Day in the life: East Sussex zookeeper wins silver for ‘Unsung Hero’ award

A local zookeeper won silver for an Unsung Hero award.

Gemma Romanis, from Eastbourne, is head zookeeper at Drusillas near Alfriston. She won silver for the Beautiful South Tourism Awards Unsung Hero category for her 10 years of work at the zoo. Drusillas also won silver for Large Visitor Attraction of the Year and the Accessible and Inclusive Tourism awards.

Gemma said she always knew she wanted to work with animals and studied animal behaviour and welfare at Harper Adams University.

She said: “I grew up around animals, always had a passion for them. I had a weird understanding and sixth sense with animals and it developed from there.”

Gemma got a casual zookeeper role at Drusillas and rose through the ranks to head zookeeper in September 2021, leading a team of 20.

She said: “I’ve had lots of opportunities thrown at me here and now I’ve been head zookeeper for just over a year. We work in sections within the zoo - I started on the farm section, moved onto the tamarin section which was my first time working with primates, and then my career has just bloomed from there. Some people say it’s luck, some say it’s right place right time, but I like to think that I’ve earned it.”

The team at Drusillas secretly nominated Gemma for the Unsung Hero award. Speaking before the award ceremony she said: “It feels weird to be up for it. I just come here and do my job. I work hard, I’m dedicated and committed to the animals. It is nice that my work is being noticed though. I feel valued and appreciated. It’s a bit of an honour to be nominated. It’s really nice the park has been recognised for the awards too. I’m really proud of our facilities here. We’re all really really excited.”

As head zookeeper, Gemma said ‘no day is ever the same’ as you can be called to all sorts of jobs. She said: “There’s always new challenges. One of the things I love about my job is that there is so much variety and you continue to learn - it keeps us motivated.”

Gemma said her favourite part of her job was her relationships with the animals and her experience of hand-rearing a baby sloth called Flash. Flash’s mother could not look after her so Gemma and a colleague spent nine months feeding her through the night at their homes and then coming into work for a full shift during the days.

Gemma said: “It was one of the hardest times of my life, but also one of the best and most privileged moments - not many people can say they’ve hand-reared a sloth, and had a sloth for Christmas! It was a massive privilege and something I’ll never take for granted.”

After the awards managing director Cassie Poland said: "We are very very proud of our achievement, three silvers is wonderful! Even more so, we are proud of our team who show hard work and commitment every single day, we are so lucky to have them all and last night just confirmed what we already knew - how amazing they really are."