There's nothing like a chat with a gorilla to clear email blues
There was nothing in Neil Bemment's family or childhood to indicate he might rise through the ranks of the zoo world to become a pivotal figure in international conservation.
He was born in Middlesex in 1960 and brought up in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire. Exotic animals did not feature in his childhood: he had nothing more outlandish than a toy poodle.
So was there a moment when he realised that he wanted to work with animals?
"Not really. I just knew that I wanted to work in an outdoor, natural environment. I considered forestry and estate management, and the British Waterways Board.
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"I never envisaged actually working in a zoo, though I was always keen on animals and had a good knowledge of natural history. I was a fan of Johnny Morris and Animal Magic and Jeffery Boswall's Wildlife Safari to Ethiopia series in the early 1970s.
"And then inevitably there was Life On Earth and other wonderful series by Sir David. In my early teens I collected the Orbis World Of Wildlife series, which at the time was the definitive glossy wildlife magazine. They can still be seen in most zoo curator offices around the country."
A grammar school education led to a degree in biology and movement studies, but not directly into the zoo world.
"In the autumn of 1982 I had a temporary job in a food distribution warehouse. My attention was drawn to a one inch square advert in the Evening Standard – more as a joke than anything else – for a zoo keeper in the Charles Clore Pavilion for Small Mammals at London Zoo." He applied, and got the job.
"I spent two years looking after animals one rarely sees today in zoos – Tasmanian devils, brown kiwis, wombats, Goodfellow's tree kangaroo, Brazilian tree porcupines, large tree shrews and both short-beaked and long-beaked echidnas," he said.
He went on to work with apes, monkeys and giant pandas.
"My time at ZSL [Zoological Society of London] culminated in me looking after Chia Chia, the last of the giant pandas at Regent's Park, when he was loaned to Cincinnati Zoo for six weeks prior to him going on to Chapultepec Zoo, Mexico, to breed with the females there."
Did he have favourites?
"The apes were definitely my favourites as you could develop a closer understanding with them, though all of the animals I worked with had an individual appeal.
"I was fortunate enough to be around when all of the apes at London Zoo were breeding, most notable being the two baby gorillas, Kamili – now at Belfast, whose mother is Zaire – she's still at London Zoo today – and Asali, born to Salome who is now at Bristol and breeding again. Sadly Asali died before reaching maturity."
As a keeper, Neil played foster parent when inexperienced mothers couldn't cope.
"I helped to hand rear four chimps," he said. "That was a very special time for me, as in those days the protocol was to take them home at night during their first year. I remember waking up regularly to two chimp faces looking hopefully for the first milk feed of the day!
"The babies aside, I guess my favourites were a chimp called Koko who would throw poo at anyone she didn't like – usually TV crews and elephant keepers – but who would groom my nail cuticles meticulously for no payment. And an orang-utan called Bella who was slightly cross-eyed and who always loved a good rough and tumble."
Neil arrived at Paignton Zoo in September 1989. A zoo curator manages a collection and the staff that care for it, coordinates breeding programmes and communicates with colleagues around the world. It's very much a "big picture" role.
Why did he want the post?
"I wanted to stay in zoos and, as I was nearing 30, I was looking for the next step up."
He recalls the state of the zoo when he took over. "The collection was varied, with some impressive large crocodilians and an excellent bird collection – as indeed we still have today – but with the exception of the two elephants, giraffes and two elderly chimpanzees, the mammal collection lacked any high-profile species.
"Many of the buildings were showing their age – in particular the monkey house looked very dilapidated. Conservation work comprised our on-going work at Slapton Ley, but Clennon and Primley [all nature reserves owned by the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust] near the zoo were largely left to their own devices with minimal management, and the only field project was that of an Exeter PhD student, who was studying spider monkeys in Venezuela with our financial support."
The zoo had built a new rhino house and rebuilt the restaurant in the 1980s, but after that the funds had dried up. The prospect of closure was only warded off by the sale of land to the Safeway supermarket in the mid 1990s, which unlocked European grant money and started a process of transformation.
Neil, who lives in Kingskerswell, played a major part in that transformation. He brought in Bornean orang-utans, lowland gorillas, Asiatic lions, Sumatran tigers, Hartmann's mountain zebras, Rothschild's giraffes, black rhinos and a host of smaller species, including the ever-popular meerkats.
In more than 20 years he has been involved in designing and monitoring the construction of most of the significant mammal exhibits, including those for big cats, great apes, elephants and giraffes.
"I still involve myself in animal catch-ups and veterinary procedures, and if ever I get ticked off I can go check my charges," he said. "There's nothing like a chat with a gorilla or a chin lick from a giraffe or tweaking a tapir's nose to take any 'email blues' away." Neil's additional role of director of operations came out of a restructuring of the charity that reflected its increasing complexity. The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, which runs Paignton Zoo and owns three nature reserves, has added Living Coasts in Torquay and Newquay Zoo in Cornwall to its stable in the last ten years.
Neil has seven departments in his portfolio; the three animal departments, plus vets, gardens, maintenance and education.
"Each department has a very competent head, so my role is largely to coordinate their activities where they overlap and to adjudicate where there is a clash of interests," he said.
Is working in conservation a vocation?
"I guess so, though we should all be conservationists and not just leave it to those who feel that they have a calling to save animals and their natural habitats."
These days, conservation is as much about paperwork as it is fieldwork.
In his time Neil has seen record-keeping and the regulatory framework for conservation breeding evolve enormously.
"When I was appointed at Paignton Zoo, getting more involved in the bigger picture was part of my starting brief from the Executive Director at the time, Peter Stevens. It was a very exciting period, as I caught the tail end of the careers of many eminent European zoo primatologists who have since retired.
"I was really pleased to have worked with Peter, as he was inspirational and allowed me a free hand to develop my role within Paignton and altruistically for BIAZA , then the Federation of Zoos, and EAZA."
Neil's jokey demeanour belies his many responsibilities. His national and international status in conservation is illustrated by a list of his commitments.He is chairman of the EAZA Old World Monkey Taxon Advisory Group; vice-chairman of the EEP Committee (which oversees all of the European breeding programmes); vice-coordinator for the Gorilla EEP; vice-coordinator for the Orang-utan EEP; an elected member of the Asiatic lion, maned wolf, pygmy slow loris and Sulawesi crested macaque EEPs and chairman of the Common (Hazel) Dormouse Captive Breeders Group. He was chairman of the BIAZA Joint Management of Species Committee and subsequently the Conservation & Animal Management Committee for 13 years.
Has he achieved all that he wanted?
"No, there are still many gaps," said Neil. "I would really like to revamp the Savannah Zone – which would see the demolition of the old nocturnal house and Avenue Yards – upgrade Baboon Rock and demolish the old Winter Quarters and Rodent City area. I want to retire knowing that the Trust and the zoo have secure futures – and hopefully with a pension!
"Working with animals, especially rare and exotic ones, is a genuine privilege, but anyone familiar with livestock will tell you that one has to be prepared for highs and lows.
"Lows like carefully building up a family group of an endangered species over several years only to see the majority wiped out by a sudden and unexpected illness; highs like the arrival of charismatic animals such as the gorillas, or the birth of Paignton Zoo's first ever black rhino being broadcast around the world on the internet."