Jennie Roberts, Team Leader of Rainforest section, chats about her job, how David Attenborough is her hero, and why monkeys, sloths and tamanduas are her favourite animals.

About me
I’ve always been around animals and had an interest in the natural world. I grew up with cats, dogs and birds, but have also had rabbits and other small furries. I was lucky that the headmaster of my village school was enthusiastic about nature and would take us on inspiring and sometimes macabre walks, teaching us about the cycles of life.

A lot of that has stayed with me. I remember a project on endangered species and, sadly, the species we learned about are still in trouble now. That’s one of the reasons I’m still passionate about my work here at the zoo. One of my most treasured possessions is a copy of David Attenborough’s Trials of Life that my sister got signed for me when the TV series was first shown. He is a massive inspiration for many of us keepers and I will never forget meeting him when he came here to film.

Outside of work, I like to spend time with my friends and family. I still enjoy heading out for walks in the Essex countryside and coast. Indoors, I read, craft, and spoil my pets!

How I became a Rainforest Keeper
I knew I wanted to work with animals but was open-minded as I knew it was a difficult field to get into. Through school and college, I had part-time jobs at a kennels, then a specialist pet shop, and got experience at a tiny local zoo. There were fewer academic options for those of us wanting to work with animals when I started out, so I was investigating universities and keeping an eye out for jobs at the same time.

I came across an ad for a parrot and sealion keeper and applied. I didn’t think for a minute I’d get it, but I did! I was very much trained on the job and have gained animal management qualifications.

I knew I wanted to work with animals but was open-minded as I knew it was a difficult field to get into.

Since the early days, I’ve worked with many different animals on several sections. The only consistent thing in my career is that there has always been at least one bird species on my section. I am now the Team Leader for our Rainforest section and in July, I will have been at the zoo for 27 years, which I can’t quite believe myself!

Why I love my job
I love being around animals. The last couple of years or so have been tough for everyone but being able to care for the animals kept me going when I couldn’t see friends and family. I also get a lot of satisfaction from the knowledge that what we do here makes a difference through conservation and, hopefully, inspiring others to do their bit.

Things I like doing most as part of my job
I enjoy all the hands-on stuff (even most of the cleaning). We can work in with most of our animals, so they are always close by. Animal enrichment and training is a big part of what we do and, sadly, when our animals do get poorly, we are able to nurse them ourselves, which is very rewarding and sometimes heart-breaking.

What I enjoy the least
As a modern zoo, it is essential for us to cooperate with other zoos (not the bad bit), but that means increasing computer time and paperwork – yuck!

Also, if someone had told eight-year-old me I’d become a window cleaner as well as a zoo keeper, I would not have believed them.

Rainforests are amazing because…
They are the lungs of the planet! Trees and plants produce oxygen while drawing in and storing carbon. That is the opposite to animals and people who breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide; their by-product keeps us alive.

Rainforests are essential for reducing the carbon that us humans are releasing into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. Rainforests help to regulate the climate and prevent soil erosion too. We need the world’s rainforests for the survival of the planet.

My favourite animal in Colchester Zoo’s Rainforest I can’t have just one favourite – it’s impossible! All the small monkeys are such characters, and the sloths and tamandua are remarkable in terms of the adaptations to forest life.

The marmosets and tamarins definitely have ‘small monkey syndrome’ as they can be pretty highly strung and territorial over their patch of forest.

The titi monkeys are just really funny without really meaning to be; they are quite easily offended if you offer them the ‘wrong’ food or they don’t like the weather, or something else beyond our control.

The tamanduas are so curious and often playful. The youngest, Tomsk, is quite a handful as he tries to get us to play with him, with no understanding how much his two-inch claws hurt when he grabs your leg as he tries to climb up it like a tree.

Tamanduas have prehensile tails and are extremely strong as they tear into logs and termite nests to find food. The sloths are NOT lazy, but it is true they aren’t very active due to having a low metabolic rate. Before working with them, I had no idea how much personality they had. They need time to get to know their keepers – and also for us to learn their body language – but when they grow to trust you, it is really special.

If I wasn’t a Rainforest Keeper…
I’d probably be a pet sitter or therapist, maybe – something with animals, that’s for sure. I’m a home body, so I’d have to give in-situ work a miss, unless it was for somewhere like The Wildlife Trusts or the RSPB.

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