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Belfast Zoo manager Alyn Cairns: 'Who in their office environment can say they have a herd of giraffes or family of gorillas?'

By Cate McCurry

The role of Belfast Zoo manager is a labour of love for Alyn Cairns (47), who's worked with animals for most of his life. He talks about his job, the recent issues that the zoo has faced and the exciting plans he has for it.

Q. When did you start working for Belfast Zoo and how did it come about?

A. I started working for Belfast Zoo in 1988 as a trainee zoo keeper. I have since worked up the ranks to now being a zoo manager.

I have always had a passion for wildlife and that's the only thing I have ever wanted to do since leaving school and, even though I had the relevant qualifications, one of the things you have to have is animal experience.

I worked in lots of animal industries, including veterinary surgeries, pet shops and farms. And one thing I always did, which I still do, is rescue wildlife. I didn't grow up in a farming background, but I always had a passion for wildlife through school and joined things like the young farmers' club and wildlife club.

My family has always been surrounded by pets, especially exotic animals and that was the lead into the zoo.

I think at the time I pestered the zoo manager, he probably felt sorry for me and thought he had to give me a job because I really wanted to work here.

At that time in the 1980s, the zoo was going through some redevelopment and I thought I wanted to be a part of that.

Animals were being relocated from the old Bellevue site and I wanted to be a part of that and I just kept applying and luckily I got a job.

More: Belfast Zoo confident of accreditation after work to tackle concerns

Q. What animals have you rescued and what pets do you have?

A. This year alone, I rescued two swans and about five hedgehogs and various little birds - even with the busy zoo manager role, I have a passion for rescuing wildlife.

At home I have a mini zoo. I have two owls called Ash and Dash. I have a parrot called Smoky and about 40 small finches, various types that anyone can buy from pet shops. We have a couple of aquariums as well.

Thankfully, I have a wonderful family who know that I am animal-mad and part of me comes with animals.

I don't have children but I have a lot of nieces and nephews and some of them are following in my footsteps and looking at animal careers. They are used to coming to my house and finding all sorts there.

In the past I have had to hand-rear animals from the zoo so I have had a gorilla at home and a tiger cub and various monkeys.

They never know what to expect, particularly after seeing an eight-month-old gorilla wearing a nappy at my home.

Q. Do you find that your job is rewarding?

A. I love the zoo and have a passion for animals. The zoo is as much about people as it is about animals.

We have about 50 people who work at the zoo, we are also part of Belfast City Council and the council h as given me this great opportunity.

We work with a different range of people in the zoo and we have just received our world host attraction recognition.

We are really proud of the staff, though I have to say working with animals is the best thing, who else in their office environment has a herd of giraffes or who else can visit our family of gorillas?

Q. Can you tell me more about the animals you have at the zoo and their background?

A. There isn't any animal in the zoo who hasn't come to us with some sort of animal welfare issue.

Our zookeeping staff have been fantastic with our gorilla group, particularly the male gorilla who was found abandoned at the gate of Lisbon Zoo after he had been part of a travelling circus.

When he came to us he had a lot of behavioural problems, he had been kept in a cardboard box so he had a lot of issues and the staff worked tirelessly to introduce him to the group.

Now he is a fully-grown silverback gorilla of 500lb and three babies have followed. When I look at that group and see the work that the keeping staff have put in to it, it is fantastic. That's one of many examples where the zoo is crucial for welfare.

We have elephants who have come from performing backgrounds.

For me one of the biggest achievements for the zoo was when we released our red squirrels because they are really under pressure due to the grey squirrels from America. The red squirrel cannot compete against them.

There are many roles we have at the zoo. It's a wonderful place to work and while there are the usual dull things to do in an office like endless emails and meetings, the other side is the fantastic work we do.

Q. What are the biggest achievements of the zoo?

A. The zoo has so many roles and animal welfare is one of them, as is our native species and education. Our education officers see 25,000 young people and adults for learning.

Something I also learned is that there is not a lot of work experience for people who want to have a career with animals and the zoo has opened its gates to that. We have had 150 students get placements at the zoo and we hope to increase that.

