Ipswich: Mum-of-two, inspired by trips to Colchester Zoo, goes back to college to pursue her dream career - caring for aardvarks

Joy Wilding has left her job in admin to study zookeeping at Easton and Otley College.

Joy Wilding has left her job in admin to study zookeeping at Easton and Otley College. - Credit: Su Anderson

Some stories are meant to be told. As I walked into a room of about 60 students on their first day of studying on a degree programme, I was desperate to find a story that HAD to be told. My mission was to get a student case study for a new website that I was working on.

Joy Wilding has left her job in admin to study zookeeping at Easton and Otley College.

Joy Wilding has left her job in admin to study zookeeping at Easton and Otley College. - Credit: Su Anderson

As I addressed the room there was silence. “Can anyone help me?” I asked the assembled throng.

Still silence.

I’ll buy you a coffee... murmurings – and a cookie.

At the back of the class, a hand slowly rose – a cautious voice casually said “I’ll do it.”

Joy Wilding has left her job in admin to study zookeeping at Easton and Otley College.

Joy Wilding has left her job in admin to study zookeeping at Easton and Otley College. - Credit: Su Anderson

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That voice was a lady called Joy Wilding. She was from Ipswich, as it later transpired. A 41-year-old mother of two.

Joy was on her first proper day of a new journey that is aimed at changing her life in order to fulfil a childhood dream.

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I didn’t know that at the time as we wandered off for that coffee.

As it transpired, the coffee didn’t happen – Joy didn’t want one. She had bigger things on her mind.

Joy had just begun a foundation degree in wildlife management and conservation at Easton and Otley College. She was on a quest and that quest splendidly spilled out as we talked quietly in the corner of the dining room at the college.

Now, everyone loves a eureka moment. They don’t tend to happen very often. But when they do, they pretty much knock you off your feet.

I’ve only had one. I was in Thailand, amidst New Year celebrations, with my best friend Dan. (New Year takes place in April and the event is called Songkran.)

We were charging about on mopeds in an area near the Bridge over the River Kwai ? fulfilling some kind of Easy Rider-style ambitions.

People were throwing water at us as we travelled along rickety roads – apparently water-throwing is part of the New Year custom – and beaming faces of joy and cheekiness surrounded our every move.

Life had conspired with us to create a beautifully simple moment out of nowhere. For Elvis lovers it was like seeing The King at the top of his game in Vegas. It – the moment – created an overwhelming sense of calmness and fulfilment that made me think that this life of ours is really rather splendid.

Joy’s eureka moment was equally simplistic. After 20 years in administration, working for a variety of different businesses ranging from PR companies to the NHS, Joy was at a crossroads.

As she walked along the footpath by the river in Woodbridge, contemplation of her next move was at the forefront of her thoughts.

She takes up the story:

“I’ve been working in an office for over 20 years and decided I wanted to do something different. When I was younger I always wanted to be a zookeeper. I don’t know why – it’s just always been my dream. But I forgot about that – parked it and got on with my life.”

“I had my career and my family. Then I started going to Colchester Zoo with my two young children – Andrew (eight) and Maria (six) ? and all the childhood memories came flooding back.

“Then when I was out for a walk in Woodbridge I just thought to myself ‘What am I going to do next – should I just go and get another job or should I try and follow my dream and go back to education and start a degree to help me become a zookeeper?’ Then I just saw all this wildlife around me along the river and it just hit me – it was a eureka moment. I instantly knew what I should be doing. So that’s why I started this course. It took me a couple of years to get to this point, but I couldn’t be happier.”

It’s early days – so how is it going? I asked.

“In terms of family, they have been very supportive. My husband John supports me whatever I do and the children are very excited about it. They love hearing about what I’m doing. They are all very excited for me. I feel completely alive doing this. I feel like a different person.

“In terms of my course, my plan is to become a zookeeper, as you know. That’s my mission. It won’t be easy. In fact, I think it’s going to be quite tricky as it’s super-competitive to get a career in this industry. But I intend to volunteer for as long as it takes. So hopefully I’ll get experience at all the local zoos – Africa Alive, Banham, Colchester – I want to do loads of work experience. Even if it takes five years – maybe more – I don’t mind.

“I just want to end up in a paid job as a zookeeper – particularly if it’s working with aardvarks,” she adds, unusually.

Why aardvarks? I ask.

“My friend thinks it’s because I started at the beginning of a book about animals and aardvarks was first. But it wasn’t like that. I just like them. There is something quite fascinating about them. I had a birthday treat to go in the enclosure with them (at Colchester). Not much is known about them so I thought I might be able to become some kind of aardvark pioneer.”

Joy has started her journey by studying on a two-year course at Easton and Otley College. As part of it, she will get the opportunity to travel to South Africa on a study trip whilst gaining a range of hands-on and theoretical experiences at the college. The Otley campus – where she will be studying – has a range of facilities and different species: from sheep to snakes and rabbits to rodents.

The director of Colchester Zoo – Anthony Tropeano – opened a state of the art animal centre earlier this year and many former college students now work at the zoo in a variety of roles.

On hearing of Joy’s enthusiasm, particularly her passion for aardvarks, the college has decided to sponsor one in Joy’s name at Colchester Zoo ? it’s called OQ (pronounced O-key) ? to support her mission of becoming an aardvark expert.

The head of higher education at Easton and Otley College, Denis McAuley, said: “Many of our students come to us at a crossroads ? they want to change careers. They have a passion for a subject and want to get the skills they need to help them on a new journey – just like Joy. We are dealing with people’s dreams, so we will do all we can to support Joy – as we do with all of our students.

“Hopefully the aardvark sponsorship will be one step along a road that will end up with Joy fulfilling her childhood dreams.”

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