Zoo Keeper — Jo Downey

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You can tell Jo Downey is into the environment. Every window of the pleasant country cottage she lives in allows views of green fern-filled valleys or towering gum trees. It's a calm, sunny winter's day in the Dandenongs in Victoria, and the peace and tranquility are obvious.

'I always loved geography', says Jo. 'I liked it at school, and more and more, I was attracted to the physical side of our world. Things like the weather, mountains, maps, coasts, vegetative systems, and I suppose the lifestyle that is offered by an interest in natural systems.

'I went to university and studied Geography and Zoology in a Bachelor of Science. I was interested in being a teacher and the subject combination appealed to me. We had lots of field trips and it gave a practical feel to the course'.

Realms of the Russian Bear, a stunning BBC video, has been running silently on the television as we talk. All round the house are photos of animals. Pride of place in this happy home goes to 'Ridge', a statuesque Rhodesian Ridge hunting dog, and an affectionate cat with a missing leg.

'I did a Diploma of Education, but even before I'd finished, I felt the hassles of teaching (discipline, correcting and so on) weren't for me. I moved into veterinary nursing for three years and that worked well. It was fun working with the animals.

'During this time, I tried repeatedly to obtain work with the Melbourne Zoo. Finally, I was offered a three-month contract job. It led to seven years' continuous work there! It's amazing how, if you are interested, the opportunities emerge. I must admit, it was a bit of a love job—the pay wasn't great and it took years to move round enough to feel I was in the right job.

'For the first three years, I worked in the primates section (monkeys and gorillas). The work procedures were pretty strict, and the glamour was largely in the eyes of the visitors. I had little contact with the animals. However, the people I worked with had similar interests, and it was fun to be working with them.

'I went on some conferences with the Australian Association of Zoo Keepers, which was stimulating. However, I was glad when I transferred to the reptiles section. I was the only female keeper in the section at that stage (1995). There was more flexibility in the work environment at reptiles. I had more contact with school groups and more field trips, particularly to building sites to do conservation pick-ups of fauna. Tasks were interesting and varied—much more stimulating than primates. I did several research and management studies of local species and felt more a part of the conservation and environment scene.

'As things progressed, I moved to the education section as a senior zookeeper to the animals used there. This was really good. The animals were more accessible to the public and the whole zoo and work experience was closer to what I believed in.

'In 1998, I had an opportunity to 'zoo exchange' with a Canadian zoo, so I arranged leave without pay to do that.

'That was fun. I was travelling, seeing new places and environments, and learning about new species. I think that trip taught me how good a lifestyle we have in Australia. With a little deliberation, I decided to rejoin the zoo. Now I am a zookeeper at the Healesville Sanctuary.

'I feel very lucky to be working with animals, the environment, the public and the school children who visit us. There are many opportunities and again, my colleagues share my enthusiasm for nature.

My Geography studies suited me well, but I suspect that these days Geography isn't pushed to kids as much. However, it does give you a great understanding of our environment. We need to be more aware of the consequences of people's impact on the world'.