Sue celebrates 40 years at Drusillas!
Many children around the world would likely say that to live in a zoo would be a dream come true – and for one 6 year old from Sussex it did come true, when her family lived at Drusillas Zoo Park more 50 years ago. Today she celebrates a 40-year milestone in her career, at that very same zoo.
Zoo Business Manager, Sue Woodgate, began her career at Drusillas in 1984, starting out as a Junior Keeper at 17 years old when she was ‘handed a bucket and told to go and muck out the lemurs’ with little to no idea what she was doing. But her deep connection to animals and the much-loved visitor attraction began far earlier, when her parents moved her and her brother from Kent to Sussex, taking residency in caravans in the zoo car park.
“I have known Drusillas since I was 6,” explains Sue. “My father came to Sussex to work at the zoo with the rare breeds of cattle and my mother worked in the bakery, and to begin with we lived on site until we found a house. It was a great experience for my brother and I to live at a zoo, I think it’s every child’s dream! It certainly sparked a lifelong love of animals in me and is a big part of the reason I am still here today.”
Since her first day on the job four decades ago, she has cared for thousands of animals and worked her way up from Zoo Apprentice, to Zookeeper, Head Keeper, and then Animal Manager, before taking on her current senior management role in 2018.
As the longest standing member of staff at the park, Sue is quite the Drusillas institution, but she can’t actually claim the title of being there longest. That honour belongs to three of the zoo’s resident flamingos – Maurice, Florencia, and Ana - who just pipped Sue to the title, having lived there since 1982!
“40 years sounds like a long time, but it’s gone so quickly” says Sue. “I’ve enjoyed each of my roles because they’ve all been so varied, and I’ve always worked with great people and (even greater) animals. We aren’t supposed to have favourites here, but I must admit a capuchin monkey named Barney stole my heart along the way, and I had a really special bond with Humboldt penguin Peter – he had been hand-reared and so imprinted on humans, I was the penguin keeper when he arrived so he saw me as family and I adored him.”
“In my current role as Zoo Business Manager, I deal with the law, legislation, animal imports and exports and the vast amount of paperwork needed to run a zoo,” she continued. “It’s a more office-based role but it’s such a vital part of the operation and it’s a privilege to take a lead in maintaining our very high standards.”
“I miss spending time with the animals, but I do avoid things like being tripped up by a penguin and falling into the pool in front of hundreds of visitors - definitely one of my more embarrassing moments!” The penguin she is referring to was, of course, her beloved Peter (so she won’t hold a grudge).
As you’d expect with spending four decades at Drusillas, Sue has been instrumental in countless key developments at the zoo and experienced many successes; the introduction of hundreds of new species, successful breeding of many endangered animals, educating and inspiring young nature lovers, and more recently her role in the wider zoo community’s species management, breeding programmes, and conservation efforts.
She has of course, also faced her fair share of challenges and disasters over the years, like the great storm of 1987 which she spoke about: “I remember having to walk five miles just to get to the zoo as the roads were all blocked,” she says. “I was climbing over trees and debris, and there were no mobiles or internet then so we had no idea what we would find when we got there. Luckily, we only suffered a few fallen trees, and some damage to buildings, and thankfully all the animals were safe and unharmed.”
More recently, the zoo battled through the covid pandemic, “It was a really worrying time for everyone,” says Sue “people were scared and being told to stay home for safety, but that doesn’t work when there are hundreds of animals to care for. My role was office-based so I was furloughed, but our brilliant keeper team were there every single day throughout the lockdowns, cleaning, feeding, and running the zoo as normal.”
By far the scariest moment in Sue’s career was a wildfire that took hold in the field next to Drusillas in July 2018: “We had to evacuate 1500 visitors and then help keep the fire at bay by forming a chain and passing water buckets dousing the building roofs and floating embers floating all over the Park,” says Sue. “It was a very powerful fire and things escalated really quickly. We were fortunate that none of the animals were harmed, but at one point we had to put plans in place to evacuate the whole zoo.”
As you might expect, Sue admits the hardest part of working at the zoo is bidding a final farewell to any animal: “Saying the final good night to any of the animals is always emotional for me and the keepers,” says Sue “It never gets any easier. These animals become second family, much like your domestic pets would, and it hits hard every time.”
On the flipside, career highlights have included her promotion to Head Keeper, presenting at the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria conference, and passing the many zoo inspections Drusillas has each year with flying colours. “I also really enjoy meeting school groups,” says Sue. “I mainly teach older post-16 classes these days, but sharing knowledge with students and sparking a love for animals and nature is always rewarding.”
Sue says she has no plans for retirement and is looking forward to working at Drusillas for years to come. Although, perhaps not another 40…