What a safari park taught me about meaningful work

Photo credit: Glen Bowman https://www.flickr.com/photos/glenbowman/

‘Whatever you do, don’t look the monkeys in the eye,’ my work mate shouted to me as I stood among hundreds of primates at breakfast time, ‘it’s a sign of aggression!’ I took a deep breath, looked up to the sky and emptied the barrel of fruit as quickly as I could, flinging it in all directions, oblivious of where it was landing or what the monkeys thought of this strange human behaviour! I did wonder whether the advice given to me was part of some prank meted out to fresh-faced youngsters like me, but I took no chances and continued nervously serving up their morning feed!

The monkeys lived in a large hilly field covered in wild grass, dotted with trees, chopped up logs and surrounded by a very high fence. A narrow track weaved its way gently through the wild Jurassic Park-like landscape. The entrance and exit to their enclosure were side by side and fitted with cattle grids that stopped them from escaping. However, we knew from the visitors’ torn vinyl roofs, damaged wiper blades and broken wing mirrors that the monkeys liked to play on the cars, which meant there was a theoretical risk that one of them could ride over the cattle grid and on to their freedom. Therefore, my job was to guard the exit gates and make sure this wouldn’t happen. There was an African style wooden hut that I could shelter in, and I used to listen to the football or to music on an old army style radio that my parents bought for me one Christmas.  But the days were still incredibly tedious and in two years, I never saw a single monkey try to escape. Not one moment of excitement. Not one single incident.

But things got even worse on bank holidays, when it was so busy that we opened a second entrance in another part of the park to help the traffic flow more smoothly.  This second gate had no cattle grid, and perhaps you can guess what my role was on these exciting family weekends! Yes, it was to stay by the gate, making sure no camels, giraffes or zebras tried to escape. Bank holidays in England can often be rainy affairs, and as well as no cattle grid, there was no African style hut. I remember sat in the middle of the field surrounded by animals, drenched by the relentless wind and rain, being peered at by the dumbfounded tourists who seemed more fascinated by me than by the African animals whom they had paid to see!

Let’s now move to another important aspect of my work – dealing with the muck. Now I’m sure it will not surprise you to read that the elephants and rhinos produce a lot of it! And every morning we let them out of their shed, where they spent the nights, so that the most physically demanding part of my job could begin. The tractor driver would reverse his large trailer up to the entrance and I would begin shoveling the dung, wet with the gallons of urine mixed in with it, until the trailer was heaped up high. I would then hose down and sweep the concrete floor, take a pitch fork and ride with the tractor to a nearby field where I spread the steaming load as far as my strength allowed.

I did this for 2 years, far longer than I intended, and I sometimes wonder what it was about this job that led me to give up my weekends and holidays for a low-paid job like this. And what was it about this boring job that made me feel compelled to write about it decades later? Well, if you’ve ever held a lamb in your arms whilst a colleague administers the antibiotics, watched an elk give birth, ready to help if needed, or been surrounded by deer, gently nudging you as you empty a bag of food into their trough, then you will know the answer. I was looking after the most remarkable animals I had ever seen, who through no fault of their own, were living in captivity and completely relied on us for their survival. I felt a strong sense of responsibility for their well-being, although the tigers were the one animal I was not so keen on. Every night, I would help put them back in their pen where they would rest until the next morning. When one of these beasts jumps at you, with its deafening roar, mouth wide open, light reflecting from its teeth in the darkened hut, then a fine wire fence is not enough to stop you from jumping out of your skin! And jump out of my skin I did, regularly, and after recovering, I would go back out into the daylight, open up the gates to their field and encourage the cattle in to graze on the long grass. I loved these brown wooly animals, but I asked myself the same question every night, ‘I did get ALL the tigers in, didn’t I?’

It’s strange that this was both the worst and the best job I’ve ever had. It made me wonder how we can make dull jobs more appealing.

I think the most important thing I learned from this was that the variety of work I did made the tedious afternoons more bearable. Just an hour working with the wolves, lions or rhinos compensated for 6 hours of being bored stiff in the middle of a rain-drenched field!

The other important aspect to this job was that I felt very close to those wonderful creatures and would have done anything to help them. My job, and hence my life, had a bigger purpose that I could easily connect with.

None of this is so easy in the corporate world where we can find ourselves operating a long way from where our companies bring direct benefits to their customers.

Whilst I’m lucky enough to be working for a great company right now, it seems we can’t always rely on our employers to provide that sense of purpose in our lives.

This means we often need to take personal responsibility for fulfilling this need, whether it be at work, in the family, in the community or in the wider world. It could be through small acts of kindness or more demanding endeavours such as volunteer work for a charity. One thing is for sure, there is plenty for us to do and we can all make a difference.

I would love to hear your thoughts about this.

Thank you for reading.

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