I am very much about having the zoo involved in the community and one initiative we have is opening our doors to the Northern Ireland Hospice and other charities, and inviting families here free of charge so they can take part in different activities.

Children who are seriously ill can get close to the giraffes and lemurs and when I see children who have huge health problems with a massive smile on their face interacting with the animals, it's fantastic.

Our biggest role is helping to combat the threat that many of our animals face and for people who think that it's not real, it very much is.

We are part of a local European and global breeding programme. It's a bit like a big dating agency and it involves animals that are endangered or extinct in the wild, so we are really proud of that role we play.

We are also involved in creating conservation corridors so that animals can get from one area to another, but that takes a lot of work and finance. We shouldn't take animals for granted because no animal is really safe. Our human population is going up so we have to have safety nets for our animals.

Q. What does your daily routine involve?

A. In the mornings I would have a quick check around the zoo and engage with staff through various meetings.

We have meetings with the front of house team to the gardens and maintenance teams. It's a combination of meetings and dealing with issues on site.

It's a really diverse job and I'm not afraid to get hands-on as well.

It is also up to me to make sure the zoo is presented in the right way and making sure it is safe.

It's about running a huge zoological collection.

I've been in the zoo manager role since November last year so it's still pretty new to me. I oversee about 21 zoo keepers, three senior keepers and three curators.

It's been an interesting and challenging time. We have a wonderful team who are very passionate people. There are challenges ahead, but I have no worry that our team can't meet those challenges."

Q. How have you seen the zoo evolve over the years?

A. It has been a journey to see our animals moved from the old-style enclosures to A-class enclosures. It is still one of the best zoos in Europe.

We have enclosures which provide enrichment for the animals, they have grass and water, much more natural to what they would find in the wild.

The public's perception to the zoo has changed because there are so many opportunities to watch wildlife on TV.

There are also more opportunities for the public to go and see animals in the wild.

The public is very endearing of the zoo and we are really pleased at the moment because, like everywhere in Northern Ireland, the tourism section is growing. I think the public have come along with us on our journey.

Q. How does the zoo stay relevant with the public and tourism?

A. We make sure that we have a diverse collection of animals and ensure that we fulfil our conservation role.

We also want to continue to allow the public to get close to our animals and that's through our 'keeper for a day' and 'animal experience' initiatives.

We would probably need to look at introducing a zoo app, though unfortunately our location on the side of hill causes some problems with connectivity.

People also want to talk to staff so we've keeper talks and 'meet and greets' so the public can listen to the animals' stories. 
We have an academy coming, which is for children, where they can come and do something similar to a zoo academy, as well as explorers days where children spend the day at the zoo and do lots of activities. Our challenge is to be more open and interactive.

Q. What is your favourite animal and why?

A. It has to be elephants - I've always had a passion for elephants. They are sensitive and intelligent. We still have a lot more to understand and learn about these animals.

I love that the zoo is a rescue home for elephants. We use protective contact for animals and training is done through a protective barrier, meaning there's no force brought on the elephants. I'm very proud of what we have achieved with our elephants. For the size of them they can be very sensitive, they have 100,000 muscles and tendons in their trunks and to see them pick up one little sunflower seed from the ground shows how tentative they can be.

The relationships they build up with each other, and even their keepers, is great. It fills me full of inspiration.

Q. The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) has raised some issues over the conditions of the zoo - how has the zoo addressed these concerns?

A. First off, the zoo asked for that inspection. One of the concerns was leadership and they have since appointed me as manager and that was the most major thing.

There were minor issues and we have either solved those or are in the process of solving them because some of them involved the budget.

Our zoo staff are doing what they always do and that's getting on with the job and looking after our animals.

For us we always have animal care and welfare at the forefront.

We have to go by the law and if we are told that a building needs rewired then we have to take the animals out to do that. They were in temporary accommodation which we have had to use.

Q. What are your ambitions for the zoo?

A. I want it to grow and continue with the work it does for the community and tourism.

I want us to look at increasing the breeding programmes we are involved in and the native species programme.

I want people to engage and get closer to the animals. We want to submerge people in the animal world to have a better understanding of them as well as creating areas of habitats or exhibits where multiple species exist. The challenge is hopefully we can bring in more development to make it that bit more exciting."

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