Local legends: The Cambridge classic became the zookeeper of Shepreth Wildlife Park by qualifying by his first name with the tigers
As a classics student, Alice Vassallo never thought she would one day become a zookeeper.
Although the degree doesn’t always lead its students down an obvious path (JK Rowling became a children’s writer while Boris Johnson became Prime Minister), a career as a zookeeper is a more unusual transition.
But that’s exactly how the 31-year-old carnivorous warden at Shepreth Wildlife Park spends her days.
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Alice can ‘tell you a lot about the Greeks and Romans’, she says, admitting it’s ‘not super useful’ for her job, but she’s much more comfortable talking about the various creatures that live in the park anyway.
Driving me around the South Cambridgeshire Wildlife Park, she introduced me to the animals she cared for, from sleepy Sumatran tigers to Asian small-clawed otters fed from a bucket of fish.
There were also clouded leopards, maned wolves, capybaras, red pandas, yellow-breasted capuchin monkeys and more.
Alice also introduced me to an animal I had never heard of, a coati. She informed me that it was a species of raccoon native to Central and South America.
What struck me as we walked around the animals in her care was that she greeted each one by name (including what must have been a dozen otters) and chatted with them as if they were old friends. In some cases they are.
“I actually knew about these tigers before,” she says of the big cats.
“They were at Chessington World of Adventures where I worked. I’ve known them for many years, so working with them here is a bit like coming full circle.”
At Shepreth Wildlife Park, Alice is involved with the fundraising and ethics committees and manages their social media in addition to her zookeeper responsibilities. She also takes care of the hedgehogs at the nearby hospital.
“It’s a lovely little community zoo and everyone is so close together,” she says of the park. “We all wear many hats here.”
Alice has also worn many hats in her past: she has had stints in agriculture, zoo keeping at ZSL London Zoo and sloth rehabilitation in Costa Rica.
She felt the call of nature at university, enrolling when a local wildlife rehabilitation center called for volunteers.
“That’s when I fell in love with animals,” she says. “From there I got a job at a local zoo doing presentations, talking to people about penguins, stingrays and all kinds.
“Then it was a natural progression from there to want to keep a zoo.”
But before that, of course, she was more likely to be in a library than in a tiger enclosure.
“I studied the classics, so I can tell you a lot about the Greeks and the Romans and give you some Latin…not super useful with my job right now,” she says.
Adding: “It just goes to show that if you work hard and think about it, it’s never too late to go in a completely different direction.”
Now Alice lives in Cottenham in North Cambridge and can’t wait to get to Shepreth to be with the animals every day.
“Anyone who works with animals will tell you it’s hard work. You’re in all kinds of elements and temperatures, but that’s the most rewarding,” she says.
“When it’s summer, the park seems full of life. It’s actually one of my favorite places on earth.”
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