'They're the most fantastic animals'

Tracey Lee, 36, is team leader of Mammals South, one half of London Zoo's large mammals section. She looks after the zoo's big cats, primates, bears, hippos, camels and bearded pigs.

What does a typical day's work at the zoo involve?

We get in at 8am and have a team briefing. Then we head off to check any sickly animals, clean, breakfast the animals, and give public talks. There's so much that goes on - yesterday I was picking out trees for our new Gorilla Kingdom, for instance. All the animals have different needs. A hippo would be annoyed if you spread its food all over the place, as it prefers having the food in one pile - but monkeys prefer to forage around. At the end of the day, we make sure everyone's all right and lock up. The zoo closes at 5.30pm and we leave after 6pm.

What do you love about being a zoo keeper?

The diversity - and the fact that the animals do become so close to you, that you forget they're a hippo, or a giraffe. That's really special. It's a privilege to come into the zoo and work with the most fantastic animals on the planet. I prefer the animals that don't want to eat you, to the ones that do. Tigers and lions are more interested in you than what's in your bucket, when you go to feed them.

What's not so great about it?

Working weekends, and the long hours. We work every other Saturday and Sunday, and that can get you down - you end up missing a lot of friends' weddings. If I could get my weekends off, I'd work here until I was 100!

What sort of skills do you need to do your job well?

You have to be physically strong and fit. It's hard work, especially in hot weather. You also need to be a good communicator. We spend a huge amount of time giving educational talks to children and adults - it wouldn't pay to be a shy zoo keeper. People have to be compassionate, as the job is more of a vocation.

You're not going to make a lot of money. Management is looking for people with zoology degrees now, too.

Is there any advice that you'd give to someone who wanted to work in a zoo?

Be prepared to work long hours. You could do a degree in zoology, but if you have a natural flair for the job, the most important thing is to volunteer and get as much experience as possible. We get work experience students as young as 14 to 16 years old.

What's the salary and career path like?

The starting salary is something awful - about £13,000 a year. The most you could go up to, as a team leader, is around £29,000. Most people volunteer to begin with - the zoo takes on summer temps, who work from March until September, and continue to volunteer in the winter until jobs come along. Then the zoo might take you on as a trainee, and put you through a two-year course in animal husbandry and management. If you pass the exams, you could get a job as a keeper and eventually become a senior keeper or team leader.

For more information on London Zoo and Whipsnade, plus details on volunteering and careers in zoo keeping and animal conservation, go to www.zsl.org.

Other volunteering information is available at Volunteer Scotland at www.volunteerscotland.info, and Volunteering England at www.volunteering.org.uk. More details about zoo keeping are on the Association of British Wild Animal Keepers website, www.abwak.co.uk; and the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) website, www.biaza.org.uk.