Welcoming Sonia to Woburn, the new Head of Reserves
A huge welcome to Sonia
Sonia Freeman has joined Woburn Safari Park as the new Head of Reserves. Her main responsibility is to oversee the running of Northern Plains, the Savannah Grasslands, Giraffe Junction and the African Forest areas of the Road Safari. The animals looked after by Sonia and her dedicated keeper team include Rothschild's giraffe, barbary macaques, Southern white rhino, various antelope species and many more.
We thought it best that Sonia tells you a bit more about herself and why this isn't her first time working at Woburn...
- Why did you decide to become an animal keeper?
It’s the absolute ideal job if you love animals. My passion for animals is in my blood as my grandparents worked at Woburn Safari Park when I was a kid and my mum and dad still work here today! It’s perfect if you’d rather be outside come rain or shine, rather than behind a desk. I also really enjoy the social element to the job, working with animals and my colleagues brings great rewards.
- What does a typical day look like?
No two days are the same and its rarely what you expect. On any typical morning I could plan to get through a pile of paperwork or organise an animal move but find myself torn away by pressing events. That could be anything from an animal that needs to see the vet or a female that’s pregnant to having to step in and help my team with the animals. Whether that be going on patrol and looking after the animals or feeding and mucking out.
- What challenges do you face?
The job of a keeper is varied, and challenges do arise when you’re looking after animals. From feeding and sheltering them during extreme weather and animals not getting on with each other to providing opportunities for enrichment, dealing with new births and making sure that visitors follow the rules and stay safe. It’s different everyday but I love it.
- Why is your role important?
It’s important because you’re on the front line when it comes to animal welfare and enrichment. My role means that I am responsible for all the animals in my section too. I also spend a lot of time mentoring and guiding my staff, passing on what I have learnt and helping to develop their skills.
- What’s the work/life balance like?
It’s a vocation but it is possible to find a good work-life balance. As the animals need 24/7 care it’s not your typical 9-5 job, but I knew this when I started out. I am very lucky to have understanding family and friends who know I love what I do. You learn how to work around things to make sure you have enough time for each other.
- What do you wish you knew before you started your career? Sometimes you can ache a fair bit if you’ve had a demanding day. I also didn’t anticipate the strength of the bond that’s created with the animals in my care.
- What’s been your happiest and saddest moment?
My happiest moments as an animal keeper have been when I helped animals come into this world. I have been at the birth of so many animals, but it never gets old or boring. My saddest moment was when I first left Woburn. I didn’t just leave such a beautiful place to work but I was also saying goodbye to family, friends and of course the animals. After 15 years away, I am delighted to be back.
- Do you have any role models?
As corny as it sounds my role model is my father, Chris Freeman, who is Woburn’s Animal Development Officer. I was very fortunate to have worked alongside dad for over 18 years before I left Woburn the first time. I am now back working with him again. He has been a mentor for me throughout my career and has taught me the ins and outs of working with large and dangerous exotic species. Even after I left Woburn to work at another wildlife park, I was always able to ring dad for advice.
- What opportunities are there for women?
It’s equal opportunities and it’s a great job regardless of gender. You see many women working with animals in zoo’s and safari parks today. At Woburn its about 50:50 men and women in head of department roles. When I first started working here in 1986, I was the youngest female head of section for what is now the ‘Animal Encounters’ section.
- What qualifications do I need to be an animal keeper?
You will usually need at least 5 GCSE's including English, Maths and Science, work experience with animals and a qualification in animal care or animal science. Sometimes you can get an apprenticeship. I have a Higher National Diploma in Farming, and Zoo Management, a Tractor and Trailers licence and a Forklift licence amongst other qualifications.
- How is working at Woburn different to other places you have worked?
The location and its history make Woburn stand out. It was the second drive-through safari park to open in the UK and the Duke of Bedford’s estate has over 100 years of animal conservation history. Woburn is set in vast and beautiful private parkland and we have one of the widest varieties of species living in the grassland reserves here.
- What’s the future for animal conservation?
My view is that organised conservation is going to be the only way we can save some species who are facing possible extinction due to climate change and the way man is taking over the planet. Despite the amazing efforts of conservationists, I fear that we will not be able to save them all. Some species have been lost completely and others such as the Northern White Rhino are down to the last few individuals. Although these rhinos were heavily guarded against poachers for their horns, the last remaining male died of old age earlier this year, which is a huge loss for the biodiversity of the region. It’s up to us to make sure that we change our behaviour and that there are healthy reserve populations of endangered species ex-situ.
- Do you have any advice for people wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Work experience or volunteering with animals is crucial. It’s also important to find out which area you want to work in whether that be with dogs, cats, horses, farming or exotic animals. The job of an animal keeper can be physically demanding, with long hours and weekend work but the rewards outweigh any negatives.