The planet's coolest jobs: panda keeper

Panda keeper Darren in Edinburgh Zoo
Darren McGarry, Edinburgh Zoo's panda keeper © Edinburgh Zoo

Welcome to the very first post in our brand new blog series: the planet's coolest jobs! In this series we'll be taking a look at some of the most inspiring and unusual jobs on the planet, and meeting the people behind them.

This month we caught up with panda keeper Darren McGarry, who works as Head of Living Collections at Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland. He has the awesome task of looking after the zoo's two pandas, Yuang Guang and Tian Tian, as well as loads of other incredible animals. Want to find out what makes pandas so funny, which aeroplane class koalas like to travel in, and how to go about working in a zoo yourself one day? Read on...

Did you always want to work at a zoo?

Like most kids, I loved animals. I liked the idea of becoming a vet, but not the idea of studying for all those years. I got a job in the zoo at the age of 16, but in another life I would probably have gone into the theatre because I’m very keen on performing arts. Everything worked out well though, because we perform a pantomime in the zoo every year – and I direct it too. This year we’ll be performing Snow White and the Seven Armadillos!

Tian Tian, one of the pandas panda keeper Darren looks after at Edinburgh Zoo
Tian Tian the panda is one of two pandas at Edinburgh Zoo © Edinburgh Zoo

Tell us the coolest thing about your job

The coolest thing about my job is that even if I’m having a rubbish day, I can visit the pandas. I have a house with my job, so I’m in the zoo all the time! Another cool thing is that we make a difference in our jobs here at Edinburgh Zoo. We have actually reintroduced animals back into their natural habitats, which is great.

Take us through a typical day at work for you

The first thing I do every morning is check emails, and then I often attend meetings. I spend a lot of time looking after and educating visitors about the animals we have at the zoo. Some days I’ll check on animals having veterinary treatment, like a hippo with a toothache for example! At the end of each day, I make sure all the keepers have given in their key and walkie talkie, and that all the animals are settled for the night.

How do pandas travel?

Obviously pandas can’t go on passenger flights (unlike koalas, who travel first class), so when we transported them from China, they had their very own plane called the Panda Express. It only contained two panda crates and four seats, so we could check on them every couple of hours. We brought a supply of bamboo to feed the pandas too. When we arrived in Edinburgh we were met by the Scottish First Minister, bagpipers and thousands of spectators. It was an amazing experience to be on a plane with the first two pandas coming to the UK.

What is your favourite thing about pandas?

Pandas are AMAZING. When I was younger I thought I’d never get to see a panda, because there are very few of them. Now I go and see them regularly and feed them bamboo – they’re just so charismatic. Our male panda Yang Guang has a fabulous character. He comes and sits beside you in the enclosure.

Yuang Guang is Darren the panda keeper's favourite
Yuang Guang is Darren's favourite panda © Edinburgh Zoo

Do you have a favourite panda?

Yuang Guang. His name means ‘sunshine’, and our female, Tian Tian, means ‘sweet’. I like Yuang Guang because he’s a big, robust male panda, but is laid-back and responds when you call him. We can ask him to open his mouth so we can check his teeth, and he’ll happily do that to get a little edible reward. He’s always been a favourite of mine.

What is the funniest experience you’ve had as a panda keeper?

Well, pandas are a bit crazy. Pandas hardly do anything when people are present, but as soon as they're alone they play around on a ball and do acrobatics. They’ll have their ‘mad half hour’ like a cat or a dog does, swinging, running around and trying to climb up trees. I find that hilarious!

What is your best advice for someone who dreams of becoming a zookeeper?

Do what I did, and try to get work experience in the industry. Contact your local zoo, wildlife centre, farm, kennels or stables and ask if they have placements. There are five main rules of animal care to keep in mind: the right food and water, the right environment, good healthcare, allowing animals to express normal behaviours, and preventing fear and distress. That's a great place to start!

Wild about wildlife? Learn more about the world's coolest creatures with our new title The Animal Book.

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