letter. I began to lose confidence but kept on applying.

A casual keeper role came up at Drusillas Park, my local zoo. I interviewed but this time, to my delight, I was told I got the job; I cried tears of pure joy, it was where I wanted to be, what I had worked for and knew it was the job I needed to grow!

The role was everything I hoped for. I felt I had found my calling. From there things have just gone from strength to strength to the point where, ten years later, I am the head keeper!

I have found who I am and feel extremely privileged to have had many great opportunities through my work including the successful hand rearing of a sloth which will remain with me forever.

To me zoo keeping is about making a difference, continuous learning, being inspired, inspiring others, creating opportunities… I could go on! It is rewarding and the more you put into the role, the more you get out. Needless to say, there is always something new to learn or do.

Some would say I’m lucky to be where I am today, and maybe it was initially the right opportunity at the right time but on reflection it has been a journey of hard work and dedication – blood, sweat, tears and gritted teeth – that has led me to my current position (but there have been many magical moments and plenty of laughs along the way!). I believed and followed my dreams.

Zookeeping is more than a job, it’s a community and one I’m proud to be a part of. Follow your dreams, believe in yourself and one day you could be a part of it too.

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