Working With Animals and Children … And Loving It

Belfast Zoo is more popular than ever – recording its highest visitor figures in 74 years. Geraldine Murphy tells Jane Bell why a modern zoo has an important education role Geraldine Murphy, Education Officer, Belfast ZooHow many people visit the zoo?

Last year our visitor numbers were the highest ever since the Zoo opened in 1934. We had over 295,000 visitors, breaking a 74-year record.

The education service is involved with 35,000 children each year. This includes all education visits and outreach programmes.

The zoo has an education role from primary school children to senior citizens. How does that work in practice?

We use a small team of six animals in our talks. These include an African Pygmy hedgehog, stick insect, Chilean Rose tarantula, Whites Tree frog, African land snail and a Royal Python snake.

Animals are transported in their own individual box and kept warm using heat mats. The pupils and adults are encouraged to engage with the animals and to ask us lots of questions.

With immigration and many foreign visitors to Northern Ireland, do you now provide literature in different languages?

In the zoo we offer self-guided trails in French and Irish. We started with French after discussion with a French teacher from Little Flowers Secondary School who thought this would help pupils. We were then approached by Gael Lynn, an organisation for the promotion and development of Irish language, who asked if we would offer a self-guided trail in Irish.

To encourage visitors from other communities we also place some of our ads in the Polish magazine, Glosik. As an education officer it’s part of my job to provide information around the zoo, including the availability of different languages.

The zoo is open all year round. What events do you run?

Summer events include music in the parks, a parent and toddler coffee morning, birds of prey display, Spooks teddy bear picnic, reptiles display, family fun days, summer madness and our animal conservation week.

This year our fundraising activities focus on the frog: 165 species of amphibian are already believed to be extinct and 500 species are currently under threat of extinction. For events information visit or email [email protected]

Baby animals are always a big attraction. What have been some of the recent successful births?

Our most recent births have been a Gentoo penguin, three Californian sea lions, three Ring Tailed lemurs, a Black and White Colobus monkey, two Sitatunga, two Pied Tamarin, a Sifaki, three Agouti and two Barbary lions. Arrivals at the zoo include Rodrigues bats and a two-toed sloth for our new Rainforest exhibit.

Critics complain that a zoo is an anachronism when we can learn about animals through travel and the internet. How would you sum up the role of the modern zoo in education terms?

The education service delivers the highest quality environmental education, training and research. It is also our responsibility to provide information that will educate the public.

Through our outreach programmes we educate all ages, from nursery to nursing homes. It is important to make people aware of the plight of many animals.

The zoo helps to save animals from extinction through the many international breeding programmes we take part in. Our education helps increase the social responsibility and understanding of future generations on the ups and downs of animal populations.

Do schools ‘adopt’ or sponsor animals?

The animal adoption scheme is very popular with schools and youth groups. The funds raised through the adoption scheme help us care for our animals.

Many of these groups also study topics such as animals in danger and have raised funds to support the zoo in its conservational efforts.

Easter and Halloween are big dates for kids. Are there any special themed events?

During Easter we have the Easter extravaganza. This includes taking part in an egg roll and visiting your favourite animal during feeding time. You can also get involved with street entertainers and our animal characters.

At Halloween we have Spooky week and Boo at the Zoo. There are bat talks, a fancy dress competition, reptile display, face painting, best carved pumpkin and spooky story telling.

Do you remember visiting Belfast Zoo as a child? What have been the big changes since then?

I remember coming to the zoo lots as I lived so close by. The animals were in smaller enclosures in the old zoo site, whereas today they have bigger enclosures which are more like their natural habitats. There’s also a wider range of animals now and a larger number of successful births. The zoo also gets more popular every year as visitor numbers grow.

What is your working background?

I am a qualified teacher and can teach in both primary and secondary schools. I taught in London for five years in two different primary schools. On my return I took a year out to see if I would enjoy working with animals.

I worked in a vet practice for a year and became a Friend of Belfast Zoo. During this time I completed several animal-based courses. When this job came up it involved working with both animals and children. According to my family and friends it’s my ideal job.

What’s a typical working dayfor you?

As anyone who works with animals or children will tell you, no two days are the same. I start my day by returning phone calls and e- mails. I then feed the animals that we use in the education service and get them ready for the day ahead.

I spend the majority of my day teaching children aged three to eighteen. The last part of my day will be spent organising events, cleaning and caring for my animals and doing educational animal research.

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