Secretarial: My boss and other animals

I Work For... Gill Farrell is Personal Assistant to Stuart Earley, Chief Executive of Whipsnade Wild Animal Park
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The Independent Culture
I'm sure I got interviewed for this position because I used to work for a Conservative MP, and as a former Conservative agent himself, Stuart was keen to know the gossip. Luckily, he realised that there was more to me than politics.

He appeared very forthright, knowing exactly what he wanted, playing to win and not suffering fools gladly, but I discovered that he's very fair and has a great sense of humour which we all share. On my first day I was a tad worried when the staff offered me their sympathy on being made Stuart's PA. But although he fires me at least once a week, I take no notice. When he presented me with a bottle and a note saying "I'm sorry if I'm occasionally a plonker", I said: "Thanks, but what's this word `occasionally'?"

Once, for example, he told me about a large wolf spider in his house and the next day put a box of paper clips on my desk very carefully and asked me to open it. Convinced that the spider was inside, I began to open it very gingerly. Suddenly Stuart shouted boo, making me jump out of my skin. Needless to say, the box was empty and the story quickly went round that I was scared of paper clips.

But while Stuart likes to have a laugh, he is an extremely professional ideas man. Not only is he chief executive here, but he is also a director of the Zoological Society of London, chairman of a number of hospital appeals and is heavily involved in his local business community. He is very much an individual, 6ft 4in and always in cowboy boots, regardless of the occasion.

I used to think that zoos were a bad idea, but having worked here I really appreciate the good work that they do in terms of breeding and conservation. Our animals are allowed to be wild and are given a free rein. My favourite animal is Berkeley, our sea lion, but I also like the Rockhopper penguins who have yellow spiky hair, and our new Siberian Tiger cubs are so cute. I'm less keen on anything with fewer than two legs and more than four, though I wouldn't admit it to our reptile house. Actually, I think the office staff are more soppy about the animals than the keepers. I spent two days with them in our Europe and Asia sections and was probably more of a hindrance than a help to them, being unused to lifting anything heavier than a hole puncher. I wouldn't want to be a keeper, it's too exhausting.

As well as the usual office stuff, it's my job to update all the staff on everything that's going on in the park, which is quite an achievement when you consider that my colleagues are spread out over 650 acres. Quite a few of the keepers are married to each other, a fact that we attribute to our successful conservation and breeding programme. We are such a close- knit family and so passionate about our work that there is widespread support for all the park's causes.

For the last few months I've been hammering on about the Lion Appeal, which I co-ordinate. In order to raise the money needed for the new lion enclosure I've organised a few events; my proudest moment was when I persuaded a prop company to donate a magnificent jungle to our Summer Ball. I organised a Seventies night so that I could relive my teens and dress like a punk. I've loved getting involved with the appeal because it has stretched me and I get such a buzz from seeing how much we've raised.

I've been here since 1995 and the only lows occur when Stuart works as duty manager over the weekend and overfills my in-tray. His handwriting is also a struggle; our director of personnel thought that it was a new kind of shorthand.

I think everyone goes through a stage when they get restless and look around to see what other jobs might be available out there, but once you've become used to seeing elephants walk past your window, the thought of working in a desk-bound job in a town office isn't very attractive. I went on a fortnight's holiday recently and after five days I really missed Whipsnade.

Stuart encourages and empowers us all and has a very good attitude towards mistakes, believing that if you never make them something must be wrong. He's not power hungry and he allows you to get on with your work and make decisions for yourself. I am a single parent, which could cause concern to some bosses, but Stuart has been very supportive and has also allowed my daughter to do her work experience here.

Although my predecessor became operations manager, I have no interest in being promoted because I like what I do. When I started work as an office junior 20 years ago I remember looking at the managing director's secretary and thinking "I want to be there" and I'm happy to have achieved my ambition. When people ask me what I do I tell them that I work for the most dangerous animal in the park, but if he ever left here, I think I would want to follow him.

Interview by

Katie Sampson

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