20/01/2020

Bristol Zoo’s longest serving keeper retires

John Partridge, our longest serving keeper, is retiring – after 45 years.

John will leave the Zoo for the last time on Friday January 31. He joined us as an ape keeper in 1975, and rose through the ranks until he became Senior Curator of Animals 12 years ago.

“Being a keeper was the job I always wanted to do. I’ve loved every minute of it,” said John. 

Over the years, John has formed close bonds with many animals from elephants to chimpanzees.

John helped design and set-up Bristol Zoo’s ground breaking Twilight World and has worked in the reptile house and aquarium.

He was also involved in setting up Bristol Zoo’s sister-site Wild Place Project.

He has cared for hundreds of animals during his time at the Zoo even hand-rearing a pygmy hippo. “I have always had an affection for them,” he said.

Elephants never forget

But John's closest working relationships have been with elephants, especially African-elephant Christina in the 1970s and 1980s and then later Asian elephant Wendy.

When he returned from three months in the Middle East, Christina gave him a special welcome. “It was as if another elephant had returned and she wondered where I had been. Absolutely incredible,” said John.

Back in his native South-Wales his careers’ teachers were not impressed when he said he wanted to work in a zoo.

He said: “They told me it’s not a well-paid profession and there’s no future in it.”

But John was determined and while working in the education department at Glamorgan County Council spent his weekends volunteering at Barry Zoo where he eventually got a volunteer position.

Two years later he was offered the post of ape keeper at Bristol Zoo. He worked with legendary Bristol Zoo keeper Don Packham, someone he described as “my mentor”.

John is well-known and well-respected within the Zoo community. He edited the Zoo Keepers’ Association Journal for five years and has written articles for International Zoo news.

A lifetime of dedication

Bristol Zoo has played such an important part in John's life. It was where he met his wife, Kate, while she was working in the accounts department.

She has put up with him missing family occasions over the years to look after animals.

Once he spent an entire weekend at the Zoo when he was supposed to be off, making sure a newly arrived elephant was alright and missing his mother-in-law’s birthday.

He said: “It’s not a 9 till 5 job or a Monday to Friday job. It’s a vocation. But my wife has been so amazing.”

John, who has two married daughters, said retirement will give him the chance to see more of his four grandchildren.

He said he is proud of his time at the fifth oldest Zoo in the world and he hopes it has a great future.

He said: “Good zoos, and Bristol Zoo is one of the best in the world, should always exist. They educate and conserve and we have pioneered many changes that are taken for granted now.”

End of an era

Dr Justin Morris, Chief Executive of Bristol Zoological Society, said: “John’s retirement truly marks the end of an era here at Bristol Zoo Gardens. He is a voice of calm and has an immense depth of knowledge and experience.

“He is respected and admired by people here and throughout the Zoo world and we will all miss him.”

Dr Christoph Schwitzer, Chief Zoological Officer, said: “John has had many amazing achievements here at Bristol Zoo over the last 45 years that he can be very proud of, including a number of excellent breeding results for very delicate species. He is leaving a big legacy.”

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