When 4FX director Julie King was gifted the opportunity to be a zookeeper for a day at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, she jumped at the chance, but had no idea how richly rewarding the experience would be. Here, she tells us what she’s learned about destressing from the day job, the benefits of stepping outside your comfort zone and the unexpected perks of picking up elephant poo!

I’ve always loved animals; we went on safari in the Masai Mara a few years ago and being out in the wild, sleeping to the sound of hippos in the river was unforgettable. I also grew up living 10 minutes from Whipsnade Zoo, so when my husband, Mike, bought me a ‘Keeper for a Day’ experience for Christmas, I knew it would stir up some happy memories.

In stark contrast to my average working day as creative director for marketing agency 4FX, when I arrived at the Zoo, I was handed a cuppa, bacon butty and my ‘Keeper for a Day’ t-shirt before being introduced to the other three ‘Keepers’ in my group. We got straight down to business, mucking out the rhinos, while they watched on in bemusement – nothing quite breaks down social barriers and facilitates team building like dealing with giant poo at 9am on an overcast morning!

We were rewarded for our efforts with cabbage leaves that we were invited to feed to the rhinos while our ‘boss’ for the day, Sian, provided a tutorial on these majestic creatures, touching on the vital conservation efforts around the world to save them.

Next up, we were introduced to the sloth bears, who had been rescued from a harrowing former life as dancing bears. We learnt about ‘puzzle feeding’ and hiding food for them to find and were so impressed by their ability to sniff out the treats, particularly Columbo, one of the savviest bears! From here, it was on to the elephant house, by which point our little team of keepers were laughing and joking. The ‘real’ keepers seemed very welcome of our help, rewarding us with the chance to feed the elephants – who knew picking up elephant poo could be quite so good for the soul and mental wellbeing!

With so many new experiences to soak up, the hours seemed to fly by and, before we knew it, it was time for a well-earned lunch before my favourite part of the day – meeting the hippos! Seeing them up close again took me straight back to my very happy time on safari listening to them play in the river, even if I had forgotten how loud they are (ask Alexa what sound a hippo makes!). Tapping into that nostalgia and being around nature again had an incredibly calming effect on me, clearing my head and alleviating stressful thoughts that had been building up.

My day drew to a close feeding the giraffes, which are surprisingly graceful, despite their powerful necks, and hanging out with the lemurs. Sitting with these little guys was the perfect end to a perfect day; getting up close and personal with them as they munched on the veg in our hands was captivating. I loved the way they neatly threw away the cauliflower and leeks, while making a beeline for the sweeter taste of carrots and butternut squash – there’s an animal after my own heart!

After such an incredible experience, I was sad to hang up my ‘Keeper for a Day’ t-shirt, but, beyond my three new keeper friends and a new appreciation of the tireless conservation efforts of organisations like ZSL, I’ve taken so much more away with me.

It was great to get out of the office and do something totally different and so all-encompassing that it left no room for thoughts of work or home life. We all have things that go on in day-to-day life that can play on your mind, which is why it’s important to break the routine, push your boundaries and challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone every once in a while. If you do, the benefits it will deliver to your mind, body and soul will play out positively across every aspect of life (although I don’t necessarily recommend picking up poo!).

To learn more about ZSL’s Keeper for a Day experience, visit: www.zsl.org/experiences/keeper-for-a-day/zsl-whipsnade-zoo.