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Apprenticeship in animal magic

2 January 09 06:55 GMT

By George Herd
BBC News

"There's a fair amount of shovelling involved," grimaces teenager Erin Mitchell.

"But I wouldn't change it for the world - I love every single day here."

While some 19-year-olds might be studying for a college place, or taking their first tentative steps in an office environment, Erin is learning to become a zoo keeper.

She is one of the lucky few to have won a modern apprenticeship place at the Welsh Mountain Zoo in Colwyn Bay.

The zoo, perched high above the seaside town in Conwy county, is home to some 100 different animals, from Sumatran tigers to guinea pigs.

And of course there is Scooby, a young Welsh mountain goat, who loves nothing more than chasing trainee Erin around his compound first thing in the morning.

"He'll just keep running and jumping until he is out of breath, he's got real character when he wants," beams Erin.

Hand-reared at the zoo by his keeper Clare Taylor, he has certainly developed a special bond with Erin, as he chases after some of the tasty snacks that all the zoo keepers seem to stash in copious pockets.

But he is just one of the animals that the apprentice has formed long lasting relationships with in the three years she has been working at the zoo.

In another compound, close to the sea lions, the display birds roost.

Specially trained for months and years by their handlers, the birds put on stunning aerobatic demonstrations for visitors.

But sometimes it doesn't always work out - a case in point is Chico, a magnificent blue and gold macaw.

The zoo had hoped he could be trained to fly synchronised, wing-tip to wing-tip alongside two other macaws.

"The first time we tried him out, he flew into a tree and stayed there for four days," confesses the zoo's head keeper, Peter Litherland.

Maybe it was the rebel streak in Chico that attracted Erin to him.

At the offer of peanuts pulled from another of her pockets, the macaw is happy to squawk "Hello", pull out his tongue, and emit whistles that would not be out of place on a building site.

"We are so busy most days, that I don't get as much time as I would like to come down to see Chico, and the other birds. That's the job of the display team," explains Erin.

"There are so many animals, its almost impossible to have a favourite, but there is something special about Chico - and of course Scooby."

Erin first came to the zoo as a Coleg Llandrillo student, where she had enrolled on animal care course.

It was the partnership between the nearby further education college and the zoo that led to setting up the modern apprenticeship scheme.

Dedication

Susan Coleman, the zoo's education officer who also lectures in animal care at Coleg Llandrillo, said: "As part of that course the students have to do some work experience at the zoo.

"If they really stick it out then there are opportunities available for them to go into working with animals.

"But it is hard work and we do look for dedication from the students that come here. You get some that are better than others - Erin has been one of our better ones, I would say."

So what is it that attracts Erin to the work?

"It's just because you don't see these things and get up close and personal if you're just going to other zoos," she explains.

"You don't get the benefits of seeing them, of the enrichment, seeing their behaviours and the characters of the animals.

"It's been a learning curve, but every part of it is enjoyable."

Head keeper Peter Litherland said: "I get the satisfaction of getting someone who is quite often 16 or 17 years old, and see them over two years blossom.

"They come in as shy teenagers, and leave - or get jobs here occasionally - a bit more older and a bit more wiser, hopefully."

The head keeper is in the process of appointing three new apprentices for the zoo, after sifting through scores of applications.

'Dangerous'

But he says not everyone is cut out for life on the other side of compounds and cages: "We have to look for people who can grow up quickly, because you are dealing with animals - you are dealing with a life.

"We're also dealing with what are potentially dangerous animals.

"You don't want people who are messing about or playing the fool around a tiger. It only takes a little slip to put your fingers through the bars and then you'll end up with no fingers.

"I don't think there's anything more dangerous than 12 rampaging chimpanzees - we don't want to get into that situation.

"So we do vet people, to make sure that they are good enough to handle the stresses and strains of working with dangerous animals."

As the new apprentices look forward to a very challenging 2009, it also means that Erin's time at the zoo is coming to an end.

"I'm not looking forward to leaving," she said.

"Hopefully I can carry on at a different zoo. I'll carry on applying for other zoos and getting interviews.

"I can't see myself being in an office or being behind a till - or anything else."

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