My Career: I couldn’t be happier at Fota

 Jess Leahy, Education Assistant at Fota Wildlife Park tells us about her career
My Career: I couldn’t be happier at Fota
Jess Leahy Education Assistant Fota Wildlife Park Pic Darragh Kane

Name: Jess Leahy.

Age: 32.

Lives: Midleton.

Job title: Education Assistant at Fota Wildlife Park.

Salary bracket: Enough to pay the bills!

Education background: I went to primary school in Rushbrooke, Cobh, and secondary school in St Aloysius, Carrigtwohill. I studied zoology in UCC, and went on to pursue a Masters degree in marine biology. By a stroke of luck, after I finished my M.Sc., the Education Centre in Fota were looking for staff, so I applied, and I couldn’t be happier that I ended up here.

Hobbies: I read a lot, and am also interested in photography, particularly wildlife and nature photography.

Describe your job in five words: Varied, rewarding, exciting, challenging, and fun!

Describe yourself in five words: Environmentalist, cook, reader, teacher and friend.

Personality needed for this kind of work? You definitely need to be confident talking in front of large groups (we could have up to 300 people at a cheetah feeding in the summer!), you need to be friendly and enthusiastic, and have oodles of patience!

How long are you doing this job? I have been working in the park for around six years now. I was originally supposed to be here for a summer contract, but I loved it so much that I refused to leave!

How did you get this job? I had wanted to work in Fota since I was very young, having grown up close to the park, and being a frequent visitor. I actually did my Transition Year work experience in Fota, and that made me even more sure that this was where I wanted to be.

I was really lucky, in that I landed my dream job almost straight out of college. I had originally envisaged myself working directly with the animals here, but when I got the job in the Education Centre however, I realised pretty quickly that this was the place for me. As a pretty shy child, the idea of talking in front of people terrified me, but as an adult, there’s nothing I enjoy more than having a big audience listening to me talk about the things I’m passionate about — science, wildlife and conservation.

Do you need particular qualifications or experience? For a job in the Education Centre, a degree in a biological science (zoology, ecology, biology etc.) was required.

Describe a day at work: No two days are the same here, but on an average day at this time of the year, we are mostly dealing with secondary school students — teaching ecology, CSPE, or teambuilding.

When we arrive in the office, the team get together and discuss the plan for the day. On an ecology day, I will often have a class for the morning, taking secondary school students through the ecology course, looking at bio-diversity, food chains, and human impacts on the environment.

After lunch, we head out to our woodland, where we teach them how to use different pieces of scientific equipment, including pooters, sweep nets, and pitfall traps, to sample invertebrates. We also use quadrats to investigate the plant life in the area. The afternoon is then spent cleaning equipment and getting ready for the following day.

On any given day during the summer, I could be giving a talk about some of Fota’s animals to our visitors, entertaining primary school children on their school tour, or helping to plan events such as our Mad Scientist Weekend.

I’m also part of the Animal Patrol team, responsible for overseeing the safety of the free roaming species in the park as well as engaging with members of the public in relation to both the park’s objectives and conservation initiatives.

I love the fact that there is so much variety in my job!

How many hours do you work a week? It varies, but anything up to 37.5 hours a week.

What do you wear to work? We have a uniform, shirt, jumper and hat, along with suitable outdoor trousers and boots. A decent raincoat is also pretty much mandatory!

Is your job stressful?: It certainly has its moments, but I wouldn’t describe my job as particularly stressful. The positive moments definitely outweigh any stressful ones!

Do you work with others or on your own? A bit of both! I work as part of a brilliant education team, but working in a 100 acre park, I often don’t see much of them during the day!

When do you plan to retire or give up working? Not for a long time yet, I hope!

Best bits: There’s so much that I love about my job — there’s always something interesting going on and it’s impossible to get bored! In the years I’ve been here, we have celebrated the park’s 30th birthday, opened the new Asian Sanctuary, seen new-born animals of all kinds, and witnessed a substantial increase in the number of students availing of our education services!

It is great to get to talk to people about amazing species such as monkeys, rhinos, giraffes, and tigers. The Sumatran tiger is a critically endangered species, but many people are not aware of the little things that they can do to help, such as avoiding products originating from unsustainable origins, so it is great to be involved in getting important conservation messages like that out there.

By far my favourite thing, though, is when students inform you that you have inspired them to make more environmentally friendly changes in their day to day lifestyles! Those are the days that I leave work with the recognition that my role can help to engender a respect for nature!

Worst bits: Having to be outdoors almost all the time, in any weather! Though, as we always say to our students — ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing!’

Advice to those who want your job? Go for it! Study science, and get as much experience as you can!

Getting a job in a wildlife park or a zoo can be competitive, because it’s a great place to work, but it’s worth the effort!

Summer Camps are now opening for booking at Fota Wildlife Park’s Education Complex —running from July 15 to 19 and July 22 to 26 with every day at camp offering a new activity such as Safari Trails, Animal Sport and Arts and Crafts. For more information and to book email education@fotawildlife.ie

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