Danielle Farah – BSc (Hons) Animal Behaviour and Welfare graduate

Current employer: Bournemouth Oceanarium

Current job title: Head Bird Keeper

Current location: Bournemouth

“The two most exciting parts of my career to date have been working in South Africa rehabilitating wild African seabirds and working in Dubai with King and Gentoo penguins. These two experiences are definitely at the top of the excitement list."

Tell us about your career path since graduation.

My career path since graduation has been a bit busy. After I finished my final exams I returned to SANCCOB in South Africa where I did my placement year, to help facilitate the new African penguin chick rearing unit. I stayed there for three months, then came back to the UK for graduation. After that I worked in two local restaurants to earn some money while looking for animal jobs. Three months later I got a job as a trainee Animal Keeper at Marwell Zoo in Winchester (maternity cover). I was there for a year and two months in the end. Initially, the sections we worked on were mostly mixed species, but after working there for three months the sections changed to taxonomic and I was transferred to the birds section to finish my maternity cover. After that I got a permanent position on the primates and small mammals section, and after a while I was being trained once a week with carnivores so I could help out if they needed it.

Whilst I was at Marwell, the eighth International Penguin Congress took place in Bristol – this only happens every three years and takes place in a different country each time. Thankfully, this time it was in England and I could attend. This is where I met my next employer, the Curator of Penguins at Ski Dubai. Five months later I was working in Dubai as a Penguin Trainer with King and Gentoo penguins. This was one of the best experiences of my life, and I still miss it now. The team and the penguins were awesome. After a year and four months of working there I saw an advertisement for the job that I am currently working now, Head Penguin Keeper at Bournemouth Aquarium. I wasn’t particularly looking to leave Ski Dubai but I always think it is good to keep an eye out for potential opportunities. Bournemouth Oceanarium had built a brand new penguin exhibit after spending five years planning it. After contacting the curator I discovered that they were only looking to employ one person to facilitate this. For me, it was a blank canvas, and still is in many ways. I have been working here with a colony of Humboldt penguins since July 2014.

Has your career path changed since graduation?

My career since graduation has been mostly working with animals, particularly penguins, whether it is keeping, rehabilitation, or training. It has not changed in the sense of starting a completely different line of work.

What is the most difficult thing which you have faced in your career?

The money in our line of work isn’t always great, but I knew this beforehand so thankfully it hasn’t come as a shock. In fact, I would do it exactly the same all over again. I have moved around quite a lot and the hardest part for me has been saying goodbye to all the amazing people and animals.

What is the best, most exciting or fun thing that you have done in your career?

The two most exciting parts of my career to date have been working in South Africa rehabilitating wild African seabirds and working in Dubai with King and Gentoo penguins. These two experiences are definitely at the top of the excitement list. Each experience has presented me with new challenges, new cultures, meaningful work, amazing animals, and lots of incredible people.

What, if anything, would you do differently if you could?

I wish that I had put more of an effort into saving money. Generally, money is not exceptional in our chosen career paths, especially in the beginning. Save what you can ready for a rainy day, as it comes in very useful. You never know what adventure awaits you.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to get in to the same line of work?

It can be quite difficult to get an animal related occupation, especially in the beginning. Volunteer in as many places as possible while you have the opportunity – this always shows well to potential employers and means that you are regarded much higher than someone who has the same qualifications as you but with no practical experience.

Generally, working with animals can be quite messy. Try to figure out what you like doing the most – that is easier said than done, though. I still haven’t discovered that myself, but I have enjoyed every challenge so far. Never give up, even if you have to start in a lower position than you think you deserve. Most importantly, be willing to get dirty.

How did studying at Plymouth help you?

Studying at Plymouth has helped me in a number of ways. The location was great for volunteering in different places; Paignton and Dartmoor Zoo are relatively close, the National Marine Aquarium (biggest aquarium in the UK) is within walking distance from the University campus, and there are a couple of farms around. All of the lecturers were very helpful, encouraging, and full of advice.
The second year was great: the trip to Amsterdam to visit different zoos was fun and very stimulating, particularly if you have an interest in zoos and conservation. In the second year I also chose ‘work based learning’ as one of my modules. You get to find a facility to volunteer at for a certain number of hours, and do a project while you are there. I went to Totnes Rare Breeds Farm and continued to volunteer there for approximately nine months as an Owl Handler, handling many different owl species and training one of their Barn owls to fly for displays.

One of the best aspects of studying at Plymouth was the fact that you can do a placement year as part of your degree. When you do a placement project it is a great opportunity to collect data for your dissertation, and you are assisted financially rather having to fund everything yourself – it is a great help. I went to South Africa for seven months and worked at a seabird rehabilitation centre. Words cannot describe how much I learnt and how much practical experience I gained. At one point, during my time there, around five hundred African penguin chicks were brought to the centre for rehabilitation. That was a lot of hand rearing. One of the lecturers, Dr Sarah Collins, even came to visit to see how everything was going. Here, I also collected and sorted data for my dissertation, and with Sarah’s help, the findings of the research have now been published in a scientific journal.

How has a degree from Plymouth University influenced your career?

Studying at Plymouth has influenced my career in a few ways. Whilst studying the theory behind keeping our animals, their behaviours, etcetera, putting it into practice and experiencing it for yourself is extremely important. John Eddison I think influenced my appreciation for good zoos, and how we can continuously look for ways to improve the lives of the animals we keep. Not all zoos are good zoos. So now that I am working in this community, I am able to appreciate that knowledge more and make sure that I always understand the reasons behind why certain procedures are carried out in certain ways. The first stepping stone in building my confidence in public speaking probably started when giving presentations and speaking to potential/current students at Open Days. I have done a lot since then but now I am able to educate lots of people who walk through the doors without hesitation.

Would you recommend undertaking a course with Plymouth University, and why?

I would definitely recommend studying at Plymouth University. The University is great, the lecturers are always helpful, and there is always a lot to see and do in and around Plymouth. I had a great four years.